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Freelance magazine journo Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is handed an assignment by editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) that is at first unwelcome. Minify wants Green to write an expose on anti-Semitism in America and gentile Green feels ill-equipped for the task…until he decides to go undercover, posing as a Jew to experience the prejudice first hand. His fierce dedication to the work causes difficulties with his fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) whose tacit acceptance of the discrimination as it exists in her own social circles is tantamount to approval in the writer’s eyes. 

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
I would like to think that, many years ago, the clear, conscionable message of Elia Kazan’s dated but still disturbing drama had some positive impact. I was attending an Under 19s Grand Final at the MCG and seated to my left were a middle-aged mother and daughter engrossed in the game. Suddenly, an aboriginal boy blitzed his opponent with ball-play of such blinding skill that the enraged mum cried out, “go on you dirty black bastard, piss off back to where you came from!” She was completely oblivious to the fact that his people were here before us, but I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. “Pardon me, madam,” I said hackles raised, “but that’s a disgraceful example to set for your daughter. They are only boys and this is only a football match!” 

I was reminded of this incident during a key speech in Gentleman’s Agreement when Peck reacts bitterly to something said by the woman he loves. He is sick of the “nice people, the good people who despise it (anti-Semitism and by definition, racism), detest it and deplore it…” those who say nothing and do nothing when faced with situations that demand outrage. I would like to think that I was one of the “good people” who might be exonerated from Peck’s wrath, but then I realised that none of my best friends are yellow, chocolate or brown and I haven’t spoken to an aboriginal in 10 years. So you see, this faded old relic still generates thought and makes you wonder whether some of the negative reaction from critics at the time was based more on prejudice than fair-play. 

It’s true that Kazan’s film confined itself to anti-Semitism in the upper-social and professional classes that Phil Green is exposed to, but to condemn it for being naïve and simplistic (Kazan himself dismissed it as a “prettified series of clichés”) is to deny that it might impact on the common man representative of groups who are arguably less tolerant. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who was not Jewish, was moved by Laura Z. Hobson’s book (which was more of a treatise on homosexuality than anti-Semitism) and made the film because it was “time.” In Mel Gussow’s 1971 biography on Zanuck, it is asserted that many rich Jews in Hollywood didn’t want it made. “Don’t stir it all up,” they said…the very same sentiment expressed by one Jewish character in the film, and even the Catholics insisted that Green’s girlfriend Kathy should not be divorced! 

No doubt Zanuck told them all where to go in the kind of colourful language he was notorious for. But of course, no language is more obscene than that of a bigot and in one of the most powerful scenes Green’s son Tom (beautifully played by 10-year-old Dean Stockwell) comes home from school whimpering about the bully boys who call him names, like “dirty Jew” and “stinking kike.” It’s the performances, not just the courageous subject matter, which lends Gentleman’s Agreement its strength. Peck, intense and rarely more convincing; Anne Revere, immaculate as the wise and doting Mrs Green, Celeste Holm as an understanding fashion editor, and John Garfield, as a victim of prejudice in a small but vital role. Poor Dorothy McGuire gets the worst of it with the most difficult lines and the most absurd: “You’ve changed since the first night I met you at Uncle John’s.” 

Mercilessly roasted by her tetchy boyfriend for some perfectly reasonable sentiments, she suffers for the expediency of a script that must make its points. And so she is caught in a moral minefield, trying to mollify his fervency while mixing in the same toffee-nosed set that fosters by “gentleman’s agreement” an exclusion policy against Jews in ritzy hotels and country clubs. Billed, rather unfortunately, as “the picture that calls a spade a spade,” the film is rather glum and humourless and is inclined to preach with some clunky passages of dialogue that are impossible to speak with conviction. 

Nevertheless, The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was dominated then, as it is now, by Jews, named it Best Picture (Kazan and Holm also won Oscars), eclipsing genuine classics Great Expectations and Miracle On 34th Street. Historians often describe Gentleman’s Agreement as the “most forgotten” Best Picture winner of all time, but that is to ignore the heart of the matter and to spurn a film that does some good, as if to say it does no good. One day at the football they may have better cause to remember it.

Published April 1, 2004

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(US, 1947)

CAST: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm, John Garfield, Albert Dekker, Anne Revere, John Garfield

DIRECTOR: Elia Kazan

SCRIPT: Moss Hart

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

PRESENTATION: Black and white. 4:3 (1.33). 2.0 English mono. Subtitles: Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original trailer; Bonus trailer (All About Eve). Cast Gallery

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: February 25, 2004

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