Film Review: Gentleman's Agreement
In 1947, Elia Kazan released Gentleman’s Agreement, based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson. Grossing $7.8 million at the Box Office, the film starred Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc, Anne Revere, Albert Dekker, and Jane Wyatt. It won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Directing and was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Film Editing and Best Writing, Screenplay. Further, the Hollywood chapter of B’nai B’rith International honored producer Darryl Zanuck as its Man of the Year on the following year, which was followed by the debut of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Phil Green moves to New York City in pursuit of a new job and is assigned a piece on anti-Semitism. After struggling with an engaging angle, he settles on pretending to be Jewish so he can experience prejudice firsthand.
While Gentleman’s Agreement is a decent film, it’s a bit heavy handed, the film seeks to send the messages that prejudice, more specifically anti-Semitism is wrong as well as that a belief in something isn’t any good if nothing is done about it. And with it constantly being restated throughout the film, it may come off as a bit heavy handed, however, the time period the film was presented in (just after World War II), it was a message that needed to be stated as there was quite a bit of prejudice going on. Further, just because Germany was defeated didn’t mean that anti-Semitism itself went away. And the second message is something that Phil himself struggles with as he knows that he needs to do something about his belief in prejudice and anti-Semitism being wrong, but doesn’t know how to go through with it at first, which is why he initially balks at the idea. But it’s quite apparent that he doesn’t exactly like balking at it as seen in how he tries to tackle the idea. Also, it tackles the stereotyping that a group can have towards their own, as seen when Phil arranges for fairer hiring practices so his secretary can have her job under her real name, she’s concerned that it will be ruined for “the good ones.”
And both of those messages are still apt for today’s audience as well. There’s still quite a lot of prejudice going on and in many case it’s not related to the color of a person’s skin. The cases where the film shows the ugliness of prejudice can be substituted for any type of person being discriminated against and the message will still come across.
Further, noting that a belief without action isn’t much of a belief is hard hitting in today’s society where quite a few people are apathetic.
And though Phil is notable for struggling with and finding a way to understand the prejudices that the Jewish people experience, the way he goes about it is a little bit unrealistic. Phil figures he can pass as Jewish simply because he has dark hair, dark eyes and an ambiguous name. He doesn’t disguise himself differently or act any differently, such as attend a synagogue or celebrate any Jewish holiday. Rather, he just makes his last name Greenberg and says he’s Jewish. It’s interesting to note his reasoning for not going about adopting any sort of Jewish mannerisms or customs during his experiment: because his friend Dave doesn’t have any distinguishing mannerisms. It’s a bit ironic, albeit unintentionally, because Paul is basing how a whole group of people act and behave based on his friend. Essentially, he’s stereotyping and being prejudicial without realizing it, even if he’s not being overtly malicious about it. But what’s more interesting is that everyone immediately starts to treat him differently just because he’s Jewish. It goes back to the aforementioned heavy handed feeling the film feels at this point, but was necessary back then.
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