Gentleman’s Agreement Part 1: Context

From which compares the old film release to the new

Anti-Semitism has existed in America since it’s very founding. The prejudice towards Jews based on religious differences, economic jealousy, social competition, and political conflict found in Europe came with Europeans to their colonies in North America [1]. In the mid-19th century there was an influx of immigrants, including Jews, coming to America. Around this time, German Jews created relatively successful communities, while also creating and maintaining a unique Jewish cultural world [2]. They moved to the American interior, where they were often involved in commerce and business enterprises [3]. Though these Jews became more acceptable to Americans, they were denied social acceptance through exclusion from clubs, hotels, private schools, college fraternities, and neighborhoods [4]. In the last quarter of the 19th century there was an increase in American anti-Semitism, which the German Jews blamed on the influx of new immigrants from Eastern Europe [5]. Eastern European Jews flocked to Northeastern cities, particularly New York, where they often worked as laborers [6]. These urban Jews were subjected to verbal abuse, most viciously expressed between children, as well as physical violence.

Anti-Semitism continued well into the next century. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan revived, preaching racism, anti-Communism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and nativism as a reaction to immigration. In the 1920s, while the KKK was at its peak and employing violence to back up its ideology, the government was also passing laws to decrease the levels of immigration into the country [7]. In the 1930s, anti-Semitism continued to rise in the United States and well as in the rest of the world as a result of the Great Depression. There was a widespread belief that Jews ran the banking business and caused the stock market to crash, despite the fact that Jews actually held few positions in the business and had little influence on it [8]. At the start of World War II, anti-Semitism grew even stronger, and Jews were once again used as a scapegoat. Jews were stereotyped as warmongers and manipulators, and Americans blamed them for bringing the country into the war.

In the 1940s anti-Semitism reached its peak in America. Wartime public opinion surveys revealed that Chinese immigrants were more desirable than Jewish immigrants, and in 1940 a survey showed that over a quarter of Americans did not want to even work with Jews [9]. During the war and in the following postwar period, economic and social opportunities remained constricted for Jews. They were excluded from jobs in heavy industry, utilities, and banking, as well as from universities, and medical and law schools [10]. Even the Jewish run New York Times ran help wanted ads seeking Christians only [11]. Nevertheless, over 500,000 Jews joined the armed forces during the war [12], and though they faced discrimination, the military helped them forge confidence in themselves and create a stable self-identity [13].

While American anti-Semitism has never been as strong as anti-Semitism in Europe, American prejudices and refusal to react helped determine the fate of European Jews during the Holocaust. The government took no steps to end the suffering of European Jews, and in fact suppressed the information it learned regarding Nazi death camps [14]. Media distanced itself from the Jewish plight, and editors often stopped reporters from attempting to follow Jewish stories [15]. Perhaps the most damning of all was that many Americans believed that whatever was going on in Europe, it was the Jews themselves who were at fault [16].

Along with many Americans following the war, Jews also suburbanized and prospered; however, anti-Semitism still continued as Jews were excluded from private clubs, resorts, and cooperative apartment houses and neighborhoods [17]. Jews also came under fire from government organizations. Mississippi House representative John Rankin restored the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and set the tone and agenda of the committee [18]. Rankin, known for his racist and bigoted attacks in House meetings, insisted on a link between Judaism and Communism, and he instigated an investigation into one of the biggest Jewish industries in America, the film industry [19].

The American film industry was founded by Jews, and nearly every level of production, directing, acting, writing, and ownership and control, involved Jews [20]. All but one of the six major studios was started by Eastern European Jewish immigrants: Carl Laemmle (Universal), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), Louis B. Mayer (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner (Warner Brothers), Harry Cohn (Columbia), and David Sarnoff (RKO). All of these men grew up in destitution, were mistreated in their homeland, and grew an intense devotion towards and need to assimilate to their adopted home of America [21]. While Hollywood was often targeted for undermining traditional American values, the studio heads most wanted to be seen as American [22], and that was reflected in their products and in their self-loathing and despairing comments towards Jews [23]. Nonetheless, Hollywood Jews were forced to testify before HUAC and concede the presence of communists in the industry in order to avoid losing their American respectability [24]. In 1947, ten people, referred to as the Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were blacklisted, fired, and jailed. Further blacklisting resulted in many entertainment professionals being barred from employment in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Poster from a John Garfield image gallery,

