The Best Picture Winners: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

| October 17, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

In the wake of The Second World War, the Hollywood studios no longer had Nazis to rely on as villains.  The Cold War wasn’t a thing yet so studio executives thought it pertinent to dig into social issues and domestic problems for dramatic template.

For 1947, the issues came in many forms: matricide (Kiss of Death), alcoholism (Smash Up – The Story of a Woman), self-dignity (Body and Soul), mental instability (Possessed), personal identity (A Double Life), severe domestic problems (Mourning Becomes Electra), legal problems (Odd Man Out) and, of course, that business with where Santa Claus got locked up in a mental institution.  Just a few years before the romping-stomping terror of Joe McCarthy, it was a rather noble gesture that (even in their own tepid way) Hollywood would address problems at home.

In 1947, one message picture was respected enough by Academy voters to receive the Oscar as the year’s Best Picture.  Elia Kazan’s adaptation Gentleman’s Agreement was rather daring for its time.  Based on the book by Laura Z. Hobson, and adapted by Moss Hart, it tells the story of a journalist named Phil Green (Gregory Peck) who comes to New York to write a piece on anti-Semitism.  Phil himself is a gentile so he decides to pose as a Jew in order to understand and explore the problem first hand.

It seems a noble gesture that a movie made in 1947 might address such a difficult issue, but Gentleman’s Agreement plays out as very weak sauce even for the time.  Dramatically-speaking, this is a very dry movie.  It is veeeeery talky and the dramatic juice of the film is undercut by the fact that the main character Phil is not, in fact, Jewish (Peck himself was actually Roman Catholic).  That fact overwhelms the situation and the only real dramatic tension comes from the question of whether or not Phil’s girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) can overcome her own buried prejudice.

That’s my problem in a nutshell.  Why attack this problem second-hand?  I realize that this was the crux of the book, but why parallax the issue through the eyes of someone who doesn’t experience prejudice first hand?  There were plenty of Jews in America in the 1940s who experienced this kind of discrimination every day, why not just focus the story through their eyes?  Why not let them tell their own story?

Gentleman’s Agreement had the misfortune of arriving in the same year as another story of anti-Semitism, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, which dealt with the subject not as a case study but in the face of a gruesome murder.  That alone makes it far more palatable because the course of murder in the name of anti-Semitism really trumps the scene in Gentleman’s Agreement which Phil is outraged at being denied a hotel room.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.