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Philip Green is a highly respected writer who is recruited by a national magazine to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism in America. He's not too keen on the series, mostly because he's not sure how to tackle the subject. Then it dawns on him: if he was to pretend to all and sundry that he was Jewish, he could then experience the degree of racism and prejudice that exists and write his story from that perspective. It takes little time for him to experience bigotry. His anger at the way he is treated also affects his relationship with Kathy Lacy, his publisher's niece and the person who suggested the series in the first place. Written by
Laura Z. Hobson wrote her novel after vitriolic ant-Semitic comments by Mississippi Senator John Rankin were applauded on he floor of Congress. The novel was then serialized in "Cosmopolitan" magazine from November 1946 to February 1947, immediately causing quite a stir. This prompted Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck (one of the few studio heads who was not Jewish) to snap up the novel's rights. See more »
When Phil is taking Tommy to meet his (Phil's) mother at Saks Fifth Avenue, they stop in front of the statue of Atlas outside Rockefeller Center. In the shot of the two of them talking, with Fifth Avenue in the background, Saks is directly behind them, diagonally across the street on the right, with St. Patrick's Cathedral on the left. But when Phil looks at his watch and tells Tommy they'd better leave to meet grandma, the two hurry off back north along Fifth Avenue - in the completely opposite direction of the plainly visible Saks. See more »
What makes you say that?
Oh, I don't know. You just seem like... a clever sort of guy.
What makes you think I wasn't a G.I.?
What? Now, Green, don't get me wrong. Why, some of my best friends are Jews.
And some of your other best friends are Methodists, but you never bother to say that.
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20th Century Fox currently is releasing a new "Studio Classics" DVD series, each a famous film from the past packaged with often compellingly interesting special features. Few releases are more important than 1947's Academy Award winning "Gentleman's Agreement," a for-the-times daring expose of anti-Semitism, a prejudice rarely if ever before that year acknowledged in film.
Laura Z. Hobson, an accomplished novelist, wrote the book of the same title and it sold well. Hobson unveiled the so-called "Gentleman's Agreement" whereby Jews were excluded from professions, clubs, resorts and employment and residency opportunities as well as simple social associations by a silent compact by mainly white Christians to engage in exclusionary practices. While discrimination against blacks was mandated by unambiguous law supported by inflexible government authority, the relegation of Jews to often second-class status in the dominant Christian community was by deception, denial and deceit.
A Christian, Darryl F. Zanuck was one of the few true Hollywood moguls who wasn't Jewish. He was also intensely offended by bigotry of any kind. Hobson's novel, of no interest to Jewish producers who preferred to live in their own world which consciously often aped the society from which they were barred, was his to buy for the screen. He did so for $75,000 and he set out to find a first-class crew to make the film.
Elia Kazan signed on to direct (and to revise the screenplay after Moss Hart finished it). Gregory Peck, already a box office idol, was chosen to play Philip Schuyler Green, a widower with a young boy (played by Dean Stockwell). Dorothy McGuire is Green's troubling love interest, Kathy Lacey. John Garfield, one of the many Hollywood denizens who changed their names to avoid being typed as Jewish, is Army Corps of Engineers captain Dave Goldman. Celeste Holm won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Anne Dettrey. Anne Revere, soon to lose twenty years of productive life because of the Blacklist, is Green's wise mom. June Havoc is Green's secretary, Elaine Wales, who in the film changed her name to get work, her real name being clearly Jewish. Lastly, Albert Dekker is magazine publisher John Minify, a man determined to expose to the light of day the insidious anti-Semitism of his social and economic universe. Unfortunately he's a bit naive about what goes down in his own shop.
This is a message film, direct and uncompromising. Agreeing to write a series exposing anti-Semitism, Green struggles to find a theme while falling in love with the divorced Kathy. His brilliant concept is to pretend to be a Jew and to record how others respond to him, a clearly well-educated, socially competent man, in that guise. His childhood buddy, Goldman, tries to warn him off but Green is determined.
Stridently polemical, the movie traces the growing number of incidents where Green is slighted because of his announced religion. From a building superintendent who doesn't allow a Jewish name on a lobby mailbox to a haughty resort manager of a "restricted" facility (the code word of the time for exclusion of Jews and blacks), Green gets a rapid course in the crude discrimination lurking behind most doors including the high society of his new beloved.