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the only non-Jewish run studio, 20th Century Fox, was more willing to tackle “liberal” and controversial social issues in its productions. The late 1940s saw a series of “social problem dramas” or “documdramas.” Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, led a movement towards greater realism in film, including stories drawing on contemporary social issues [25]. While Paramount and RKO released The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) which dealt with alcoholism and the problems of returning veterans, Zanuck produced The Snake Pit (1948) and Pinky (1949), which dealt with mental illness and race relations and racism, respectively. RKO also released Crossfire (1947), a well received film noir that investigates the murder of a Jewish veteran and the violence of anti-Semitism. Zanuck also felt passionately about the subject of anti-Semitism, and in 1947 he bought the film rights to Laura Z. Hobson’s book, Gentleman’s Agreement.

Hobson was inspired to write Gentleman’s Agreement after coming across an article in Time that reported on John Rankin’s anti-Semitic remarks in the House. While she was not surprised by the bigoted Rankin’s remarks, she was surprised to find that no one objected to his use slurs [26], including hateful phrases like “dirty little kike” [27]. In her novel, she examines how bigotry persists and is accepted in “polite society.” The protagonist, Phil Green, is assigned to write a magazine article on anti-Semitism. He wants to truly understand it, so he poses as a Jew in order to experience bigotry first hand. He finds that anti-Semitism and prejudice exist in places and people he never expected, including the supposedly unbigoted woman he’s fallen in love with. Hobson’s novel was critically acclaimed and was a bestseller for months [28][29].

Zanuck went to Moss Hart to write the screenplay, and he hired Elia Kazan to direct. Kazan had previously directed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and Boomerang (1947), as well as several theatre productions including The Skin of Our Teeth, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. Zanuck was approached by fellow movie moguls who did not want Hollywood to be accused on making “Jewish pictures” because it might cause more anti-Semitism. They asked him not to “rock the boat” and to shelf the movie [30]. But Zanuck wouldn’t be dissuaded from going ahead with production. Gregory Peck was eager to take on the role despite some less than enthusiastic responses from several of his fans and his agent [31]. Dorothy McGuire takes on the role of Phil’s WASPish love interest. Anne Revere and Dean Stockwell play Phil’s mother and son respectively. Celeste Holm plays Phil’s colleague and friend, and John Garfield is Phil’s best friend and a Jewish WWII veteran. The movie was well received and critically acclaimed as Fox’s top grossing film of the year [32], and in 1948 it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Holm).

[1] Robert Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism (Landam, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publisher’s, Inc., 2005), 6.
[2] Gerald Sorin, Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 31.
[3] Sorin, Tradition Transformed, 105.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 185.
[8] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, 145.
[9] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time of Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 3 and 44.
[10] Shapiro, A Time of Healing, 6.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 197.
[13] Deborah Dash More, “Jewish GIs and the Creation of the Judeo-Christian Tradition,” Religion and American Culture 8, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 31-53, (accessed November 8, 2008).
[14] Sorin, Tradition Transformed, 189.
[15] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, 151.
[16] Ibid., 145.
[17] Shapiro, A Time of Healing, 50.
[18] “By the Flank,”, January 15, 1945,,9171,775364,00.html (accessed November 8, 2008).
[19] Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988), 356.
[20] Sorin, Tradition Transformed, 165.
[21] Gabler, An Empire of Their Own, 5.
[22] Ibid., 2.
[23] Ibid., 279.
[24] Ibid., 367.
[25] Steven N. Lipkin, “Real Emotional Logic: Persuasive Strategies in Docudrama,” Cinema Journal 38, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 68-85, (accessed November 8, 2008).
[26] Gary Fishgall, Gregory Peck: A Biography (New York: Scriber, 2002), 123.
[27] “Will Soldier’s Vote?”, Febuary 14, 1944,,9171,885334,00.html (accessed November 8, 2008).
[28] Charles Poore, “Books of the Times,” New York Times, February 27, 1947, (accessed November 8, 2008).
[29] “Display Ad 18 – No Title,” The Washington Post, April 13, 1947, (accessed November 10, 2008).
[30] Fishgall, Gregory Peck, 123.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid., 124.

[1] DVD, “DVD Comparison,” JPG file, (accessed November 8, 2008).
[2] The, “John Garfield Image Gallery,” JPG file, (accessed November 8, 2008).

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