Gentleman’s Agreement Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Gentleman’s Agreement. An interesting if clumsy Hollywood attempt to tackle anti-semitism on a bare-bones Fox disc which boasts surprisingly good picture quality.

It’s become very fashionable to look down upon films like Gentleman’s Agreement in which Hollywood wears its social conscience on its sleeve for all the world to see, while getting lots of awards for being so caring and concerned. In one sense, this is because we are used to more radical independent films which cut through the liberal bullshit and actually address the issues head-on. It’s also because any film which is more than 50 years old is bound to have dated in some respects. But if one indulges some of the more naive aspects of the film, Gentleman’s Agreement emerges as a gripping and thoughtful drama, very well made and acted with thorough professionalism by a talented cast. It doesn’t go very far in dealing with its central themes but it does at least raise the issues and that went for a lot more in 1948 than it does now.

Based on a popular series in Cosmopolitan, the film deals with the issue of the anti-semitism which was (and maybe still is to some extent) endemic in American culture. Freelance journalist Schuyler Philip Green (Peck) is hired by the popular magazine Smiths Weekly to write an in-depth story on anti-Jewish attitudes in American life in a style which will have “the human touch”. His editor Miniffee doesn’t want facts and statistics, he wants something which will get everybody talking. Green is initially stumped and is tempted to refuse the assignment, but meeting his editor’s socially conscious neice Kathy (McGuire) and answering questions from his son about prejudice make him decide to take it. He decides (and while this is a familiar plotline now, it was less so in 1948) that the only way to do the article justice is to go undercover and pretend to be Jewish in order to see how he is treated. Needless to say, his worst suspicions about his fellow Americans are quickly confirmed, but he is also surprised at how some Jews – like his secretary – consider themselves above the “kikes” who they think are dragging the reputation of their people down. He also becomes increasingly puzzled at Kathy’s peculiar reluctance to join in with the scam and becomes convinced that her loudly proclaimed tolerance might simply be a way of not having to actually do anything about the prejudice she so loudly decries. Naturally, this puts a strain on their burgeoning relationship.

This is all familiar stuff now of course, and there isn’t much in the development of the story which could be considered particularly unpredictable. The use of the WASP as a central character is typical of this kind of film, which is more interested in liberal self-hatred than the problems faced by the people being discriminated against. There’s a very superficial view of what being Jewish entails – Green considers that because he has dark hair he can pass for a Jew easily as long as he changes his second name to Greenberg – and there’s not a great deal of subtlety in the examination of anti-semitism. Most of the intolerant people in the film are caricatures of one kind or another and we are never asked to consider where anti-semitism came from, why a lot of very intelligent and sophisticated people have been appallingly anti-semitic, or how it has been perpetuated in both a social and political context so consistently and successfully for 2000 years. Nor, presumably for censorship reasons, is there a single reference to the Holocaust. The film seems to be taking place in a historical vacuum and there isn’t any analysis. There are many good reasons for finding anti-semitism particularly abhorent, but somehow the anger which you expect doesn’t come through and we end up with a terribly wishy-washy conclusion. It’s very laudable to say that all prejudice is wrong – as we would probably all agree – but the conclusion that we would all be better off if we just loved each other seems hopelessly naive and must have done so even in 1948.

However, it’s not fair to call it naive and leave it at that. Like it or not, this was a brave and powerful film to produce and it still has some potency when watched today. The acknowledgement that some Jews have exercised prejudice against other Jews who they considered less worthy of status is a strong and valid point to make. Likewise, the use of the Kathy character and her liberal friends is fascinatingly ambivalent. On the one hand, they have responsibility for kicking off the article in the first place but on the other they are shown in the film to be little more than cheerleaders for liberal causes who never get their hands remotely grubby in case life gets unpleasant for them. Again, this is a very perceptive point since it does, at some level, result in a text which is critical of the people who made it. The whole question of whether one should object to small examples of racism such as jokes or comments is also addressed head-on in a powerful scene. There is real insight demonstrated in the use of Goldman (Garfield), one of Green’s oldest friends and a Jew, who is not remotely impressed by Green’s crusade. There is a lot of confusion here but you can also feel the filmmakers reaching for something, a profundity that they can’t quite grasp, and that in itself makes the film worthwhile.

