Gentleman's Agreement Half-Heartedly Railed Against Anti-Semitism and Caused a Sensation 75 Years Ago

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<I>Gentleman's Agreement</i> Half-Heartedly Railed Against Anti-Semitism and Caused a Sensation 75 Years Ago

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in America. It’s also not just confined to the hateful rabble roused by former President Trump. Rapper Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving have recently and publicly thrown their remaining reputations and financial futures into the ever-hungry maw of anti-Semitism. Their influence—itself a complicated and conspiratorial trickle-down of Farrakhanian nonsense—has already been seen on billboards, banners and handmade signs across the country. Just yesterday, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a group of men roadblocked a school bus in Chicago, boarding it in order to hurl slurs and perform a Heil Hitler in front of Orthodox Jewish grade schoolers. And yet, a 2021 survey by The American Jewish Committee found that a sizable percentage of U.S. adults were still somehow ignorant, with 18% not knowing what “anti-Semitism” was and another 16% claiming to have never heard of it. This makes it all the sadder that, 75 years ago, one of the biggest and boldest splashes in Hollywood was Gentleman’s Agreement, a schmaltzy tract aimed at combating hate against Jewish people.

In 1946, Laura Z. Hobson, daughter of two Jewish Socialist writers, set out to poke and prod at the rampant anti-Semitism in the U.S. She was inspired by Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin casually throwing around slurs, which snowballed into a line of questioning still being tackled by fiction. “How antisemitic was this country, this America, these United States?” she wondered. “Not just among the outright bigots like Congressman Rankin… but [among] other people, people who’d never call anybody a ****, people who said they loathed prejudice?” Hobson scrapbooked a clipping of Time’s coverage of the event, and referenced it in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement. As Elia Kazan’s 1947 Oscar-winning adaptation of her novel celebrates its anniversary, this sentiment echoes in the kind of neoliberal bigots epitomized so hilariously in media like Get Out, the self-serious award-winners they satirize, and the unashamed anti-Semitism once again freely flowing among our nation’s most outspoken. Gentleman’s Agreement and its sentiment is still caught in the mediocre limbo occupied by most contemporary media with an anti-hate message: Never going far enough, yet frighteningly and continuously relevant.

A simple plot synopsis can sum up this story’s misguided good intentions—why they felt safe and accessible to those “people who said they loathed prejudice.” Philip Green (Gregory Peck), magazine columnist, tacks a “berg” onto the end of his name and starts lying about his background in order to write a daring and splashy cover story aimed at exposing anti-Semitism: “I Was Jewish for 8 Weeks.” It’s a passing tale, with a moral amusingly summed up by Ring Lardner Jr. as “you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.”

Peck pours on the righteous indignation 15 years before his Atticus Finch explained—to a courtroom, his children and audiences—why it’s bad to be racist. Here, he’s armed with at least half a dozen bonafide Oscar Monologues where he sets his face, gives that serious-yet-so-handsome look, and does his best to embody Martin Niemöller’s “First they came…” speech. Peck’s unrelenting stare and low, tough voice keep our mockery of his character’s continued incredulity to a minimum.

In 2014, Saul Austerlitz wrote that “contemporary social mores seemed to require a non-Jew to explain, codify, and present” this discrimination, which made the film simultaneously daring and cowardly. And it’s true: As trite and weak-willed as it seems now (and seemed to many contemporary observers), Gentleman’s Agreement was scandalous in its day. Hobson—whose first published story, The New Yorker’s “The Perfect Man,” was another about anti-Semitism—told Simon & Schuster, “I’ve got an idea for a book that the magazines will never look at, the movies won’t touch and the public won’t buy. But I have to do it.” Kazan wrote in his autobiography that the heads of the other major film studios (Fox’s Darryl Zanuck, who made the film his sole personal project of the year, was the only non-Jewish studio head at the time) held a meeting asking screenwriter Moss Hart to stop Zanuck from making the movie. They thought—in a sentiment reflected by the film’s Irving Weisman (Robert Warwick)—that bringing attention to the issue would only enhance anti-Semitism.

“A few objections [to the film] have come from Jews, who feel that the picture may increase rather than diminish intolerance, but a far larger proportion of Jewish opinion approves the venture, according to Zanuck,” the New York Times wrote in 1947. Weisman, in Gentleman’s Agreement, agrees. “It’ll only stir it up more. Let it alone. We’ll handle it in our own way,” he says. “You can’t write it out of existence. We’ve been fighting it for years, and we know from experience, the less talk there is about it, the better.”

But Zanuck didn’t listen, either to his peers or the characters in his movie. While he told Hobson that, if the movie failed, it “would set Hollywood back twenty years in honest[ly] dealing with the problem of prejudice,” he went forward. He asked Fox legal counsel George Wasson if any of the hateful politicians namedropped by the movie—Rankin, Mississippi Senator Theodore Gilmore Bilbo, Gerald L. K. Smith—could sue them for being put on blast. Wasson said there was a slight risk of libel, to which Zanuck replied, “Let them sue us. They won’t dare and if they do nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or a defendant at the trial.” When Smith did sue, trying to ban Gentleman’s Agreement from screening in Tulsa (and seeking $1M), the case was dismissed.

