Based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement stars Gregory Peck (To Kill A Mockingbird) as Philip Green. He’s a famous and loved American writer. When he receives an assignment to pen a thread of articles on antisemitism in the United States after the Second World War, he starts to tell people that he follows Judaism. He falls in love with Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire) and informs her of her racist thinking, unknown to her. Green believes in doing what he believes to be morally right when something wrong has been enacted. He lives the life of an American Jew, including being at the brunt of racism, bigotry and prejudice on a daily basis, even from those he thought good and honest people.
This is very much a story film, but more than that, it is a message film. It’s direct, relentless and uncompromising… all as it should be when talking about prejudice and racism. Green agrees to write a series exposing antisemitism in the United States, but struggles find an angle,all while falling love with the publisher’s niece, Kathy. He comes up with a concept, which is probably the journalistic equivalent to an actor’s method acting. He decides to pretend to be a Jew and observe how others respond to that. It’s the 1940s. He’s white, educated and socially competent. So you’d think everything would be okay? Wrong! If you were a communist, Jewish or black, it would be seen as unAmerican. And to think the film was only released seventy years ago.
This film is polemic in every sense. We follow Green on his trail, as he’s slighted due to his new announced religion. From the building manger who bans Jewish names on a reception postbox to a hotel manager of an establishment that uses the word “restricted” as a term for the exclusion of Jews and Blacks, Green is under the rapid fire that minority groups receive on a daily basis. What makes things worse is that the comments are coming from those he thought his friends, and it goes to show that people aren’t as nice as you think they are. Then you’ve got great characters like Anne (Celeste Holm) to give some balance to the tone. She really is quite lovely… witty and intelligent too.
Green and Kathy’s love story is quite a picture, with your typical bickering, yet there’s also charming moments as well. Though, many of their squabbles are about Green’s work. They rotate around her unable to get used to the concept of Green’s quest against the racial inequality that is entwined in the infrastructure of American society. The dominant ideology comes from the bourgeois class, the class who set the rules and subsequently condition everyone else to think this way. Racial propaganda, if you will. It doesn’t seem to be too far from what occurs today with modern media’s vendetta against Islam. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
The war had recently ended and the Cold War was just beginning. Studies into Auschwitz had not started yet. For the many US citizens with antisemitic ideologies, the crimes of the Nazis against Europe, the US and their allies was far more important than the fate of millions of Jews in Europe. For example, what happened in Prague in the Anthropoid attack. Reinhard Heydrich did not get the title, ‘The Butcher of Prague’ by accident. Humanity will always find a way to split people up, whether that be religion, skin colour, political affiliation or even tying the sort of hobbies you like to your moral character. Yes, the last one happens.
To put it blunt, at its release, this was a highly provocative and controversial picture. It was producer Zanuck’s way of pushing his fingers in America’s face in hope of a call to action. The politics of the film’s creative team are as sharp as the screen I watched it on. So, it’s no great shock the majority of them were pushed in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee to be questioned about their supposed affiliation with the Communist Party. For more on that, have a look at a little movie called Trumbo, about Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and the Hollywood Ten. Quite frankly, not much has changed, more so if the President gets his way.
This is an exciting film, not just for cinema, but also for being a prime example of the power of storytelling. Movies, and now television are the most potent forms of propaganda. And films such as this struck a vicious blow at the establishment, blowing the lid off a brand of discrimination that is still practised today. The difference being that nowadays the dialogue channels are open and people are open to talking about it… sometimes. With excellent performances from all the cast and a controversial script, this film may have just made it onto my all-time favourites list.
While humanity continues on this path, we will never know a moments peace