Time for another Oscar-winning film, and it’s another one I hadn’t heard of before starting this project. Gentleman’s Agreement won Best Motion Picture for 1947, and got another two Oscars in other categories (which is low by Best Picture standards), Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey. The other Best Motion Picture contenders were The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations and Miracle on 34th Street, none of which I have seen. Here’s the poster:
Gentleman’s Agreement ranks 8th on both IMDB measures of the top films of 1947 (here and here). Ahead of it in both IMDB systems are Miracle on 34th Street, Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, Black Narcissus and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I have not seen any of them. The only other film from 1947 that I have seen is Odd Man Out, which I enjoyed more than Gentleman’s Agreement, but I can also see why it was less appealing to Oscar voters.
This trailer interestingly leads with the Oscar win and then with the success of the novel. I wasn’t able to track down a trailer from before the Oscar ceremony (but admit that I did not try very hard).
It’s the third consecutive Oscar winner to tackle a gritty social issue, after The Lost Weekend and alcoholism, and The Best Years of Our Lives and demobilisation. This time it is anti-Semitism, with Gregory Peck playing journalist Phil Schuyler Green, who has been given the assignment of writing about it; after much agonising, he decides to pretend to be Jewish for six months and to recount his experiences.
I am sorry to say that this film did not particularly grab me. Anti-Semitism is a very serious issue, in 2018 as much as 1947. The film-makers deserve credit for taking it on. But it’s not a brilliant film. As usual, I’m going to go through it starting with the things that bothered me most.
Whitewashing: The setting of the film varies between New York and posh parts of Connecticut and Vermont. I may be misremembering, but I don’t recall seeing a single black face in the entire film, not even in the street shots and crowd scenes of New York which establish the setting; there is certainly no black actor with a speaking part. Much is made of the magazine where Phil works being reluctant to hire Jews; there’s a much more noticeable lack of diversity amongst its staff (though Phil says he doesn’t want to hear the word “nigger”, it’s not clear that there is anyone around who he could mean). The most visible possibly non-white extra is a chap with a moustache in the very first scene.
Being Earnest: Our hero spends what seems like ages agonising over the creative process – what will his angle be? – before he finally comes up with the idea of passing for Jewish. The creative process is difficult, as I know from my writer friends, but it’s not very interesting to watch, and the praise he gets from colleagues and family for trying hard and being clever isn’t good cinema. (Here is Anne Revere as his mother, though she was only 13 years older than Gregory Peck.)
The issue itself: I am not an expert in ani-Semitism, and for obvious reasons don’t have a lot of personal experience of it. But watching the film I kept feeling that, so soon after the Holocaust and in the year when the state of Israel was created, there might be a bit more to say about the subject than commentary about daily micro-aggressions and being barred from posh hotels? I was very glad to find a piece in Tablet (the American Jewish magazine, not the British Catholic one) by Saul Austerlitz going into this in great detail, with the un-pithy but cogent title “When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’”. One key quote from the article:
This is a hard-hitting movie about anti-Semitism, unafraid of specificity in its choice of targets, that nonetheless depicts anti-Jewish sentiment as being primarily confined to the types of people and places a well-heeled Manhattan journalist might encounter.
It’s a film much more about afflicting the comforted than comforting the afflicted. No harm in that, of course; but it’s a choice with consequences, notably a rather wooden performance from Peck, whose character is on the right side of the argument all the time. His best moment is when he confronts the hotel where he had planned to honeymoon about their refusal to admit Jews, where his continual seething is appropriate and in character.
There are three really Jewish characters, Phil’s friend Dave Goldman, played by John Garfield (of whom more later), his secretary Elaine Wales, played by June Havoc, who turns out to be a Jew passing as a Christian, and Professor Fred Lieberman, played by Sam Jaffe and obviously modelled on Einstein, who gets one of the best lines explaining Jewishness to Phil:
Lieberman: Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I’ve often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?
Phil: No, but I’d like to.
Lieberman: Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.
The romance: In parallel with the rather forced drama of Phil’s journalism, he has a romantic plot with his publisher’s niece, divorcee Kathy Lacy, played by Dorothy Maguire, and a potential alternate option in his colleague Anne Dettrey, played by Celeste Holm, who won an Oscar for it. I found it very difficult to believe in the chemistry between Phil and Kathy. McGuire is very good in the role, and indeed Kathy probably has the best arc of any of the characters, since the anti-Semitism story is her idea in the first place and then she is forced to confront it in her own family and in herself. Holm’s character gets a lot of good lines (perhaps her best is, “some of your other best friends are Methodist, but you never bother to say it”) and although like Phil she is always on the right side of the argument, she is more interesting than he is.
