Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
!! CAUTION !!
Is it just me or is it mildly shocking that this preachy prototype of an afterschool special didn’t somehow involve Stanley Kramer? Hollywood’s premiere craftsman of the Message Picture was, alas, working mostly as a producer at this point, with his directorial breakthrough Not as a Stranger still a few years in the future. This is rather the work of a more venerated filmmaker, Elia Kazan, who has retained his artistic cachet despite a number of personal pratfalls. So in that case, my thinking is that along with Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, this stunningly vapid screed about antisemitism wrote the Kramer playbook — it established his motifs so he wouldn’t have to. Because it’s all here: a priveleged dumbing down of complex issues, an enraged condenscension toward the victims of discrimination it supposedly champions, and a seemingly endless parade of speeches delivered with maximum pompous impact by a wildly arm-waving cast led by none other than the king of dead-eyed mouthpiecing, Gregory Peck.
Peck’s expressionless face and sinister eyes would have made him an ideal villain in Hollywood productions, as he’d decades later prove by portraying Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil. It’s tough to buy him as the sensitive kindly heart he always chose to portray, especially when he’s presented as a romantic hero or an idealist; no matter how correct he is about this or that, he comes across as a stern and mean-spirited lecturer. So it’s an insurmountable situation for this movie to ask us to appreciate him as an impassioned liberal gentile journalist who goes “undercover” as Jewish for a magazine article, resulting of course in the revelation of just how racist and hateful everyone he knows really is. And you know something? I buy that, actually, as such prejudice was rampant in post-WWII America, but I don’t buy that the film’s motives lack their own simple-minded and sinister undercurrent. That and, well, the thing’s ridiculous, and it’s clearly mounted and delivered from the wrongheaded perspective of a pompous WASP — say, honey, I’m going to solve antisemitism by pretending to be a Jew and then prove to people that sometimes people who you think are normal are actually different! Because you never know, so you may as well be nice to people! And how, incidentally, does Peck’s earnest journo get this message across to folks to begin with, given the film’s repeated allegiance with a silly notion that racial and ethnic and spiritual lines should not only be treated equally but don’t exist to begin with? Glad you asked — by injecting a sharp “did I mention I’m Jewish?” or “Of course, I might feel that way because I’m Jewish” into every conversation. I wonder if some of the people who reacted with the side-eye did so less because of blanket prejudice and more because that’s a weird fucking thing to say.
This shit would be too heavy-handed (and pathetically silly) for South Park. It’s easy enough to simply accuse Kazan’s film of being merely dated, but that’s easily debunked by how closely the film matches up more or less exactly with a Best Picture winner six decades hence, Paul Haggis’ deplorable Crash. As in that film, the hand-wringing approach afforded to a real problem backfires by trivializing it. Both movies give racists an easy ride by implying that racism lurks pervasively in everyone (Peck’s Aryan golden boy excluded), implying that it’s therefore an aspect of human nature to be conquered rather than an engineered societal creation. It seems that in the world of Gentleman’s Agreement, the slightest push will remove the polite veneer and reveal the hate underneath, which gives Peck’s Schuyler Green multiple excuses to make to all of the cartoonish assholes he runs across, including his Jewish secretary (Jew-on-Jew hatred, the film suspiciously rails!) and his fiancée who finally and somewhat hilariously reveals her true colors by comforting Green’s child, who’s been labeled a “kike” in the schoolyard because of his dad’s assignment. “It’s not true!” she cries, and yet after a lecture and a short-lived breakup, Green marries her anyway, because this is Hollywood and no matter how passionate you are about something, nothing’s so important that a nice hokey resolution can’t fix it.
Despite its reputation at the time, the fact is that Gentleman’s Agreement is a wholly superficial film, one so sheltered from the actual implications its sociopolitical topic might have that it fails even once to mention the Holocaust! So instead, being a total failure at social consciousness, Kazan concentrates on the soap opera elements of the tale instead — and it’s in this area that the film has some (but still scant) redemptive quality. Dorothy McGuire turns in an excellent performance as Green’s initially sympathetic but finally darkly despairing racist girlfriend Kathy, one of the few major divorced characters in a studio-era Hollywood film. Kazan finds time to give her an oddly complete dimension that makes it all the more bizarre and cartoonish when she suddenly, at the climax, begins railing about “those people.” It’s a waste of some surprisingly strong and realistic presentations of an early blooming couple, even if Peck seems to constantly wear his emotions nakedly and then feign shock when she calls him on it. The pair have an awkward dinner early on at which Kathy’s unreasonably insulted his assignment, and it’s quite cleverly and believably played, though one wishes its character foundation was stronger. Later, as she tours Green around the house she built in a former life, there seems an unusual haze of what we’d now call back story hanging over the film. But no one, McGuire included, can justify that final turnaround.
Or the fact that the film cops out and reunites the couple after strongly suggesting otherwise, which would have been a bold enough move that I might have actually moved this up to a “neither.” It’s the only way the story’s naturally poised to go. With Kathy exposing herself as an illogical little Hitler, Green gravitates to a fellow journalist, Celeste Holm’s strongly played Anne Dettrey. Holm won an Oscar and her work here is miles beyond her straight-man presence in a far superior film, All About Eve; she mocks the haters, cackles with good humor and bawdy jokes, holds her own and runs through life with levity, and is in general a strong and feminist portrait of a modern woman. She seems a good match for Green, too — everything each of them starts to say turns into a batshit screenwriterly speech, except Holm makes hers count for a good deal more. But it’s not to be, and maybe we don’t really want them together anyway; Anne seems to deserve much better than this windbag can give her.
We haven’t mentioned the presence of John Garfield as a real actual Jewish person; he brings a grave integrity to the role and is really the one voice of what comes across as sincerity in the entire piece, but he’s also a stark illustration of what’s most troubling of all about this film. Its tame, utterly safe message from a healthy white distance about Jew-hating and prejudice in general was still too strongly worded for many idiots in this country in 1947. The House Unamerican Activties Committee would end up having its way with many of those involved in the film, most infamously Kazan, and it’s often said that their brutal investigation of Garfield hastened his depressing early demise at 39 from a heart attack. And if you go and look at this film’s page on the IMDB and read the comments — never something I’d strongly advise you to do — you can still find far-right assholes who are tied up in knots over this mealy-mouthed little film because of utter nonsense like “Hollywood would never make a film about anti-Christian bias in America” (I dunno, maybe because THAT DOESN’T FUCKING EXIST!!?) and the sheer involvement of Garfield, who is of course too “liberal” for these people to accept. Fucking hell, man, Joseph McCarthy grilled the man to death and sixty years later you’re still not over it? That’s utterly shameful, and even more so is the very thought that in even an abstract sense, someone’s life was altered or lost as a result of this inconsequential, shallow film. I wish I could say I genuinely thought those days were over, but I’m not certain they are.