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Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #20: Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Gregory Peck

Gentleman’s Agreement, a screed against anti-Semitism based on the novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson, comes straight out of Hollywood’s “We’re Going To Teach You a Very Important Lesson” files. It might sink under its own earnestness were it not for the passion and skill of its performances. I don’t think this film, directed by the great Elia Kazan (who won an Oscar for his efforts), ever completely rises above the level of sermonizing to reach the point of storytelling, but it’s not without its moments.

The story centers on Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), known as Phil to his friends. He’s a widowed journalist who moves from California to New York with his young son and his mother (Anne Revere) to take a job with a magazine. His new publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), assigns him to write a story about anti-Semitism, having been given the idea by his niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire). Phil is reluctant at first, mostly because he can’t think of how he might approach the subject in a new way, but then he hits on an idea. Whenever he’s written other stories he’s done it by immersing himself in the world he’s going to depict – when he wrote a story about coal miners, for example, he got a job in a coal mine – and so that becomes his strategy here. He’ll pretend to be Jewish and experience firsthand the bigotry that is casually tossed around throughout society.

Phil’s deception involves writing to prospective employers under two names – his own and “Phil Greenberg” – and seeing which elicits a positive response, but it also extends to all other aspects of his life. Since he doesn’t know anyone in New York, he lets everyone believe that he’s Jewish, including the people that he works with at the magazine. He discovers that the management of the magazine doesn’t quite live up to the publication’s liberal ideals (his secretary, who is Jewish, applied under two names, her real name and her the name she currently works under) and he also discovers that Kathy, with whom he’s become romantically involved, isn’t quite as open-minded as she at first appeared.

As the story works its way towards its conclusion, it becomes less about the direct prejudice perpetuated by bigots and more about those who know that such attitudes are wrong but let it pass. Kathy, despite having suggested Phil’s story in the first place, ultimately just wants to get along and not get her hands dirty. She isn’t anti-Semitic herself, but she’s not willing to take a public stand either, which eventually puts her at odds with Phil. Meanwhile, there’s another woman in Phil’s life, a fashion editor at the magazine named Anne (Celeste Holm), who is on the same wavelength as him regarding this subject and who is most definitely interested in him. Will Phil and Kathy find a way to make it work or will Phil start a new relationship with Anne? It’s somewhat strange that that is what the story ultimately comes down to.

The subject of Gentleman’s Agreement is, obviously, an important one and sometimes it truly does transcend that line between showing and telling. There is one scene, for example, in which Phil attempts to get a room at a hotel and is turned away, the manager first polite but becoming increasingly hostile towards him as Phil demands that he cut the niceties and say clearly and directly that he doesn’t rent rooms to Jews. This is a very effective and well-played scene, as Peck’s anger grows and grows only to end in impotence as he realizes the futility of the situation. The problem with the film is that more often than not it adopts the strategy of telling us about the issue rather than dramatizing it. Characters deliver great speeches elaborating on the injustices faced by the victims of prejudice, but that rings a little bit hollow because showing is always more compelling than telling. The means through which the screenplay guides the characters to these speeches is also problematic, because it often feels contrived and no matter how good the actors are (and they’re all good), they can’t really raise it above the inherent artificiality of the dialogue.

Like Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, Peck is an actor who brings a strong sense of authority to the screen. He’s an actor who can convey the sense that he’s on the side of right without seeming like he’s lecturing the audience. He softens the sometimes overly didactic dialogue and makes Phil more than just a cardboard crusader. Likewise, Revere renders an excellent performance as Phil’s mother, lately suffering from frail health but supporting Phil all the way. That this performance works at all is somewhat amazing given that Revere was all of 44 (and only 13 years Peck’s senior) when this film was released, but she manages to make you suspend your disbelief and, along with Peck and McGuire was nominated for an Oscar (she lost to co-star Holm). The actors really make this film worth watching; without them it wouldn’t rise very far above the level of a morality play.

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