Friday, November 8, 2013

Gentleman's Agreement (Best Picture 1947)

Gentleman's Agreement is the perfectly constructed "message" film. It starts off by slowly introducing its characters to us so we can grow to like them before putting them into any predicament: Phil Green and his son, Tommy, show us immediately that they love each other and watch out for each other because Tommy's mother has died. Then we meet Phil's mother, who watches out for both of them. Next the scene changes toa magazine office, where the managing editor Mr. Minify establishes for us that Phil is just as good a writer as he is a father. This is where we get teased with the theme of the film: Phil is asked to write a story against Antisemitism. Through Minify we are introduced to Kathy, an intelligent and articulate woman we know is going to play a large role in the story.
Now we begin to see how well the story has been constructed, as Tommy the character is used as an excuse for Phil to explain to him (and us) what Antisemitism is and why we should be against it. It's another wonderful scene between father and son, besides. For several days Phil struggles with the assignment until his mother gets sick. Staying up all night worried about her, Phil realizes the issue is all about sympathy. He suddenly decides that he will pretend to be Jewish and write about his experiences with discrimination from the first person narrative. He tells only his editor, and quickly begins his life as "Phil Greenberg." It's at this point that I couldn't help but think, "Why not get a Jewish journalist to write this article instead?" But I guess the world was much more White Anglo-Saxon Protestant then than it is now.
Anyway, Phil jumps into the assignment and is surprised by the reactions he gets when he identifies as Jewish. His mother's doctor is prejudiced. The apartment manager is prejudiced. The secretary he is assigned at the magazine is Jewish, but is hiding. She tells the story of how she sent two sets of resumes to the magazine, one with her real name and one with a fake; her fake identity got hired. Phil takes this information to Minify, who has all Want Ads rewritten to include a non-prejudicial comment. Then, in a surprising scene for me, his secretary slanders her own religious group, saying that the magazine should not  hire "kikey" women. Phil is all over her for that, reminding her that the magazine would never hire loud, obnoxious, and flashy women, no matter what their religion. And he doesn't let her off the hook for her choice of words, either. He tells her, "Words like yid and kike and kikey and nigger and coon make me sick no matter who says them. We're talking about a word first." I couldn't help but think of more recent societal discussions about "the N word" and whether or if the word "fag" is ever acceptable to use. I was reminded again that words can hurt. A quick salute to June Havoc playing the secretary. She has a thankless role as a co-conspirator, then as a "traitor to her race." It's a fine performance and I didn't want it overlooked.
When Phil tells Kathy what the angle of his story is going to be, she is less than pleased. When he tells her, "I will let everyone know that I'm Jewish," her first reaction is, "But you're not....are you!?" It's a shockingly honest reaction, and I applaud Dorothy McGuire as Kathy for portraying such an unlikeable response. She recovers immediately, but from that moment on her "don't make waves" personality continually comes in conflict with Phil's "let's see where this takes us" outlook. Her sister offers to host an engagement party for them, so Kathy takes it upon herself to let her sister know that Phil is only "passing." Kathy's argument to Phil is that there is no point in creating a real situation with real predicaments for her sister and brother-in-law just so that Phil can write an article. Phil appreciates this, and goes along with her. At the party itself, however, it is not clear why certain people were not invited, or could not attend. Was it Phil's "Jewishness" or his play-acting? Something was going on, but I could not understand the implications of the two women's conversation.
During this time Phil's best friend Dave arrives in town. Dave, who is Jewish, thinks Phil's idea is crazy stupid. They go out drinking and Dave is called "yid" in public. Phil's mother suffers another bout of angina, so Phil and Kathy's wedding is post-poned. Phil mentions to Dave where they had intended to honeymoon, and Dave nonchalantly tells them that it is "restricted." Phil goes to check-in and force the issue, just to see for himself. He is denied hospitality, of course, in a scene where you can see Phil seething with frustration and anger. Then when he gets back to his apartment he finds Tommy in tears because neighborhood kids called him "a dirty Jew." In another shocking scene, Kathy hugs him and cries out, "It isn't true!" Phil angrily stops her and then patiently explains to his son about tolerance. Kathy confronts Phil and breaks their engagement because she can't stand the idea of being on the front-lines of societal battles. She compares Christians and Jews to being young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, and tells him she simply prefers that she is not Jewish. She hates him for ruining their relationship.
Phil turns in his article and gets praise from everyone he meets. He can't stay at the magazine, though, telling Minify that he will work free-lance after he takes a break. Then, in one of the best scenes of the film, Dave meets with Kathy. He patiently explains to her that Antisemitism can't just be ignored, like ignoring a bigot at a party. She offers Dave, who couldn't find an apartment for his family to move into, the use of her empty home, even though there might be trouble with neighbors, grocers, and other bigots living near them. She is finally willing to stand up and face the battle head-on. The last scene is of she and Phil reconciling.
This was an important film for its time. When I did research on it I found out that producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to make this film because he, personally, had been denied membership in an exclusive country club in Los Angeles because they thought he was Jewish. He bought the film rights to the national best-seller by Laura Z. Hobson and insisted the film get made. John Garfield, who was Jewish, took less than top-billing in order to participate. He does a wonderful job, and should have won the Academy Award. It's a shame that he wasn't even nominated. (He was nominated as Best Actor for Body & Soul, but lost to Ronald Colman. This was also the year that William Powell should have won for Life With Father, but that's another story.) Celeste Holm won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ann, the fashion editor who likes Phil. She has a few nice scenes, but Anne Revere was also nominated as Phil's mother, and she had the meatier role. In many ways she was the moral center of the film. She and Dean Stockwell as Tommy give Gregory Peck the strength to stand up to the bigots. The three of them seem to have a natural chemistry; their scenes are wonderful.
However, Dorothy McGuire has by far the hardest role in the film, and unfortunately I just don't think she pulls it off. Maybe it's a generational thing; I might not understand women's roles in the Forties. Still, it seems to me that when  Dave tells Kathy straight up that a man needs to know his woman is on his side, she should have known this already. McGuire's character is not written with enough...well...character, I guess. So when Celeste Holm as Ann calls Kathy a hypocrite, I found myself agreeing with her.Maybe I'm just used to living with the idea that "he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it" (Martin Luther King, Jr). 

