The first thing that struck me when I began to watch Gentleman's Agreement is how profoundly sad it is that there is a film made in 1947 about antisemitism that is just as relevant today as it was when it came out 70 years ago. If you had caught me in 2013 or 2014, I probably would have said that although issues of bigotry were far from over, we as a nation were heading in the right direction. I'm less confident in that now.
Because if the past year has taught me anything, it's that America has a serious problem with prejudice, and it does not begin and end with the people who spray paint swastikas on walls, have pathetic little white power marches with tiki torches, or, as Gregory Peck says here, scream, "Kike!" at children. The real problem, the real ugliness, in America lies with the everyday people who would never in a million years believe that they were racist. But anyway. I'll get off my soapbox.
Philip Schuyler Green is a widowed investigative journalist who has just uprooted his mother and young son to New York City so that he can work more closely with his magazine. He learns that his editor wants him to do a piece on antisemitism, but he racks his brain trying to come up with a unique angle and can't think of anything. His biggest struggle is how to authentically find out what it feels like for an average guy like himself to be Jewish in his everyday life. Then it hits him: the only way to understand the Jewish experience is to live it. He decides to go by Philip Green (apparently the Schuyler part is what gives him away as a WASP), let it leak that he is Jewish, and see what happens.
Now, putting aside the fact that its impossible to really feel the injustice of antisemitism when the option of going back to being Christian is always available to you, it seems like a fairly solid plan. He doesn't go into the experience expecting to know exactly what it's like to have grown up and lived everyday as a frequently maligned minority group, but he'll get a taste. And it happens almost immediately.
At his magazine job, his assigned secretary just happens to be a Jewish woman who has changed her name for employment opportunities. Interestingly enough, when he speaks to his superiors about being more religiously tolerant in the hiring process as a response to her story, she isn't happy about it. After all, she's a pretty blonde woman who can pass as Gentile, but what would happen if the company hired some really stereotypically Jewish secretaries and they ruined it for everyone?
Phil is cross with her about this, and while of course it's always sad to see internalized bigotry, it's hard to ignore the simple fact that she has had life experiences as a Jewish person that he never will. And the unfortunate fact is that when you're a minority, you often feel an unfair pressure to serve as a representative of your race or religion. When others see you as a homogeneous group, it can feel like the actions of other members of your ethnic group have the potential to reflect poorly on the rest. So while I can understand his shock and displeasure at her throwing the word kike around, at the same time, he doesn't know her life, and as the non-persecuted party, you can't exactly stomp in and immediately tell her how to feel.
At any rate, Phil discovers pretty quickly that 1947 is a lot more prejudiced than he had originally realized. Don't feel too bad, Phil. We've all been there.
His experiences throughout the film are colored by his interactions with those who are closest to him, his childhood best friend Dave Goldman and his girlfriend Kathy Lacey.
Dave is a Jewish man, who has taken prejudice on the chin his entire life. Despite being a fairly successful guy and a military veteran, he struggles to find a place in New York that will rent to him and his family, knowing that they are Jewish. Dave is played by John Garfield, and if you're familiar with his work at this time period, you might wonder why he is playing such a relatively small role in this film.
Garfield was one of the most in demand actors of the late 1940s, and the fact that he takes this role that puts him third on the bill after Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire speaks to how emotionally resonant he found the material. Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and raised in New York City, he must have seen this story as hitting particularly close to home. He imbues the character with a quietly simmering rage but feels almost resigned to the way that he has to walk through the world. Except for moments, like in the scene below, where it boils over and he can't control it anymore.
Kathy, on the other hand, is the living embodiment of the status quo. She hates the idea of racism and antisemitism, of course, just like all liberal and well-educated people do. But with her actions, she quietly perpetuates prejudice on the pervasive, everyday level. When Phil tells her that he's going to let it come out at work that he is Jewish, she's basically like, "But you're not, right? Not that it matters to me. But you're not, right?"
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, when Phil's son Tommy comes home crying after some boys at school shouted antisemitic epithets at him, she comforts him by saying that's it's OK because he's not really Jewish, it's just a mistake -- not that the boys were wrong to say such things to anyone, never mind whether or not they were actually Jewish. She insists that they let her sister in on the secret before they go up to Connecticut where her family lives for a visit, because on some level it upsets her to have her family thinking that she's dating a Jew. It wouldn't bother her at all if he was Jewish except that it very much does bother her.
And this inescapable fact, despite her grand gesture at the end of the film where she gives Dave and his family a home in Connecticut, is one of the film's biggest weaknesses. It makes no sense why Phil and Kathy are together. It's clear that he finds her behavior and world view incredibly problematic, and is disgusted by her general tendency to stay quiet rather than stick up for disenfranchised people. In his eyes, allowing antisemitism to go unchallenged is nearly as bad as actively being antisemitic, so how could he ever truly love this woman?
Add to this problem the fact that he has like 800 times the chemistry with the wonderful Celeste Holm as fellow editor Anne Dettrey, and there's really no argument for his relationship with Kathy. Anne is funny, clever, ambitious, and you could really see the two of them challenging each other in a positive way if they were in a relationship. And what's more important to Phil, she has the same sort of progressive ideals, and at one point in the film actually calls out her boss when he tries to wave away some of his casual antisemitism by saying that some of his best friends are Jewish, replying, "I know dear, and some of your best friends are Methodists, but I never hear you say that." She is just an amazing woman and I would be 100% happy if there was a movie just about her.
So anyway, Gentleman's Agreement is a good film, and an especially important one for the time. If I were to critique anything, it would be that it does have a tendency to take itself entirely too seriously, creating a somber and humorless atmosphere that dulls the spark just a little bit. Elia Kazan, years away from his turn as a HUAC namer-of-names that would taint his legacy, does a sufficient job bringing gravitas to the film, but it's a little less creatively ambitious as some of his other work would be, relying on idealistic speech-making in place of actual emotional resonance. Nevertheless, it remains a well-crafted film which took on serious societal issues unflinchingly, problems that are still a significant factor to this day.