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Film Friday: "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947)

For my last Oscar-themed "Film Friday" I decided to bring you the Best Picture winner of 1947. This was the second Gregory Peck film I saw the first was Designing Woman (1957) and my first time seeing both John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire on screen.

Original release poster
Directed by Elia Kazan, Gentleman's Agreement (1947) tells the story of Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), a widowed journalist who moves to New York with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere) to work for a magazine called Smith's Weekly. His publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), wants him to write a series of articles on the subject of anti-Semitism. The project was suggested by Minify's divorced niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), with whom Phil soon falls in love. In order to get genuine insight into the matter, Phil, a gentile, decides to adopt a Jewish identity ("Phil Greenberg") and write about his first-hand experiences in an article entitled "I Was Jewish For Six Months."

As Phil researches his story, he encounters subtle but rampant anti-Semitism on various fronts. His secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), is a Jew who denies her own heritage and seeks to defend her status by identifying with the prejudice against Jewish people in the society around her. At a party, a famous physicist, Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffe), also denies his Jewishness, dismissing it as of no importance. Although Kathy seems to have liberal views, she is taken aback when Phil reveals what he intends to do. She invites him to a party hosted by her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) at her home in Darien, Connecticut where there is a "gentleman's agreement," an understanding that Jews are not welcome but asks him to drop the Jewish role-playing so that everyone will feel comfortable. On the positive side, Phil finds a friend in the magazine's fashion editor, Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), who believes that Kathy's committment to justice is weak. Meanwhile, Phil's childhood Jewish friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield) moves to New York for a job and lives with the Greens while he looks for a home for his family. It is Dave who ultimately conveys to Phil, Kathy and Anne the actual feeling of living with anti-Semitism.

Phil Green: I've come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people. The nice people.

In the immediate post-World War II period, the question of how to deal with the subject of anti-Semitism was still a very delicate one. The Jews in America had advanced not only socially and culturally, but also economically, and Judaism was increasingly becoming one of the nation's three major religions. Yet the massive anti-Semitism of the 1930s and the war years was still very much in memory, leaving Jews with great discomfort. At the same time, Hollywood was experiencing a shift of a different nature. While the pre-war years had witnessed periodic bursts of film realism and social criticism, including Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) and John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), it was really during the first year of "post-war introspection" that Hollywood moviemakers began to undertake substantial and important themes that dealt with the social fabric of American life. Productions like William Wyler's Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) suddenly sparked the interest of a nation tempered by a long, costly war in films that held the mirror up to American society.

Features such as House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Kiss of Death (1947) had placed 20th Century Fox's head of production Darryl F. Zanuck at the forefront of the movement towards greater film realism. He championed location shooting, crisp dialogue and sharp black-and-white photography, but none of his pictures had ever dealt with as sensitive a subject as American anti-Semitism. One day in the mid-1940s, Zanuck's application for membership to the exclusive Los Angeles Athletic Club was rejected because of their "no Jews allowed" policy. Zanuck was actually the only gentile studio mogul in Hollywood (Fox was even referred to as "the goy studio"), but at that point he felt disposed to attack ethnic discrimination. In looking for a topic to pursue, he found Laura Z. Hobson's novel Gentleman's Agreement.

Gregory Peck and Anne Revere
Daughter of the editor of Jewish Daily Forward, Hobson felt inspired to write a book exploring the extent to which anti-Semitism was passively accepted in "polite society" after reading an article in TIME magazine that reported Mississippi Congressman John Rankin's anti-Jewish remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives. Hobson was not surprised by Rankin's statements he was a notorious bigot but by the fact that none of his colleages protested the use of such slurs as "kike" and "Jew boy" in their "august chamber." Serialized by Cosmopolitan magazine in late 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in February 1947, Gentleman's Agreement was an instant best-seller, with The New York Times Book Review calling it "required reading for every thoughtful citizen in this perilous century." In an interview after the novel's release, Hobson said: "What did I try to do with the book? I think a woman who wrote to me put it in two wonderful sentences. She says, 'Villains aren't really frightening. It's the millions of nice people who do, and allow, villainous things.' I think that's the gist of what I was trying to say."

When Zanuck announced his plan to make a film about anti-Semitism, industry peers felt that the question was one that needed not to be dealt with. Jews in Hollywood were very self-conscious about being seen as Jews and most were petrified of drawing attention to themselves. Film moguls Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, both of whom were Jewish, pleaded with Zanuck to shelve Gentleman's Agreement. "We're doing fine," they argued. "Why stir up trouble?" Zanuck, however, would not be dissuaded; he was certain that the time had come for a frank consideration of the problem of anti-Semitism. At the end of the meeting with these "would-be advisors," Zanuck simply told them to mind their own business. He was equally adamant with Catholics who opposed the film because the female lead was divorced yet romantically involved with the hero.