As I was watching this film I couldn't help but think that it did have an effect on society, but not a great enough one. Sure, I got the feeling that twenty years later Tommy was going to be in picket lines and at cafe counters helping the Civil Rights movement. And there were very openly Jewish entertainers enjoying success into the Fifties and Sixties, so Antisemitism may have gone away, atleast blatantly. However, several years after this movie came McCarthyism and then the know-nothing Fifties and then finally the Civil Rights movement. So would this movie have been made if the protagonist had been Black? Now maybe it's time for this film to be re-imagined as a story about discrimination against homosexuals. Several times during the film I noticed parallels between Antisemitism and Gay Rights. It would make an interesting "re-make," I think.

Gentleman's Agreement
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1947*
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed  by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Moss Hart
based on the book by Laura Z. Hobson

Hate the trumpets heralding the arrival of the film,
and the almost crass efforts to pat itself on the back
for being such an Important Film.
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Bishop's Wife
Great Expectations
Miracle On 34th Street
I have seen Miracle on 34th Street , of course, but I hadn't realized that Edmund Gwenn was named Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Santa Claus. I have seen the re-make of The Bishop's Wife (with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington) but never the original. I have heard of Great Expectations, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, but I have never seen it. The one movie I had never even heard of, Crossfire, is the movie I ended up watching. It was called out as being the first "B-Picture" to ever be nominated for Best Picture. In other words, it was a low-budget throw-together film that was not expected to be anything other than a place-holder between more important "epic" pictures, yet it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. It featured Robert Young (pre-"Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby") as a detective investigating a murder, a young Robert Mitchum as the main suspect's best friend, Robert Ryan as the main witness, and Gloria Grahame as a material witness. Ryan and Grahame were nominated for their work. This is an obscure film, to be sure, but definitely worth seeing. I was very pleased that my local library had a copy.

As an extra bonus, here's the "making of" trailer for it from 1947.

No comments:

Post a Comment