Green's son, told not to reveal that he and his dad aren't Jewish, runs into his own cruel rejection by classmates. Peck's Green lacks the depth of understanding of a child's vulnerability that his Atticus Finch later displays in "To Kill a Mockingbird." The boy is basically told that the other kids are wrong, we're right and that's that. Too simplistic even for this movie. Green is adamantly and unwaveringly sure of himself and woe betide any who do not share his abhorrence at any manifestation of discrimination, starting with Kathy.
The romance between Green and Kathy is as back-and-forth as any Hollywood potboiler, the difference being that their arguments and falling-outs revolve entirely over Kathy's inability to grasp the absolute righteousness of her fiance's crusade. The dispute is artificial and wearying to some degree and I rooted for Celeste Holm's lovely, witty and totally tolerant Anne, a fashion editor with attitude, as the top gal in the film. I would have married her in a New York minute!
Younger audiences today may well dismiss "A Gentleman's Agreement" as formulaic and preachy but they do not understand the nature of the tragedy, and that it was, that afflicted America at the time. The war had been won, the Cold War was getting into high gear and Nazi criminals were on trial in various European courtrooms. The reality of the concentration camps was known to all but already many had accepted the belief that only some Germans and their allies were actual murderers. Holocaust studies had not begun.
The period of "A Gentleman's Agreement" was a time in which many top colleges and universities that didn't ban Jews entirely had what are now acknowledged as "Jew quotas." Many Jewish doctors didn't enter that profession because that's what their moms wanted but due to the near blanket exclusion of Jews from engineering schools. Architecture schools also had a low quota for Jews (Louis Kahn's experiences are recounted in the current and outstanding documentary, "My Architect"). Whole communities lived by a sub rosa agreement never to admit Jews (and blacks), often solidifying their intent by restrictive covenants that courts enforced). What added to the awfulness of the prejudice is that communities comprised of Jews usually excluded blacks and other non-whites. No Caucasian group, whatever their religion, deserves exoneration for the acts they practiced against minorities. Blacks get no mention in this movie but lynchings were still in vogue-let's not forget that.
For many Americans harboring anti-Semitic beliefs, the bestiality of the Nazis was far more troubling than the fate of millions of their innocent victims, Jewish or not. Decrying Auschwitz in no way caused them to re-think less lethal but highly pervasive discrimination that they practiced or, as the film shows, disliked but nonetheless condoned without protest.
In that sense "A Gentleman's Agreement" was Hollywood's, actually Zanuck's, wake-up call. The politics of the producer, director, screenwriter and much of the cast aren't hidden. Several references to Bilbo and Rankin, two of the most evil racists and bigots ever to pollute Congress's halls, are as direct and clear as the sharp DVD images. And it's no surprise that virtually everyone associated with this film went on to be called by the House Un-American Activities Committee to be questioned about ties to communism (John Garfield died at age 39 of a heart attack the night prior to a second command appearance before that run-amuck committee). That committee hunted communists publicly but pursued a barely hidden anti-Semitic agenda and Hollywood provided plenty of potential victims.
The special features on this disc include a short documentary on its genesis and the subsequent reaction to the film as well as interviews with several stars including the still imposing Celeste Holm. Zanuck and Kazin deserved their Oscars as did Ms. Holm.
"A Gentleman's Agreement wasn't the only film to highlight anti-Semitism at that time. In fact it wasn't the first such film of 1947. Released shortly earlier, "Crossfire" starring Robert Ryan is a film noir capturing the violent bigotry of a thug who kills a Jewish victim for little better reason than his religion. An exciting film in its own right, its importance is secondary to Zanuck's which blew the lid - almost literally - off a brand of discrimination indulged in by educated and affluent Americans who would never commit assault or murder against anyone because of their race or religion.
Hollywood's Jewish moguls must have been surprised at the success of Zanuck's movie which in a small but real way began rolling back the kind of anti-American bigotry that the congressional committee investigating Tinseltown not only didn't care about: they shared it.
10/10 (for its historical impact and lasting value)
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