“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947)

Directed by Elia Kazan
20th Century Fox
US, 118 minutes
Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield

Gentleman’s Agreement, which won the 1947 Best Picture Oscar, has a fairly simple plot. Gregory Peck’s character, Phillip Green, is an experienced journalist who moves to New York after being hired to write a series of stories for a magazine. The topic of the stories is antisemitism and he decides that the only way he can get to the heart of the story is “to become a Jew.” It’s a noble cause, to show that ‘this country is better than this’, but does this make for a great film?

In my opinion: simply no. Elia Kazan, who won his first of two Best Director Oscars for this film (his other was for the infinitely superior On The Waterfront), is seriously constrained by the Hollywood studio system. Kazan, who cut his teeth as a theater director in New York, is visibly confined in a studio. While he gets to go outside early in the film, you get the feeling as though Kazan is almost allowing the flaws of the studio-bound film in the hope that the executives would realize how important on location shooting is (considering that On The Waterfront is entirely on location, I think he won). I really think that Kazan was hoping that when he got to Hollywood, he would immediately be able to do something different than what he was doing in theater. Instead, in his fourth film, he is given an incredibly stage-y script, filled with lines that no one would really say in life and repetitive conversations. Really, what makes the first conversation between the all-too-serious Gregory Peck (lighten up, will ya?) and the up-tight Dorothy McGuire (relax a little bit, will ya?) any different from the last one? Moss Hart wrote the screenplay and he was much better known for his work on Broadway than in Hollywood and you can tell.

Really, the only person who gives anything close to a fine performance in this film is John Garfield, who plays Green’s Jewish friend from his days in the war. He brings an incredible looseness and reality to this incredibly uptight film. The only problem: he comes in with just forty minutes left of the movie! 

Still, I can’t say that this film is not entirely without merit. It’s point is very important and Gentleman’s Agreement works hard at not shoving it in your face. The amazing hotel check-in sequence is beautiful in that Green does not go up to the register and say ‘I’m Jewish, but I hope you’ll still give me a room.’ No, he goes with the understated ‘Is this hotel restricted?’ While that phrase might not mean much today, in 1947 it brought with it heavy connotations. Peck’s acting here is fantastic. It is at this moment that his super-seriousness suits the moment. It’s parts like during the party and at dinner where you just wish he’s lighten up.

John Garfield gets to inject the film with some much needed excitement.

The film is one of 20th Century Fox’s prized possessions, made obvious by it carrying spine number 2 in the Studio Classics collection. The DVD’s features might not be high in number, but they cover just about every aspect you would want. An AMC Backstory episode on the making of the film covers all you need to know in thirty minutes and two newsreels and a trailer provide all the publicity we need. Fox also provides us with one of critic Richard Schickel’s more interesting commentaries. However, if you still like the movie after you hear what he has to say about it, I commend you. Schickel is surprisingly blunt about the film’s flaws, being critical of everything from McGuire’s performance to the implausibility of  several story elements. The one that he noted that really caught me was that if Green is such a great journalist, why didn’t he come up with the idea to masquerade as a Jew immediately? Although, if he did, the entire first reel wouldn’t exist.

The mono soundtrack is pretty clean, although the print shows significant signs of damage throughout. For a Best Picture winner, it sure hasn’t been cared very well for over the years.

The Verdict: Gentleman’s Agreement is not a bad film – that is, one that is impossible to enjoy – but it’s problems lie in the fact that it is a studio film. Darryl F. Zanuk’s grubby fingers are all over the picture, making sure it says everything that he wants it to. When Kazan is given free reign, which he most certainly was not given here, he is one of the best directors ever and so it is impossible to consider Gentleman’s Agreement one of his great achievements.

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