Moss Hart, Gregory Peck, Elia Kazan and
Darryl F.Zanuck on the set
To direct Gentleman's Agreement, Zanuck hired Elia Kazan, who had previously directed Fox's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on the best-selling novel by Betty Smith, and Boomerang! (1947), about a New York City murder trial with political overtones. Although Gadge, as Kazan was known to friends, was relatively new to motion pictures, he was a leading figure on the New York stage, having directed some of the most important American dramas of the 20th century The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder; A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennesse Williams (which he later turned into an Academy Award-winning film); and All My Sons and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

To adapt Hobson's novel for the screen, Zanuck turned to Jewish playwright Moss Hart, the celebrated co-author (with Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman) of such "sharply etched comedies" as You Can't Take It With You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Hart wrote his first play as a teenage office boy working for producer/manager Augustus Pitou and got his big break when he collaborated with Kaufman on the hit comedy Once in a Lifetime (1930). His first screenplay of his own, the World War II drama Winged Victory (1944), had been produced by Zanuck in association with the U. S. Army Air Forces. Although Hart eliminated some of the book's secondary characters, including the Phil Green's bigoted sister, and streamlined the plot, he remained faithful to Hobson's basic storyline and theme.

Gregory Peck on the set
When time came for casting, Zanuck felt that Gregory Peck was the obvious choice for the lead role of Phil Green, especially since he owned Fox three pictures. However, not everyone was eager to see Peck tackle the role of a writer out to expose prejudice. Some fans wrote him letters saying they could not understand why he would want to play a Jew (actually, he was playing a gentile who pretended to be Jewish, but that was just a technicality). Also mystified was Peck's agent, Ron Meyers, who had inherited him from Leland Hayward after he left the talent agency business in 1944 to become a Broadway producer.

Kazan was disappointed with the casting of Peck, seeing him as the "quintessential gentile." Although Peck had trained under the legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner, Kazan found him "sober, worthy, no way intriguing or mysterious, completely straight, no surprises." For instance, when Kazan tried to get him to punch the wall in frustration, Peck could not do it. As a result, Kazan concluded that the film did not have "the intimate experience of someone who has been through the bitter and humiliating experience." They never worked together after Gentleman's Agreement, but Peck always spoke well of Kazan in subsequent years. "Not only does he rehearse more than most director," said Peck, "but we'd get together in his trailer to break down and analyze the script ahead of time, just like in the theater. And the man is fairly loaded with ideas."

John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire
Kazan preferred working with John Garfield, a former member of the Group Theatre, to which the director (and Meisner, in fact) had also belonged. Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Garfield had changed his name when he signed a contract with Warner Bros. in the mid-1930s. Having recently established himself as a popular leading actor in such successful films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Humoresque (1946), many people were suprised that Garfield took the relatively small role of Dave Goldman, the only explicitly Jewish character of his career. Garfield said, "I am doing it for Gadge because the picture says something I believe, and it needs to be said." After Gentleman's Agreement was released, Kazan concluded that Garfield was "experientially right for the role." Of all the actors involved in the film, he considered him to be "the best of the lot [...] with a maturity he hadn't shown before. When he finally appeared on the screen, halfway through the action, it was a relief."

Playing the female lead role of Kathy Lacey was relative newcomer Dorothy McGuire, who had previously worked with Kazan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Brought to Hollywood from Broadway by independent producer David O. Selznick in 1943, McGuire was building a reputation for portraying vulnerable, intelligent and steadfast women. Peck and McGuire quickly became good friends as production on Gentleman's Agreement went underway. During breaks in the shooting, they discussed the idea of starting a summer stock company; like Peck, McGuire bemoned the fact that her film contracts did not allow her time to return to Broadway. Along with Mel Ferrer, another Selznick contract player, they established what would be known as the La Jolla Playhouse, which would enlist the services of well-known stars in revivals of hit shows, including Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Robert E. Sherwood's The Petrified Forest.

Celeste Holm and Gregory Peck
The supporting role of Anne Dettrey was given to Celeste Holm, in her third film assigment. A successful Broadway actress, Holm was signed by Fox in 1946 and made her screen debut in the Technicolor musical Three Little Girls in Blue (1946). After co-starring opposite Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950), she realized that she preferred live theatre to movie work and accepted only a few selected film roles over the following decades. The most successful of these included The Tender Trap (1955), High Society (1956) and, later on, Three Men and a Baby (1987), in which she makes a small appearance as the mother of Ted Danson's character. Holm was a life member of the Actors Studio, a non-profit organization for professional actors, directors and playwrights co-founded by Kazan in 1947, known for its "Method" approach to acting.

Anne Revere, an Academy Award winner for Clarence Brown's National Velvet (1944), was hired to play Mrs. Green, in one of her many motherly roles. A Broadway stage actress, Revere made her film debut in Charles Vidor's Double Door (1934) and quickly established herself as one of the most sought-after character actress in Hollywood, specializing in matriarchal characters. That same year, Revere played Garfield's proud, defiant mother in the noir Body and Soul (1947). An eleven-year-old Dean Stockwell, who in turn specialized in "sensitive child" roles, was cast as Phil's precocious son Tommy, himself a victim of anti-Semitism in the film. To evoke tears from Stockwell for a crying scene, Kazan urged him to concentrate on a puppy dying. "I didn't want to think of dead puppies, for Christ's sake," Stockwell later said. "And I got the idea that Gregory Peck didn't like working with a kid. You know that old axiom in Hollywood, 'avoid working with kids or dogs.' For that reason I didn't feel much warmth from him."

