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A Matter of Pride

The enduring legacy of Gentleman’s Agreement

By David Lehman | February 10, 2020
Gregory Peck in <em>Gentleman's Agreement</em>, Everett Collection
Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement, Everett Collection

It’s funny to think of a movie that won an Oscar for Best Picture as underrated, but highbrow (and even middlebrow) critics have long looked down on Elia Kazan’s 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, which screenwriter Moss Hart adapted from Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novel of the same name. The movie has its flaws—Kazan himself, looking back on the film 30 years later, described it as “patronizing”—but Hart’s script is powerful, and the movie packs a punch.

Gentleman’s Agreement is one of two late 1940’s pictures that wrestle with the ugliness of anti-Semitism. The other is Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, also from 1947, a noir featuring three Roberts: Robert Young as an investigator, Robert Mitchum as a friend of a suspect, and Robert Ryan as a demobilized soldier who brutally murders the hospitable Jewish man whom he and his army buddies meet in a bar. But while Crossfire centers on a homicide for which the only motive is drunken anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement deals with the sort of suburban, exclusionary anti-Semitism practiced by those who claim that “some of my best friends are Jews.”

In Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays Philip Schuyler Green, a widower who has moved from California to New York with his mother (Anne Revere) and his small son, Tom (Dean Stockwell). A talented writer with a degree from Stanford, Phil works for Smith’s Weekly, a liberal magazine, whose publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), wants him to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. The assignment disappoints Phil, who thinks that the subject is old news. He agrees to do it only after Tom overhears him talking about the articles with his mother and asks, “What’s anti-Semitism?” and “What are Jews, anyway?” Phil has a dickens of a time explaining things.

Phil needs an angle for his articles and can’t find one until he thinks of his Jewish boyhood friend, Dave Goldman (played by John Garfield, a Jew whose real name is Julius Garfinkel), and imagines himself in his place. He decides to impersonate a Jew whose real name is Philip Greenberg and see what it’s like from the inside. (He’s even worked out the title for the series: “I was Jewish for six months.”)

For the ploy to work, it has to be clandestine. Besides his editor, his family, and Dave, the only person who knows that Phil is really a Christian is Minify’s niece Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), a divorcee who quickly becomes Phil’s girlfriend. Kathy has sold her uncle on the idea that combating anti-Semitism in print is a good and timely idea. Nevertheless, she recoils when Phil confides his plan to tell everyone that he’s Jewish. “Jewish? But you’re not, are you?” she asks, before quickly adding, “Not that it would make any difference to me.” It’s the first hint that for all her avowed liberalism, Kathy’s tolerance extends to genteel anti-Semites and the “gentleman’s agreement” among them to keep Jews out of their neighborhoods, hotels, and clubs.

At the editorial board meeting where Minify announces the series on anti-Semitism (“We’re going to call a spade a dirty spade”), Irving Weisman (Robert Warwick), a Jewish industrialist, voices his disapproval. He says it’s a “very bad idea” and may even be “the most harmful thing you could possibly do now.” Weisman stands for all the Jewish movie moguls who dodged this subject, preferring a strategy that Minify disparages as “a conspiracy of silence.” Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox, the studio that made Gentleman’s Agreement, was one of the few studio heads at the time who was not Jewish. He decided to take on this project when the Los Angeles Country Club rejected him, assuming that he was as Semitic as Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, and David Selznick.

At the meeting, Green lets it be known that he is Jewish, and by the time he gets back to his office, the news of his religious affiliation has spread like wildfire. Green’s secretary (June Havoc) reveals that she, Elaine Wales, has changed her name from Estelle Wilovsky. Otherwise, as a Jewish woman, she would never have landed her job.

Peck is sometimes denigrated as a wooden actor. But no actor is as good at being earnest and righteous (not to mention tall, handsome, and all-American) as Peck in fedora, suit, and pocket square, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is a terrific role for Peck—one that he took on despite his agent’s warning that doing so would endanger his career.

The love affair that develops between Kathy and Phil is marked less by romance than by their constant quarrels about Jews and Judaism. On the verge of breaking up, Kathy says that she’s sick of Phil’s “lessons in tolerance” and that she’s relieved he’s really a Christian. “It’s just a practical fact,” she says, “like being glad you’re good-looking instead of ugly, rich instead of poor, young instead of old, healthy instead of sick.” Moreover, she believes that “they”—Jews—“always make trouble for everybody, even their friends! They force people to take sides against them.”

In contrast, there’s Anne Dettrey (the radiant Celeste Holm, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). As the magazine’s fashion editor, she is Phil’s most sympathetic colleague. Though Green is chivalrous and doesn’t want to hear it, she tells him the truth: Kathy is a hypocrite. “She doesn’t rate you, Phil,” she tells him, capping her pitch with the best line in the movie.

Anne is right, and it is one of the movie’s flaws that Phil is harder on his secretary, who worries that “kikey types” might hurt the cause of assimilationist Jews, than he is on Kathy. A second flaw is the implication that it’s okay to be Jewish if (a) you’re really not, or (b) you look like Gregory Peck, or, failing that, (c) you are secular, charming, gracious, and without Jewish “mannerisms.” The absence of synagogues, prayer shawls, yarmulkes, or any other Jewish religious element from the movie is significant. The parallel movie that springs to mind is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s one thing for the Draytons (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) to accept a suitor played by Sidney Poitier. Imagine if their daughter had brought home Sonny Liston.

Thematically, Gentleman’s Agreement reaches its climax when Kathy recalls a dinner party at which neither she nor anyone else protested an anti-Semitic crack from one of the guests. She tells this story to Dave, Phil’s childhood friend, and as a result of their conversation, she vows to fight back against anti-Semitism. To this viewer, Kathy’s change of heart is unconvincing, but it does allow the movie to end with Phil and Kathy making up. (Poor Anne.)

Whatever its shortcomings, Gentleman’s Agreement deserves the plaudits it received on its initial release, and gains a new urgency now, in a time marked by a rash of violent anti-Semitic outbursts in the United States and abroad. As Phil tells Kathy, people with stereotyped ideas of Jews are “persistent little traitors to everything that this country stands for, and stands on, and you have to fight ‘em!” Could anyone else deliver such a speech with the same righteous authority as Gregory Peck?

Some may think the movie is too preachy. Maybe. But it brings to the fore the very question that Phil’s son asked in all innocence: “What are Jews?” As one character tells Phil and Kathy at a party, “Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense.” Why do unobservant Jews continue to call themselves Jews? “Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.”

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