“I just think it’s a fine idea to meet the family first, don’t you? It saves wear and tear afterward.”
Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” was quickly snapped up by Darryl Zanuck for filming by Twentieth Century-Fox, after it generated considerable interest countrywide as a result of its serialization in Cosmopolitan during November 1946 to February 1947. With the world already aware of the devastating effects of Nazi terror against European Jews during World War II, Zanuck felt the time was opportune to film a story that dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism from a viewpoint that was much closer to home for the ordinary individual. He enlisted the well-respected playwright, Moss Hart, to adapt the book for the screen and Elia Kazan to direct.
Shooting took almost three months beginning in late May 1947 and the completed film opened in New York on November 11, 1947 to a very positive critical response. It would go on to become Fox’s highest grossing film of 1948. In the meantime, the film would be nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning in three categories (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress [Celeste Holm]).
Fox released Gentleman’s Agreement on DVD several years ago in a bare-bones edition, but has now revisited the title with a sparkling new transfer and informative supplementary material as part of its Studio Classics series.
Writer Philip Green moves to New York where he receives an assignment from magazine editor John Minify to prepare a series of articles on anti-Semitism. As Philip struggles to come up with an appropriate angle for the series, he meets and becomes very attracted to Kathy Lacy, Minify’s niece. Eventually the two decide to marry. Meanwhile, Philip realizes that he can only write something new and effective if he poses as being Jewish himself. With the aid of Minify, Philip establishes his identity as a Jewish writer and soon finds himself subject to prejudice from all quarters — his friends, hotel clerks, doctors, Jewish co-workers, and even his fiancée. His son too finds himself a victim of anti-Semitic behaviour. An old friend, Dave Goldman, who is really Jewish himself, acts as a sounding board for Philip’s ideas.
Eventually, Philip is ready to write his articles, his biggest discovery being that it is ordinary people who are not themselves anti-Semitic who perpetuate prejudice by not protesting against it. His fiancée Kathy is one of these and constant arguments with her over the issue lead the two to call off their wedding. Disgusted, Philip makes plans to return to California.
Kathy meets Dave at a restaurant, but it may be too late for Dave to make her understand that it’s not Philip she should be mad at but herself for her failure to get mad at those who maintain bigotry.
It’s easy to say that this film is dated, that its story no longer reflects what happens nowadays. Unfortunately that’s not the case, for whether it’s anti-Semitism or prejudice against any minority or ethic group, open intolerance or silent acceptance of other people’s overt prejudices is still more prevalent than we would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gentleman’s Agreement remains a strong indictment of such attitudes. That’s true even if you take the position that whether one gets admitted to a hotel, a country club, or a university is rather inconsequential compared to the atrocities of World War II. Only a misguided soul would deny or minimize the latter, whereas the former is still a demeaning issue for many people and anything that attempts to examine such everyday prejudice is of value.
It is, of course, ironic in one way that such a film was needed, for so many of the men that controlled Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century were Jewish. Despite their positions of power, they were denied access to some of the bastions of WASP society of the time. Rather than rail against such injustice, they responded by creating an industry that for the most part, hid its Jewishness and tried to be more WASPish than WASP society itself. Even some of the actors of the time changed their obviously Jewish names to “more acceptable” white versions. Thus, for example, Emanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson, Edward Iskowitz became Eddie Cantor, Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas, and Julius Garfinkle became John Garfield.
Consistent with the importance of the film to Darryl Zanuck, he managed to assemble a first-rate cast. Gregory Peck was contracted to play Philip and he is able to convey the necessary force and outrage to make his character believable as the moral core of the film. John Garfield agreed to play the small part of Dave because he felt the film’s subject matter was important. He manages, for the most part, the restrained performance that is called for in the Jewish friend’s role, avoiding his more normally volatile characterizations. The best work, however, comes from the actresses in the film’s two key women’s roles. Dorothy McGuire plays Kathy and she delivers the performance of subtlety and nuance demanded by the difficult part, receiving a well-deserved Academy-Award nomination for Best Actress (losing undeservedly to Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter). Celeste Holm was more fortunate as Philip’s sophisticated and occasionally acerbic magazine colleague, Anne Dettrey; she won the award for Best Supporting Actress. Rounding out the cast is a host of fine, familiar supporting talent including Anne Revere as Philip’s mother (Best Supporting Actress nomination); June Havoc as Philip’s Jewish secretary, who found it necessary to hide her Jewishness to get her job; Albert Decker as Minify; Jane Wyatt as Kathy’s sister; Dean Stockwell as Philip’s son Tommy; and Sam Jaffe as a Jewish scientist.
Director Elia Kazan was best known for his Broadway work in the 1940s, but he first made inroads in Hollywood with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944) before managing three directing screen credits in 1947 for Boomerang, The Sea of Grass, and Gentleman’s Agreement. The fine performances mentioned above for Gentleman’s Agreement are typical of Kazan’s films. He always seemed able to get the most from his performers, with many actors doing their best work under his direction. Kazan was very similar to William Wyler in this respect. He emphasized getting performances just so, and he let others worry about whether there was any distinctive directorial style in evidence. The result is that the actors and the story determine the film’s success, to the audience’s great benefit.
Fox’s new DVD transfer (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) is another top-notch effort in its new Studio Classics series. Other than a couple of soft sequences, the image is sharp and clear with deep blacks, clean whites, and excellent shadow detail. Edge effects are nonexistent. The opening credits just sparkle in their clarity and the film maintains that high standard virtually throughout.
There’s plenty of Dolby Digital soundtrack choice here. Included are stereo and mono English tracks as well as French and Spanish mono tracks. There’s really little to choose between the stereo and mono English tracks. Either do an effective job for this dialogue-driven film. Age-related hiss is not a concern. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The supplement package is a juicy one. We get an audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel punctuated by comments from actresses Celeste Holm and June Havoc. Schickel is opinionated and really knows his stuff, so this one’s a delight to listen too. Havoc and Holm don’t have as much to say, but some of their comments, particularly on how they enjoyed working with the other performers, are revealing. The 24-minute AMC Backstory Episode detailing the making-of the film is also quite informative. It’s probably best to watch it first before listening to the commentary; otherwise, it can be rather repetitive. Two Movietone newsreels provide short glimpses of the ceremonies where Gentleman’s Agreement received its Academy Awards and Look magazine awarded Best Actor and Best Picture to Gregory Peck and Darryl Zanuck, respectively. The latter amusingly ends with presenter Bob Hope asking “What about me,” to which Greg Peck replies, “Well, what about you?” The disc also contains a stills gallery of 35 images, the film’s theatrical trailer, and trailers for All About Eve and How Green Was My Valley.
Gentleman’s Agreement is another winner of a film and DVD from Fox. The film contains a potent message about prejudice that continues to have relevance for today. That message is put across clearly and forcefully by an excellent cast confidently directed by Elia Kazan. The DVD looks great and sounds effective and really shines in the area of useful and entertaining supplements. Highly recommended.