The 1947 movie Gentlemen’s Agreement is a preachy period piece today, but it’s a history lesson, a deadly accurate picture of prejudice and discrimination against American Jews after World War II by educated, polite, wealthy, liberal gentiles. It is also a piece of that history because it raised awareness and changed behavior and attitudes toward American Jews in America.
It is very well executed, for a message movie, by a Hollywood A-Team assembled by producer Darryl F. Zanuck.
Jew-Hatred Then and Now
Today, anti-Semitism is a sentiment that is so repulsive to most people that people who feel that way usually keep it quiet, unless they know they’re talking to someone who feels the same. Neo-Nazis and Ku Kluxers, who believe in genocide Hitler-style, are few in number, and most Americans find them disgusting or ridiculous.
Liberal anti-Semites are harder to spot, and are too enlightened to be genocidal. They have many Jewish friends, and only dislike Jews when they act Jewish. When Jews act “regular” (like gentiles) they’re OK.
In 1947, Jew hatred was more than a sentiment. Jews faced serious discrimination in housing, employment, higher education, social situations, and public accommodations.
That’s why, in 1947, producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who was not Jewish, assembled an A-Team to make a hard-hitting film exposing anti-Semitism among nice people in the United States, based on the best-selling novel Gentlemen’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson.
Gentleman’s Agreement, the movie, was a critical and financial success that won three Oscars, including Best Picture, and five more nominations.
Controversies over the Film
The film was controversial, even before it was made.
Samuel Goldwin and other Jewish producers in Hollywood urged Zanuck not to make the movie. They were afraid a film about anti-Semitism would trigger a wave of anti-Semitism. They were also afraid to upset Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen,, who often made anti-Semitic remarks. (The Hays Code was the set of rules Hollywood adopted voluntarily to fend off government censorship.)
Cary Grant, the first choice for the male lead, turned it down. Gregory Peck’s advisers told him it would hurt his career, but he took the part anyway.
Congress Smears the Film-Makers
The movie did hurt several careers. John Garfield, who refused to testify against his wife before the Red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), was blacklisted for one year. He died of a heart attack, at 39, before his second hearing, where he would have to choose between naming names, including his wife’s, or remaining on the blacklist.
Anne Revere refused to testify before the committee, and did not appear in another film for 20 years
HUAC also summoned director Elia Kazan, and producer Darryl Zanuck.
Gregory Peck, as Journalist Phil Green, Passes for Jewish
Phil Green is a journalist, a widower, who just moved to New York City with his mother (played by Anne Revere) and son (played by Dean Stockwell). His editor/publisher asks him to write a hard-hitting investigative story about anti-Semitism. After struggling to find a fresh angle, Green decides to pretend to be a Jew for a while (named Phil Greenberg), learn about anti-Semitism first-hand, and report what he finds. He and the editor decide to keep Green’s real non-Jewish identity a secret from everyone but themselves.
Along the way, Green experiences many kinds of bigotry and discrimination. It turns out to be worse than he expected, partly because he did not calculate the deep emotional effect bigotry and discrimination would have on him – mostly because he breaks his engagement with his seemingly sensitive, enlightened, liberal fiancee, who first proposed the idea for Green’s story.
Kathy Lacey, the publisher’s niece, (played by Dorothy McGuire) hates anti-Semitism, and has no idea how deep her own prejudice is. When Kathy and Phil begin to date, she expresses liberal views, but is shocked when Phil reveals what he intends to do. She asks if Phil is really Jewish.
This is the first sign of Kathy’s genteel, liberal, socially acceptable anti-Semitism. It’s a key theme of the film. Her real attitude is revealed one layer, and one scene, at a time.
An Anti-Semitic Jew
At the magazine, Phil is assigned a secretary, Elaine Wales (played by June Havoc), who reveals that she too is Jewish. She changed her name in order to get the job. Her application under her real, Jewish-sounding name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected. Phil tells the publisher about Wales’s experience. Properly surprised and outraged, he orders the magazine to adopt hiring policies that are open to Jews.
Many Jews changed their names after World War II to sound less Jewish. Many others found that degrading, and kept their family names. Having to make that choice is itself a form of discrimination and prejudice.
Wales fears the new hiring policy will bring in the “wrong Jews,” the “kikey ones,” who will ruin things for the few Jews working there now. The ethnic slur kike was coined by American Jews from German backgrounds to describe Eastern European Jews, who came to this country a generation or two later. They were less prosperous, more openly ethnic, and less Americanized than German Jews.
They also were more like Jewish stereotypes than German Jews: loud, pushy, clannish, cheap, with big noses. German Jews looked more “normal,” ethnically similar to Germans, not Slavs. They also acted normal, like white gentiles. Jewish anti-Semites are rarely discussed today, except among some Jews. Playwright Moss Hart, who was Jewish, took the movie into uncharted waters when his catalogue of anti-Semites included polite, educated liberals and anti-Semitic Jews.
A Real, Proud Jew Arrives
Phil’s Jewish friend from childhood, Dave Goldman (played by John Garfield), moves to New York for a job and lives with the Greens while he looks for a home for his family. Housing is scarce in the city, but it is particularly difficult for Goldman, since not all landlords will rent to a Jewish family.
Phil Experiences Bigotry
`While researching his article, Phil experiences many kinds of discrimination and bigotry. Like the book, the movie is an accurate catalogue of things that happened to Jews every day in 1947.
1. When his mother becomes ill with a heart condition, the doctor discourages him from consulting a specialist with an obviously Jewish name, suggesting he might be cheated. When Phil reveals that he himself is Jewish, the doctor becomes uncomfortable and leaves.
2. When Phil wants to celebrate his honeymoon at a luxury hotel in the country, the manager won’t let him register because he is a Jew.
3. When kids at school learn that Phil’s son Tommy is Jewish, he becomes the target of bullies.
4. Kathy consoles Tommy, telling him that their taunts of “dirty Jew” are wrong because he is not really Jewish, not that the slur itself is wrong. Phil raises his voice when he scolds Kathy for implying to his son that being gentile is better than being Jewish.
5. When she and Phil announce their engagement, Kathy’s sister Jane (played by Jane Wyatt) invites them to a celebration in her home in Darien, Connecticut, which is famous as a “restricted” community, where Jews cannot buy homes. Fearing an awkward scene, Kathy wants to tell her family and friends that Phil is only pretending to be a Jew, another layer of Kathy’s bigotry. Phil insists that they tell only Jane.
6. At the party, everyone is very friendly to Phil, though many people are “unable” to attend at the last minute.
Breaking the Engagement
Dave announces he will have to quit his job because he cannot find a place for his family to live. Kathy owns a vacant cottage in Darien, and Phil sees it as the obvious solution to Dave’s problem. Kathy is unwilling to offend her neighbors by renting it to a Jewish family. She and Phil break their engagement.
Kathy meets with Dave the next day, and tells him how sick she felt when a party guest told a bigoted joke. But she has no answer when Dave asks repeatedly what she did about it. She comes to realize that remaining silent condones the prejudice.
The next day, Dave tells Phil that he and his family will be moving into the cottage in Darien. Kathy will move in with her sister next door to make sure the neighbors treat the Goldmans well. When Phil hears this, he reconciles with Kathy.
In addition to the Best Picture Oscar for producer Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox, Celeste Holme won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Green’s supportive friend, and Elia Kazan won for Best Director.
Gregory Peck was nominated for Best Actor, Dorothy McGuire for Best Actress, Anne Revere for Best Supporting Acress, Moss Hart for Best Screenplay, and Harmon Jones for Best Editing.