Some movies are undeniably a product of their time; others still, created with the purpose of addressing some socio-economic or political issue that, while relevant to the overall arc of human history when the movie was made, has since grown dated in both its premise and execution. For these reasons primarily, Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) hasn’t fared well – its deconstruction of the WASP power structure and its’ disquieting anti-Semitism, though hardly timely, and still very much with us – ultimately handled with too much reverence by Kazan. This melodrama creaks like an old wooden barn, its educational precepts buried beneath Kazan’s unusually heavy-handed directorial approach and a lumbering screenplay by Moss Hart, whose fervent desire to expose social injustices has blunted the overall impact of this message picture.
And Gentleman’s Agreement is unmistakably a ‘message picture’; righteously preachy despite some first rate performances; particularly Celeste Holm’s devilishly classy fashion editor Anne Dettrey and John Garfield’s stoic ‘man against the world’ returning war hero, Dave Goldman. Regrettably, these are merely supporting characters, relegated to the backdrop of an otherwise killjoy romance between upper crust socialite Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) and widower newspaper writer, Phil Green (Gregory Peck). Personally, I think McGuire came into her own later on in her career, especially when cast as a matronly figure. But as a romantic love interest she is decidedly odd – not quite as fresh faced as the ingénue, yet smelling of soap rather than smoldering sex.
Gregory Peck, for all his manly propriety and defiant pride, remains rather stalwart and stuffy as the romantic suitor herein– torn between love of family, pride of conscience and lust for a woman he knows harbors traces of the very prejudice his own morality seeks to expose and dismantle. Kathy, however, never quite undergoes that full conversion of seeing things Phil’s way, and it is doubtful that, as written and performed by Peck and McGuire, the couple will ever truly see eye to eye.
In a nutshell, Gentlemen’s Agreement is a standard melodrama; its Oscar cache derived from its anti-Semitism protocol – then even more taboo in Hollywood. Reportedly, Darryl F. Zanuck sought to do the film after being denied entry into Los Angeles’ Country Club after management presumed that Zanuck was Jewish. Even without the snub, Gentleman’s Agreement was right up Zanuck’s alley. Throughout the 1940s, Zanuck had proven to his harshest critics that traditionally ‘unpopular’ subject matter could be turned into praise-worthy and profitable motion pictures. Moreover, he had felt the stinging cause of injustice personally this time, and turned the project over to Elia Kazan – a film-maker whose proactive desire to make good pictures about important topics perfectly aligned with Zanuck’s own.
Regrettably, Kazan is best known by today’s casual film fan as the snitch who named names during the McCarthy communist witch hunts of the 1950s; his testimony directly resulting in the blacklisting of many of his contemporaries. This unglamorous chapter in Kazan’s private life has all but eclipsed his stature as a brilliant film maker and this indeed is a shame. It was, after all, Kazan who gave us the heartbreakingly tender A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); Kazan who would later wow us with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and would continue to do movies about tough social issues: unionized graft (On The Waterfront), adolescent sexuality (Baby Doll), miscegenation and racism (Pinky) and self-destructive all-consuming love (Splendor in the Grass).
But Gentleman’s Agreement is not Kazan’s finest hour as a film maker and that is a genuine shame, because in Laura Z. Hobson’s novel he seems to have the perfect subject matter to do yet another searing exposé about a social reality that most Americans simply refused to acknowledge. Yet, as pure art Gentleman’s Agreement founders. Phil Green’s moral objections are more saintly pontificating than heartfelt and purposeful. At times, Gregory Peck seems as though even he isn’t quite sure about the words of dialogue issuing from his lips. And Dorothy McGuire’s wasp is too good to be wrong, yet too wrong to be worthy of Phil’s crusader. The film begins as a message picture, and then awkwardly segues into a romantic melodrama at the midway point; thereafter waffling between its two diametrically opposed narrative threads that never quite come together in any sort of meaningful way.
We wait for Kathy to come to the conclusion that she has been wrong in her thinking. But this epiphany never entirely materializes. Rather, Kathy is contented to accept what Phil says because she loves him – not because she believes what he says to be the morally upstanding thing to do. And Phil, having realized just how Kathy truly feels – seems just as contented to forgo her ‘mild aspersions’ toward people of the Jewish faith, because he wants to belong to someone once again – even if that someone remains ever so slightly unworthy of his time and devotion. No, it just doesn’t work – and Kazan doesn’t seem particularly engaged to suggest to his audience that it ever will; at least, not in any sort of lasting or meaningful way. Because of these issues, Gentleman’s Agreement remains pedestrian fare at its best; amiably acted, valiantly directed, but coming off as a lush and lovely waxworks with a tinge of pro-activism tacked on for good measure.
Our story begins in earnest with the arrival of widowed journalist, Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), who has brought his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere) to New York City for a fresh start following the death of his beloved wife. Joining a prestigious magazine, Green gets into the good graces of publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) who encourages his hot new writer to do piece on anti-Semitism. The project, however, does not appeal to Green at first. He needs an angle to become inspired.
So, Green decides to adopt a Jewish persona, renamed Phil Greenberg, and write about his personal experiences as a ‘Jew’. The idea has merit. Minify agrees to keep Phil’s true identity a secret. But almost immediately Phil begins to feel the quiet, but very ugly backlash of anti-Semitism creep into his comfortable middle-class surroundings. Tommy is called names and beat up in the schoolyard and Phil can sense the suddenly cool and aloof glances from colleagues who considered him a friend at first.
