Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Dir. Elia Kazan
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Elia Kazan), Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm)
Other Nominees: The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street
Gentleman’s Agreement has been largely lost in the annals of film history; I only stumbled upon it deep in the “Classics” section of Netflix. I was curious as to why I had never heard of this film, due to its star power (Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm), pedigree (screenplay by Moss Hart, directed by Kazan), and status as a Best Picture winner. I was further surprised to learn that the film was about anti-Semitism in upper- and upper-middle class American society. To me, this doesn’t seem like a fashionable topic for post-War America. Why had I never heard of this movie, and what was it?
I believe that the reason for Gentleman’s Agreement’s low profile is that it is a quiet film. There’s not a lot of action in the movie, it’s mostly adults sitting indoors talking, and even its arguments are short, and remain at a conversational volume. We cannot mistake this quietness for a lack of power, though. Hart’s screenplay, once out of exposition, dives straight into its subject matter. Phil Green (Peck), a reporter, has just moved back to live with his mother (played with utter dignity by Anne Revere), and is soon stuck with the assignment to write a story about anti-Semitism in American culture. At first, he is wary of the assignment, as he knows little about the topic, but he soon grows to appreciate its insidious hold on the society he finds himself in. He sees it everywhere: in his friends, in his secretary, Elaine (June Havoc), who has anglicized her eastern European name, and even in his girlfriend, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), a liberal. The characterization of Kathy is intricate (perhaps more so than that of Phil, who is very much the audience’s stand-in), and as the film progresses we see her struggle as she discovers how entrenched her biases are. It takes a strain on her relationship: she is unable to separate what she feels are her deeply entrenched values with what she believes to be just.
The film does not discuss the manifold roots of anti-Semitism, or any prejudice for that matter, but rather examines it in its current state. In 21st century America, hateful displays of prejudice like those seen in the film are all but unimaginable. The film does not delve into Jewish culture, no vestige of recognizable Jewish culture is ever seen or heard, and the story is told squarely from the gentile point of view. However, the film is solid. Kazan knows his way around the camera, and the acting is, across the board, quite good. It is a different kind of acting than we know today (or that we would associate with some of Kazan’s better known films, notably A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront), but it is full of heart. Especially delightful is Celeste Holm in an Oscar-winning supporting role as Phil’s friend Anne. Oh, Celeste! How I love this woman. Here, she is in top form. Anne is all that we want in a Golden Age Hollywood broad: she is fun, smart, cultured, astute, witty, a touch brassy, and yet divinely soulful. The film buoys when she is onscreen. Holm’s eyes are aflutter the entire film, until her big scene towards the movie’s climax, when she fixes them directly on Peck, and just as he is transfixed by her stare we are, too. Holm is comfortable on the camera in a rare way. She is a treat in this film, and at times, you wish it were all about Anne.
As the film draws to a close, Phil’s article is to be published, and he is maybe to lose Kathy (I won’t spoil the end; watch it!). His mother is sitting on her sofa reading his article, full of pride, and she reads out her favorite selection for him (and us) to hear. In her sturdy, firm alto, Anne Revere reads:
Driving away from the inn I knew all about every man or woman who’d been told the job was filled when it wasn’t. Every youngster who had ever been turned down by a college or a summer camp. I knew the rage that pitches through you when you see your own child shaken and dazed. From that moment I saw an unending attack by adults on kids of seven and eight and ten and twelve, on adolescent boys and girls trying to get a job or an education or into medical school. I knew that they have somehow known it too. They, those patient stubborn men who argued and wrote and fought and came up with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They knew the tree is known by its fruit and that injustice corrupts a tree; that its fruit withers and shrivels and falls at last to that dark ground of History where other great hopes have rotted and died; where equality and freedom remain still the only choice for wholeness and soundness in a man or a nation.
And for a moment, we are swept away by Phil’s words to an ideal we will never see. I, for one, was shocked to see these words performed with such astuteness in the 1940s, and even after all of these decades of prejudice and intolerance, I felt voices from the past asserting the need for a more just America.