Gentleman’s Agreement Part 2: Analysis

Poster from http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/filmnotes/gentlemansagreement.html

Gentleman’s Agreement was one of the first films to deal directly with anti-Semitism. It primarily examines a more covert, subtle kind of bigotry that sometimes exists in people without them even realizing it. The movie depicts and discusses the social discrimination against Jews on several levels, including exclusion from employment and housing, as well as the verbal abuse most often expressed between children. There is also the subject of Jewish self-loathing, often expressed by film moguls themselves, in which the more successful Jews disparage those who haven’t made it or “make it harder for the rest of us.” Phil’s Jewish secretary, who has been on the end of employment discrimination, expresses dislike towards “the kikey ones who cause trouble” [33]. Gentleman’s Agreement truly pushed the envelope in 1947, when ten years prior to the film the word “Jew” couldn’t be uttered on the screen [34].

While the movie does many things right, there are several fair critiques that can be made against it. In the movie, as in the book, Phil’s investigation of anti-Semitism is limited to the upper-crust Northeastern society. He does not go much further than experiencing petty snubs from rich people, and as a result he does not search for the roots of racism or see the violence and hatred that arises from anti-Semitism. Another issue, as described by New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, regards the protagonist’s extreme naivety, “it is amazing that the writer who undertakes this probe should be so astonished to discover that anti-Semitism is cruel” [35].

There is also an issue with the premise of Phil disguising himself as a Jew. For one, the story is not as strong with a Gentile “passing” as a Jew as it could be with a Jewish main character. More importantly, the movie suggests that there is “no difference” between Gentiles and Jews, which removes the history, experience, and identity of Jewish culture and inadvertently supports ultra-assimilation of Jews. The message of the movie can also be confused as a result of Phil’s undercover investigation. As one critic put it, the moral of the story is that you should never be rude to a Jew because he might turn out to be a Gentile [36].

Though Gentleman’s Agreement remains a strong human drama, it’s relevance as a social film has waned. Even the director Elia Kazan has distanced himself from the movie, calling it “the perfect example of that day’s ‘liberal’ films,” as well as “patronizing” [37]. Nevertheless, despite its issues and datedness, the larger issues of bigotry and hatred expressed in Gentleman’s Agreement remain problems today. No doubt, discrimination and segregation are less common (or less apparent) in America today, but hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion persists. Perhaps the most important lesson of the movie is that bigotry does not only exist in cross burning, bald headed, hate crime perpetrating extremists. It also exists in the nicest, most ordinary people who perpetuate hatred simply by refusing to speak against it.

Gentleman’s Agreement trailer from Youtube:[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/iJBFAKP8jmY" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I want to end with a quote I found particularly striking from Phil’s mother, Mrs. Green:

You know something, Phil? I suddenly want to live to be very old. Very. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that’s why it’s so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won’t be the American century after all… or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn’t it be wonderful… if it turned out to be everybody’s century… when people all over the world – free people – found a way to live together? I’d like to be around to see some of that… even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while [38].

This quote from Mrs. Green seems like an eerie premonition in retrospect, as it was made prior to the pinnacle of the political and social unrest that plagued much of the world for the last half of the 20th century. In America, the development of youth culture, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s liberation movement, anti-war and anti-government protests, and more all led the nation towards a freer, more equal state.

However, this quote still seems so appropriate and relevant as we enter the 21st century. Issues of war, terrorism, economic security, bigotry, and globalization continue to create unrest throughout the world. Yet, at the same time America takes a great step in electing its first African American president. So, the question still remains, what will this century be remembered for when people look back?

Footnotes:
[33] Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan, 20th Century Fox, 1947.
[34] Fishgall, Gregory Peck, 126.
[35] Bosley Crowther, “‘ Gentleman’s Agreement,’ Study of Anti-Semitism, Is Feature at Mayfair — Gregory Peck Plays Writer Acting as Jew,” New York Times, November 12, 1947, http://www.proquest.com.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/ (accessed November 10, 2008).
[36] Micheal Bronski, “Remembering Gregory Peck, and a Not So Gentlemanly Agreement,” Forward, June 20, 2003, http://www.proquest.com.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/ (accessed November 8, 2008).
[37] Fishgall, Gregory Peck, 126.
[38] Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan, 20th Century Fox, 1947.

Images/video:
[1] History Department at the University of San Diego, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” JPG file, http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/filmnotes/gentlemansagreement.html (accessed November 8, 2008).
[2] Youtube.com, “Movie Trailer— ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947),” Youtube file, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJBFAKP8jmY (accessed November 8, 2008).

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