The kid: Phil’s character is widowed, and his mother runs his household. His son Tommy is played by none other than eleven-year-old Dean Stockwell, the future Al Calavicci on Quantum Leap and John Cavil, aka Number One, from Battlestar Galactica. He had already been acting for three years.
Feminism: Oddly enough, for a film ostensibly about anti-Semitism which incidentally drops the ball on race, I think it scores rather better on gender issues. The major women characters are all rounded, have agency and get most of the good lines. (The exception perhaps being the secretary Elaine Wales.) In an early scene where Phil first talks about Kathy to his mother, she delivers a zinger:
Phil Green: Funny thing, that girl, Mr. Minify’s niece suggested the series on antisemitism. Funny.
Mrs. Green: You don’t say? Why, women will be thinking next, Phil.
The real Jew: For me the standout performances in the film were Dorothy McGuire, noted above, as Kathy, and John Garfield as Dave Goldman, Phil’s childhood friend who turns up in New York after being demobbed and has difficulty finding a job and accommodation. Kathy’s friendship with him is essentially her path to redemption. Dave is not at all sure that an expose on anti-Semitism is going to be much help for him personally, but he goes along with it anyway, requiring a lot in a supporting role from Garfield, which he delivers. Garfield was one of those worst hit by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and died in 1952, aged 39, of a heart attack.
You can get it here.
Next up is Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, with not one but two future Doctor Whos in minor roles.
I am now twenty years into this project, as it were. I’m ranking Gentleman’s Agreement ahead of Gone With the Wind and behind Going My Way. (Gone With The Wind is better cinematically, but politiclly disastrous. Going My Way also features a protagonist who is right all the time, but is more fun.) My ranking all of the Best Picture winners so far is as follows, from bottom to top:
20) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
19) Cimarron (1930/31)
18) Cavalcade (1932/33)
17) Wings (1927/28)
16) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
15) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
14) Gone With the Wind (1939)
13) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
12) Going My Way (1944)
11) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
10) Mrs Miniver (1942)
9) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
8) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
7) It Happened One Night (1934)
6) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
5) The Lost Weekend (1945)
4) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
3) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
2) Rebecca (1940)
1) Casablanca (1943)
In terms of source material, we’ve had ten out of twenty based on novels (though perhaps Mrs Miniver should be considered a short story collection); three based on stage plays (two successful, one not producedone based on a short story, one based on an epic poem, one based on a non-fiction biography, and four which were original material. In terms of geography, six of the twenty are set more or less entirely in New York, four largely elsewhere in the USA, four in the UK (three England, one Wales), four elsewhere in Europe (two largely in first world war France, one each in pre-war France and interbellum Germany), one in the Pacific and one in wartime Africa. In terms of history, fourteen are set in the twentieth century (two during the first world war, the others more or less contemporary), four straddle the ninteenth and twentieth centuries, one is set entirely in the nineteenth century and one in the eighteenth century. If the magic formula is therefore a screen adaptation of a novel set in contemporary new York, the two films that tick all those boxes are The Lost Weekend and Gentleman’s Agreement.
Gentleman’s Agreement is based on a novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson, published the same year (book in February, film in November – a very quick turnaround). The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
“Sure are, gettin’ a cab this far downtown,” the driver said amiably. “It’s the doormen all along Park, flaggin’ us down for them rich Jews.” With that, he snapped the butt of his cigarette through the window of the cab and began whistling a tune.
As with Cimarron, a rather good book has been delivered to the screen without the same bang. In the novel, Hobson is able to take us into the heads of Phil and Kathy, and Phil is a lot more nuanced on the page than on the screen. It’s a case where telling rather than showing is the way to go; the novel makes it clear that Phil and Kathy’s relationship is physical, and likewise that Dave and Anne have an affair. It feels more fair to Kathy and makes Phil more interesting than the screenplay does. Some of my criticisms still stand – there is no obvious black character in the book (the editor, Minify, employs a maid called Berta who is described as “husky”, but that’s not the same as “dusky”). The Holocaust is referenced in passing, but the emphasis is still on anti-Semitism as experienced by the East Coast upper classes. But the story came alive for me on the page as it had not done on the screen. It was originally serialised in Cosmopolitan. You can get it here.
Laura Z. Hobson, like her character Elaine Wales, was a Jew who used a non-Jewish surname (that of her Protestant ex-husband), so she knew what she was writing about, and it shows. Her son Michael Z. Hobson became a senior executive for Marvel comics in the 1980s and 1990s, and then became head of Parachute Publishing which made R.L. Stine a household name. There’s always a genre connection if you look for it (cf. Dean Stockwell above).
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)