McGuire, Garfield and Kazan between takes
Exterior scenes for Gentleman's Agreement were shot on location in Darien, Connecticut, a sought-after residential community since the turn-of-the-century located 38 miles east of Manhattan. A suburban paradise, it boasted "rolling hills, substantial houses and exclusive clubs beach clubs, hunt clubs, yacht clubs, tennis clubs and golf clubs." In Darien, "gentleman's agreements" between landowners excluding Jew from buying properties were securely in place until well into the 1950s. Still, the town welcomed the cast, although the local newspaper wrote that the film was about "real estate."

Cautious about public reaction to Gentleman's Agreement, the Fox publicity department kept the lid on the film with only the vaguest description of its content. Ads for the picture simply announced, "Now it comes to the screen with nothing left unsaid, with no emotion unstirred." On the other hand, a Fox press release provided the link between bigotry in America and the Jewish experience at the hands of the Nazis: "Phil finds prejudice cropping up fast. Flicks here and flicks there are the insult constantly on the nerves. No yellow arm bands, no marked park benches, no Gestapo, no torture chambers just a flicks here and flicks there."

Gentleman's Agreement opened at the Mayfair Theatre in New York on November 11, 1947 to great reviews and eventually become Fox's highest grossing picture of the year. Eileen Creelman of The New York Sun called it "a fine piece of craftsmanship, apparently a work of love on the part of everyone concerned," while Hobe Morrison of Variety described it as "one of the most vital and stirring and impressive [pictures] in Hollywood history." For his part, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed Gentleman's Agreement "a sizzling film [with] a fine cast [and] brilliant direction by Elia Kazan." However, he lamented that "Although the hero of the story is apparently assigned to write a definitive article on anti-Semitism in the United States, it is evident that his explorations are narrowly confined to the upper-class social and professional level to which he is immediately exposed [...] And although the role is crisply and agreeably played by Gregory Peck, it is, in a careful analysis, an extraordinarily naive role." Nevertheless, Crowther concluded that "The film still has abundant meaning and should be fully and widely enjoyed."

Holm and Kazan holding their Oscars
At the 20th Academy Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in March 1948, Gentleman's Agreement received eight nominations Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Actress (Dorothy McGuire), Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm, Anne Revere), Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Both Kazan and Holm won and so did the film, which, by a strange coincidence, was up against an RKO picture called Crossfire (1947), a noir with an anti-Semitic element in its storyline.

Although today Gentleman's Agreement is looked upon as "safe and outmoded," it is important to consider that ten years before its release, when Warner Bros. produced The Life of Emile Zola (1937), the word "Jew" was not even spoken. (The film recounts writer Emile Zola's involvement in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, a Frenchman of Jewish background.) With this in mind, the makers of Gentleman's Agreement "pushed the envelope" as far as anyone could have expected at the time. Moreover, in accepting his Best Picture Oscar, Zanuck said, "I would like to emphasize that Gentleman's Agreement was primarily planned for entertainment rather for any social message. I believe this is the chief reason for the success of the film."

In estimating the fortitude of Gentleman's Agreement, one might also consider how bitterly such films were attacked in the 1940s and how quickly this era of "social commentary" was ignored in the Cold War's tide of HUAC hearings (both John Garfield and Anne Revere were backlisted in 1951, effectively ending their careers) and McCarthyism. By way of "realism," there followed the anti-Red paranoia films of the 1950s. At a time when theatre owners were sent to jail for showing Fox's Pinky (1949) an acclaimed Elia Kazan-directed drama about race relations and when Home on the Brave (1949) would be labeled Communist propaganda for criticizing the United States, a fair amount of courage was clearly attached to Gentleman's Agreement.

Thirty years later, Kazan called the film "patronizing," claiming that Gentleman's Agreement did not have "staying power." However, when pushed on the question of its profound impact on a generation, he responded, "It worked. I feel that with all its limitations, it worked."

Our whole task was to use a conventional form to force people to listen to ideas that were, at the time, unconventional. At the time of Gentleman's Agreement people weren't used to hearing these thoughts and feeling come out on the screen [...] All I did was try and make the message come across in a form that the middle class, whom I was accusing of anti-Semitism, would accept. They accept the story and thereby the guilt. Then hopefully they'll take on the responsibility for making things change [...] I'll make it so familiar to you that there won't be any way for you not to accept the guilt.
(Elia Kazan)

Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography by Gerard Molyneaux (1995) | Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall (2002) | Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (2009) | John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage by Patrick J. McGrath (1993) | The American Jewish Story Through Cinema by Eric A. Goldman (2013) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther | Variety review by Hobe Morrison


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