Zanuck, Kazan and Hobson’s gamble paid off big. Hobson’s book was the third-best selling novel of the year. The movie—which won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director at the Academy Awards—was the seventh-highest grossing film of the year. Many critics loved it (“Explosive,” claimed the Daily Mirror; “The big news!” Variety screamed) while others chafed against its soft, simple naivete. Bosley Crowther’s NYT review found Philip’s run-ins with discrimination “chiefly in the nature of petty bourgeois rebuffs, with no inquiry into the devious cultural mores from which they spring.” Maybe this wouldn’t have been so crushingly obvious if, just five years earlier in November of 1942, Americans hadn’t found out that millions of Jews had already been murdered by Nazis.

Gentleman’s Agreement has no mention of concentration camps, the Holocaust or its victims. Hobson’s story does. It places the discrimination at home in context with the recent, unimaginable genocide. “No big things,” Phil’s inner monologue reads. “No yellow armband, no marked park bench, no Gestapo. Just here a flick and there another. Each unimportant. Each to be rejected as unimportant. But day by day the little thump of insult. Day by day the tapping on the nerves, the delicate assault on the proud stuff of a man’s identity. That’s how they did it.” It reads far more seriously than it appears on screen, and makes the problems we see feel far less trivial by drawing a line between casual acts of dehumanizing discrimination and the deadly conclusions they inevitably lead to. “In a world where only yesterday human bones powdered to ash in blazing furnaces,” Hobson writes, “the barred register of a chic hotel could scarcely be called disaster.” But in Hollywood’s sanitized PSA, getting skipped over for a job or being barred from a WASPy country club is disaster enough to serve as the film’s climax.

Making these microaggressions the focal point of Gentleman’s Agreement dilutes its power. It may have raised awareness of anti-Semitism, but trivializes it. Maybe that’s why Kazan himself turned on the film later in his career. “Whenever I see it,” he explained in the ‘70s, “it reminds me of those illustrations in Redbook and Cosmopolitan in those days. I mean, those people don’t shit.” They don’t shit, they don’t bleed, they don’t die. The slights never rage into danger, never shedding the “micro” to become aggressions. The closest they get is when a drunken sod decides to pick a fight with John Garfield’s Jewish soldier, Dave Goldman.

But the brawl is stopped before it begins, the blitzed bigot escorted out by his apologetic pal. The rest of the film’s dramatics are social slights, or purely off-screen. Philip’s son (a young Dean Stockwell) comes home one day sobbing, telling tales of how he weathered hate speech after school that day. Goldman tells an anecdote about a dying boy in his unit, how the last words he ever heard were slurs from his brothers-in-arms. These aren’t examples far from reality, but their positioning as in the past, and in the otherized realms of childhood playgrounds and warzones, removes immediacy and impact. This directorial choice skimps on the very real and very raw dangers of anti-Semitism; the noir Crossfire, a film released the same year, handles the topic far more seriously and far less palatably. Gentleman’s Agreement also does what so many Message Pictures do when making social problems into Everyone’s Problem: It undermines and enfeebles the actual victims of discrimination so that the hegemonic elite can feel empowered.

In order to set the audience up for a vicarious learning experience through its heroic goy, Gentleman’s Agreement makes its Jewish characters self-sabotaging, complacent or resigned. Goldman and Weisman protest Philip’s plan, but the script makes it clear that he and he alone has the brass gentile balls apparently necessary to “fight back,” to make a discriminatory hotelier “look [him] in the eye” when denying a reservation. Philip’s secretary, who changed her name from Estelle Walofsky to “Ethel Wales” to be more employable, is filled with self-loathing: “You just let them get one wrong Jew in here, and it’ll come out of us. It’s no fun being the fall guy for the ****y ones.”

It’s criminal, especially since Garfield is the best performer of the lot. He levels low and slow blows like “Well, you can stop being Jewish now. There’s nothing else,” after Phil’s son gets bullied. His face is serious, any irony so dry and pleasureless that when he starts pouring on the optimism—warm yet stern—in a later scene with Philip’s liberal-yet-intolerant fiancée (Dorothy McGuire), it’s a reminder of just how complex Garfield could make his characters with just a simple way of leaning, of breathing, of staring. His scenes fill the frame with emotion, radiate an aura rather than monopolize the oxygen for a lecture, like Peck’s. Turns out, when a Jewish actor is able to express experiences with anti-Semitism, it comes out a lot more believable and empathetic than an Irish Catholic bickering with a concierge.

Around the time Gentleman’s Agreement came out, critic James Agee praised Crossfire, its subject matter peer that had a more mature and realistic take on the ramifications of hate. But even after admitting that he liked the movie, he wrote that we’re always “awarding Hollywood a sprinting-prize for taking Baby’s First Step,” something that comes up again with every Green Book and every First Openly Gay Disney Character. “In a way,” Agee wrote, “it is as embarrassing to see a movie Come Right Out Against Anti-Semitism as it would be to see a movie Come Right Out Against torturing children.” And yet, 75 years after Gentleman’s Agreement became a sensation, you see the continued cultural consequences of couching “Coming Right Out Against” Anything in Hollywood happy endings, anodyne examples and palatable protagonists. Movies have the power to change the culture, but only if you let them.


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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