JT Film Review

133 – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Gentleman’s Agreement

4/5 stars

Director – Elia Kazan

Cast – Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Anna Revere, June Havoc, John Garfield, Albert Dekker, Celeste Holm, Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell

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Gentleman’s Agreement is a very well structured and performed film which follows journalist Phillip Green (played by Gregory Peck, also in Twelve O’Clock High), who decides that to write a truly great article on the problem of anti-Semitism he must immerse himself in the phobias and outright prejudice faced by Jews. Having moved to New York to do the piece, he informs everyone he meets that he is Jewish, and catalogues the results.

“Catalogues the results” may seem a simple way of saying it, but the character really believes it is that simple. Little by little he realizes the full extent of the bigotry experienced by Jews. He finds that his newly assigned secretary had to change her name on her job application just to be considered for the position; his friend would not be able to stay at his fiance’s unoccupied flat because there is a “gentleman’s agreement” not to let the rooms out to Jews; his son is chased from the playground, and called a “dirty kike”; and Green himself can not stay at an inn on his honeymoon… it is a “restricted” inn. Not officially, of course, but when he confronts the owner he is all but flat-out told so.

I must admit when told the premise of this movie I expected much more virulent hatred to be shown to Green because of his supposed Jewish faith. The movie doesn’t give us bricks being thrown through his window, or show us white sheeted crowds burning crosses; and it is a good thing too. The movie’s point is that racism generally shows itself not through violence, but through apathy. This point is aptly made in a scene toward the end of the movie where Green’s fiance describes a party she had just attended where a man told a disgusting Jewish joke. She tell’s Green’s friend, played by John Garfield (both the actor and the character being Jewish), how angry she was; how she just wanted to throw the man’s words back in his face, to just get up and leave. “What did you do, though?” Garfield asks. “Well, nothing, but I felt horrible,” comes the reply. Garfield quietly explains to her that this is the problem with racism… everyone feels bad about it, yet they do nothing.

The movie is very keen to say this, and it does so well, and many times. As seen today, it says its message perhaps a bit too neatly, too on-the-head. Put bluntly, it is about as subtle as a hammer to the head sometimes. There is one speech in particular which exemplifies this. Green’s sick mother has read his finished article and then says the following speech. Imagine it with a slow zoom, with the mother gradually almost turning to face the camera. The only thing it is missing is a flag slowly waving behind her…

“You know something, Phil? I suddenly want to live to be very old. Very. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that’s why it’s so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won’t be the American century after all… or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn’t it be wonderful… if it turned out to be everybody’s century… when people all over the world – free people – found a way to live together? I’d like to be around to see some of that… even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while.” 

Perhaps I am a bit too harsh; indeed, this is a major problem with “issue movies”, that you can never look at the film the same way after the passage of time. What seemed brutal and revealing at the time may come as naive and even childishly simple now. Such can be the case with Gentleman’s Agreement, but if seen through the lens of the time period we see that it come from an innocent and genuine place. In fact, despite all this there is a true sense of optimism and genuine truth about this movie that is honestly inspiring. It is through these eyes that the movie should be seen today, and of course, it’s message is truly timeless.

OVERALL

Gentleman’s Agreement is a powerful, if slightly dated movie that brings to light both the prejudices shown to minorities, and most people ignorance to it. It is very well acted, with all-American boy Gregory Peck perfectly cast as the smart but naive lead character. It is a great example of society at the time, and still has truths that can speak to all of us. Definitely recommended.

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TRAILER

 

“Gentleman’s Agreement” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia

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December 31, 2011 - Posted by | 4 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Drama, Year - 1940-1949 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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