Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)

A weightily well- intentioned movie that is sometimes quite effective. Laura Z. Hobson wrote the novel and Moss Hart the screen play, and the topic is antisemitism. The focus is not on horrid examples or recent world history, but on the pervasiveness of prejudice in ordinary American life. This is how the set-up goes: a very wealthy, successful, liberal magazine editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) gets the bright idea of commissioning a series of articles exposing American antisemitism, and calls star journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) do it. Green is a serious man with a serious, creative career, and he accepts the assignment after admitting disgruntlement to his wise mother Mrs. Green (Anne Revere), but he hasn’t got an angle, and this makes him nervous and dissatisfied. But he has a good friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield) who is a Jew, and thinking about his friend’s experience gives him his angle: he will be a Jew for Eight Weeks, to see how hateful antisemitism is, from the inside.

Everybody is bowled over by the brilliance of the idea, and he goes ahead. The first problem arises when he mentions to his new girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) that he’s writing from within, as a Jew himself. Kathy gives a start: she’s very liberal, disgusted by prejudice, and in fact she was the one who persuaded her uncle Minify to take on antisemitism. But in her character we see one of the basic problems: people are inclined toward opposing prejudice, but they haven't gone farther than that. Kathy has all the right intentions, but accepts unthinkingly all the daily mechanics that enforce prejudice: resorts with an “exclusive” policy, managing guests at a Connecticut party, and so forth. When Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) suffers from name-calling and beating, she comforts him by telling him it’s not true, he’s not a Jew—as if his membership in the dominant Christian community were inherently better, a belief she reveals even more when in the break-up argument she says she’s glad she’s a Christian and not Jewish, just as she’s glad she’s pretty and not plain, wealthy and not poor, healthy and not ill.

Daily abuses abound: the custodian of the apartment building where Green lives asks him not to write “Greenberg” on the mail-box label “because it ain’t allowed.” The doctor who treats Mrs. Green recommends only gentile heart specialists, and the secretary Minify hires to help Green, Elaine Wales (June Havoc) is a prime example of the internalized antisemitism of those passing for gentile (though Green is a little too hard on her). Through her Green discovers the personnel manager at the magazine doesn’t hire Jews, and Minify, embarrassed, reverses the policy.

There are only two other Jewish voices here. The first is Green’s friend Dave, an army officer and engineer just leaving the service to take up a job in New York, though he can’t find a place for his family to live. Dave’s attitude is reserved, guarded, but not without compassion: as Green reels from the impact of hatred, Dave tells him he’s getting in two weeks what a real Jew would have a lifetime to absorb—and it’s hard enough that way. He also tells Green one story, and one story only, about the death on the battlefield of a heroic Jewish soldier. Somebody said something about moving “this Sheeny,” and those were the last words he ever heard. The other voice is that of a brilliant physicist, Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffee), who launches into a wonderfully merry, sardonic riff on how to solve the problem of antisemitism. Green himself is caught in a moral bind, because he is too principled to retreat from the ugliness of confrontations by playing the gentile card, which is also Lieberman’s point when he says that as a completely secular man of science he is not a Jew—no religion, no race. But he will never deny being a Jew because to do so would be to proclaim Jewish inferiority. Green can only leave his disguise of being Jewish by denouncing every manifestation of antisemitism, even among “good people.”

Meanwhile, there’s another wrinkle in the plot. Kathy is pretty and bright and speaks with a breathily soft voice, but she’s really not very interesting except as part of a matched set of handsome people. On the other hand, fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holme) is bright, determined, very good looking in a polished way, and extremely witty. In fact, she gets all the snappy lines, and a scene showing her deeper, sweeter side. But then the good-hearted Dave has to go and spoil things by effecting a last-minute reconciliation between Kathy and Green—it’s not enough for her to feel disgust at prejudice, she has to take action, he tells her. Otherwise she’s part of it. So she allows the Goldmans to live in her cottage in exclusive Connecticut and commits herself to staying with her sister and fighting prejudice. It is a great disappointment, this reconciliation, for Anne Dettrey is a decent person all through the story, and somebody of real substance, not just a pretty face with social status, much better suited for Green than the somewhat vacuous Kathy. The weakest part of the story is the romance plot. And while Gregory Peck is very good to look at, Kazan seems to have directed him in a way that limits him for much of the film to expressions of righteous indignation, so that he appears stern, angry, and tightly wound nearly all the time. The best acting and the best lines are delivered by the secondary characters, especially Revere and Garfield—and Garfield most of all, who delivers a surprisingly nuanced, quiet, convincing performance.

The conceit of the story—reporting on the conditions experienced by an oppressed minority, is not unique. John Howard Griffin wrote of becoming black in the 1960s exposé Black Like Me, and there must be other instances. I’m not sure whether we ought to be troubled by the notion that the story can be written better by an outsider, but that’s an argument for another day.

1 comment:

Dale Katherine Ireland said...

I did not know about the movie; I should have. I am going to rent it this month. Thanks, Kevin.