Phil meets Minify’s niece, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) who had suggested the series of articles to her uncle. The two are instantly attracted to one another, but later Phil confides to his mother that he is not entirely comfortable that the idea for his stories came from a woman. Still, as women go – Kathy acquits herself quite nicely of the role of the socialite; slumming it a few days a week as a substitute teacher while her uncle foots the bills for her fashionable apartment and lifestyle the rest of the week. Phil and Kathy begin a liaison that reaches its first stumbling block when Phil reveals to her his intentions of writing the articles from observations made as a Jew.
Kathy’s inquiry as to whether Phil is really Jewish throws a monkey wrench into their fledgling relationship. After all, what are Kathy’s liberal views good for if she remains inhibited by the same social prejudices she supposedly seeks to depose? Meanwhile, believing that Phil is Jewish his new secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc) confides that she is too, then reveals to him that in order to get the job with the magazine she had to change her name and lie on her application. Phil tells Minify who promptly implements a new hiring policy that Elaine fears will allow ‘the wrong Jews’ to get in and ruin it for the few who are currently employed by the magazine.
As Phil’s relationship with Kathy becomes more strained he becomes acquainted with the magazine’s fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm) over cocktails; a devoted friend who might be something more if things between Kathy and Phil don’t improve soon. At the same time Phil takes in Dave Goldman (John Garfield); a dear friend who, having retired from the army, is looking to move his family to New York City. Dave is supportive of Phil’s desire to expose the unspoken bigotry of middle-class America but worries for Phil and his family’s safety.
When Tommy returns, bloodied by another schoolyard brawl, Kathy consoles him with the understanding that the racial slurs he has endured are without merit because he knows he is not Jewish – instead of taking umbrage to the slurs in and of itself. Kathy’s attitude toward the whole matter alarms Phil who briefly ponders postponing their engagement. His apprehensions are not quelled when Kathy’s sister, Jane (Jane Wyatt) throws the couple a party at her home in Darien, Connecticut, a community where anti-Jewish sentiments run high. Although Jane’s friends are polite to Phil, many choose not to attend the party at the last minute, and those who do are decidedly going through the motions to remain cordial, while silently shunning Phil with their accusatory glances.
Dave informs Phil that he will have to quit his new job because he cannot find sufficient housing for his family in New York. Knowing that Kathy’s family owns a vacant cottage in Darien, Phil offers to talk to Kathy about renting it out. But she is reluctant to do so, presumably more concerned over what her friends will think than whether or not such friends are worth having in the first place. Phil is disgusted by her apprehensions and breaks off their engagement. Distraught, Kathy tells Dave that she attended a party where a guest told a racially motivated joke that made her ill. But when Dave questions her as to what action she took to voice her outrage Kathy confides that she did nothing. Dave suggests to her that prejudice will forever endure so long as the people who should know better do nothing when confronted by it.
Phil finishes his series of articles. However, upon publication of the first, despite receiving great acclaim, Phil informs Minify that he intends to resign from the magazine and leave New York with his family. But Dave arrives with good news. Not only has Kathy decided to rent him and his family her cottage, but she will be living next door to them to ensure they are being treated with dignity by the neighbors. Upon hearing this news Phil realizes that he truly loves Kathy. The two reconcile – presumably to begin their romance anew.
The back story to Gentleman’s Agreement is actually more fascinating than the finished film. After Zanuck’s rebuke from the country club, he decided to helm the project as a personally supervised production. At every step however, Zanuck was repeatedly discouraged in his artistic pursuits to see the project through. Friends warned that the film might never get passed by the Hollywood censors because Joseph Breen was known to be an anti-Semite.
There were also mild concerns that McGuire’s Kathy being a divorcee on the make would sour popular opinion from the Catholic League of Decency, or that Anne Revere – already suspected of having socialist views – would incur the wrath of the ever mounting witch hunt brewing in Washington against suspected communists and communist sympathizers.
As for casting: Cary Grant, Zanuck’s first choice for the role of Phil Green, politely turned down the plum part after his agent insisted he refrain from the project. Gregory Peck’s agent encouraged a similar dismissal once Zanuck had offered the role to him. But Peck firmly believed in the importance of the movie as a catalyst for social change and pressed on. In the end the anticipated backlash from critics and audiences never materialized. In fact, Gentleman’s Agreement became a colossal smash, reaffirming Zanuck’s faith in producing popular mass entertainment with a social and moral conscience.
There’s good news and bad news regarding Fox’s Blu-ray. The bad news is that this is only a single layered transfer with a modest bit rate. I suspect Fox is using old digital files bumped to a 1080p signal. The good news is that for the most part the image is solid. Could it have looked better? Arguably, yes. The opening credits have a slight hint of thickness and inconsistently rendered grain. I also detected an ever so slight tint of chroma bleeding in the letters during the credit sequence. Not a promising start. But the image thereafter was mostly satisfying.
Occasionally, the B&W elements looked slightly soft with a minimal loss of fine detail the most obvious transgressor. Film grain is present, but inconsistently rendered. Age related artifacts are present but greatly tempered do not distract. The audio is mono and adequate for this presentation. Extras include a Back Story ‘making of’ and an audio commentary and theatrical trailer – same as the old DVD. I’ll just go on record here to say that Fox needs to be more proactive in their approach to classics on Blu-ray. We don’t want or need ANY more thin-looking 1080p transfers with marginal bit rates. You have the disc space and the capacity to fill it. Gentleman’s Agreement runs less than 2 hrs. A new scan is in order. Utilize Blu-ray’s storage capabilities to their fullest. Bottom line: Recommended with marginal reservations.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)