It also helps that the film is made with the top-class production values of a studio at the zenith of its success. Twentieth Century Fox under Daryl Zanuck made a bewilderingly wide range of films and Gentleman’s Agreement demonstrates the studio system at its most confident. Fox’s particular strength, the use of location filming, is showcased here with some great New York exterior scenes. The cast is also superb, with Gregory Peck producing some of his best work. I never used to like Peck as an actor but I think I have undervalued his range after watching him in this, Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter back to back. He has a strong presence here and he keeps the film from falling apart into a string of platitudes. Dorothy McGuire isn’t quite as fortunate since Kathy is a horrible character and her relationship with Green never rings true, especially not their whirlwind romance. The other women in the film have more luck, notably Celeste Holm who plays the fashion editor of Smith’s Weekly. She gives a delightful performance, adding some vitality and freshness to the film, and she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The best performance is given by John Garfield as the ambivalent Goldman. He embodies a certain kind of honour and bravery and Garfield captures the confused emotions of the character without ever going over the top, quite some achievement considering the more melodramatic aspects of the plot.

This was Elia Kazan’s fourth film and it demonstrates his command of character and setting while sometimes showing up his weaknesses as a director of story. You can see the eye for people that made A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront so remarkable and also the problems with developing a convincing plot which somewhat weakened Waterfront. Kazan clearly loves actors though and gives all his cast a chance to shine, using relatively long takes and unobtrusive camera moves. The script, by Moss Hart – a Broadway legend in his own right – is sometimes perceptive but more often preachy and it has a self-consciousness when using the “taboo” words about Jews which is all too obvious. But the plot moves along, coheres and resolves – sort of – and there is a fair amount of tension. Green’s character is rather too saintly to convince though, and was it really necessary to make him a widower and a devoted father as well as a crusading journalist ?

It’s easy to see why Gentleman’s Agreement should have won three Oscars, including one for Best Film. It’s just the sort of comfortable, “serious” film which the Academy still likes honouring nowadays. But it’s undoubtably well made, makes some good points in among the expected ones, and is still pretty entertaining. It’s not Kazan’s best film, nor Peck’s best performance, but as a piece of social history it has some merit, and maybe those naive statements it makes about brotherly love are still worth listening to even though we think ourselves too sophisticated to believe them.

The Disc

This is a pretty straightforward DVD from Fox, offering a good presentation of the film and not a great deal else.

The film is presented in the correct fullscreen aspect ratio. It’s a very good transfer indeed, making the most of the gorgeous monochrome photography. The image seems a little soft but there is a generally good level of detail and sharp contrast. The blacks are rich and full and there is excellent shadow detail. There is a small amount of grain present and some very occasional artifacting but this is generally very pleasing.

There is only one soundtrack which is English Mono but as this is the way the film was originally recorded and presented there is no problem. It’s generally fine, doing the job without being particularly notable but there is some hiss throughout which gets annoying at times.

The only extras are the portentous theatrical trailer which plays up the Oscar wins for all they are worth and a photo gallery of the stars of the film.

There are a measly 13 chapters – very poor for a 113 minute film – and static menus. We get a wide range of subtitles, although these are in white text on black at the bottom of the image and rather ungainly.

This is a film which is more interesting as a reminder of how Hollywood used to deal with serious issues than it is a drama. But it’s quite gripping and entertaining and certainly worth watching. You might smirk at the not so shocking revelation that seemingly “nice” people can be just as prejudiced as nasty ones, but that’s part of the fun of watching a dated film. The DVD is nothing special but the picture quality is a lot better than you might have expected.

Mike Sutton

Updated: May 15, 2002

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