**This review is part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon being hosted over at They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. You can read the other astounding contributions to the celebration over at this link.**
I can’t say that I’m a fan, or not a fan, of actor John Garfield because I’m not acquainted with his work. With the help of Patti who organized the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, I finally sat down to see John Garfield on-screen. I volunteered to review the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck and directed by the beloved (by me) Elia Kazan. I found myself surprised though upon realizing that Garfield doesn’t appear till over 30 minutes in. I can’t say I’d watch this purely for Garfield, but the movie is amazing on its own merits. An, at times, far too glamorous look at antisemitism is elevated by a crackling script and a game-changing performance (in my eyes) from Gregory Peck.
Writer Schuyler Green (Peck) gets the assignment of a lifetime when he’s tasked with blowing the lid off antisemitism. The only way he can tackle the story, though, is by living the life of a Jewish person; and thus Schuyler becomes Phil Green. As he becomes enmeshed further into telling the right story, Phil discovers that those who love him the most might be hiding their own prejudices, including his fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire).
Gentleman’s Agreement not only starkly brings forth the views of Jewish hatred post-WWII, but seems to be commenting on Hollywood itself. The fact that the heads of almost all the major studios were Jewish makes the moment where Phil and his editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) present the idea to the board of directors all the more candid. Not only is Phil telling these men they have to lift the “conspiracy of silence,” but Elia Kazan and screenwriter Moss Hart are telling the heads of Hollywood to do so, as well. Of course, the members of the newspaper say “the less talk there is about it, the better,” which is a theme explored throughout the narrative. Is not talking about it just as bad as being overtly racist? The movie says, yes it is. The symbolism in Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t particularly hidden, as you can see. In the opening of the movie, Phil tells his boy Tommy (a very young Dean Stockwell) about the statue of Atlas; a man condemned to carry the world on his shoulders. It’s apparent in this one moment what Phil will be doing through his impersonation of a Jew. I found this to be a fairly glossy, A-list depiction of antisemitism, overall. It’s a good movie with excellent performances and a good script, but it screams Hollywood. The all-star cast, the fact that there’s no overt violence against Phil for being Jewish, etc. The movie seeks to show a high-powered version of prejudice; mostly revolving around wealthy people. I would have appreciated a balanced view amongst classes; but also show how Jewish citizens were abused, harassed, etc. by others.
Despite it’s glamorous veneer, the script and acting in Gentleman’s Agreement is damn good. Peck is always consistently solid, but I was bowled away by the conviction of his character, and his acting performance, in this movie. Phil tells his son at the beginning that sometime’s he’s allowed to think (and write) what he wants, but for the most part he writes what he’s told. This is a prophetic statement as he suffers the pitfalls of seeing others doing what they’ve been told is right. He’s forced to confront where he draws the line between right and wrong. Peck has such an expressive face that you see the joy he has when he hopes someone isn’t going to judge him about being Jewish, only to see the devastation when they prove to disappoint him. Alongside him is John Garfield as Phil’s best friend Dave, who really is Jewish. If written with no emotion, the character of Dave would be the guy standing in the back saying “I told you so.” He’s borne the brunt of Jewish hatred for years; so when Phil decides to “play” Jewish, Dave just sits back and let’s things play out as they always have. When Phil tells Dave about what’s been going on, you can see that the man isn’t surprised. Garfield becomes the pure face of the movie, and is content to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone come to the realizations he’s felt first-hand. No matter what happens, Dave remains optimistic to the point of seeming fake, but Garfield is such a dynamic presence in the role that it doesn’t feel as such. I also recognized Celeste Holm as Phil’s friend/potential paramour, Anne. I adore Holm and felt she gave the romantic angle a yearning to a relationship that I generally detested. It’s unfair that Holm isn’t integrated into the triangle fully, simply declaring her love for Phil….and disappearing from the movie!
Yeah, that love triangle. It’s more an on-again/off-again relationship with another woman shoehorned in at the eleventh hour. To be blunt, the romance should not have been included at all. It unnecessarily slogs down the movie, and only made me detest the character Dorothy McGuire played. I believe McGuire is a worthy actress (see her in The Spiral Staircase), but the script makes her character detestable, than flippantly redeems her. Let me reiterate, I don’t have an issue with McGuire’s acting, rather her character. For starters, the romance feels tacked on and underdeveloped. After one kiss Phil starts talking about marriage while Kathy says she’s happy to take on the role of Tommy’s stepmother because she now has a son that’s been “growing up for me.” I don’t agree with Kazan hating this movie, but this part is difficult to swallow.
The core of their relationship is Phil’s discovery that Kathy is prejudiced, in her own way. She tells him that “it wouldn’t matter” if he were Jewish, but thank goodness he isn’t. The audience is meant to ask themselves what Dave asks Kathy later on: What do you do to stop injustice? Is sitting there as bad and listening to someone be racist as making as making a racist comment yourself? And do we lie, and tell ourselves we’re not racist in order to be popular? The problem is her character is downright unlikable throughout the entire movie, so none of this matters! She only calls out her sister for being prejudice because Phil “told me to,” not because she truly agrees. She truly believes she’s right, even when she tells Tommy that he’s not really Jewish, so it shouldn’t matter what bullies call him. By the end, we don’t see Kathy redeem herself. Sure, she has dinner with Dave and she’s meant to have this profound moment of comprehension, but the movie simply ends with Phil going to her door; the audience realizing they are going to get back together. What’s the point then of having Celeste Holm play Anne? There’s no real love triangle established because we never establish Anne as a rival for Phil’s affections. The script finds her so disposable that she’s thrown out of the finished product before the end. When the audience is rooting so vehemently against a pairing, the screenwriter should plan accordingly.
By the end of Gentleman’s Agreement, you come to learn that Phil has only changed a small section of his life. He discovers his entire office is prejudice, even the Jewish secretary Elaine (June Havoc in an amazing performance). There is no stopping antisemitism; there’s only passing down the right code of conduct to the new generation. In spite of that, though, there’s still racism rooted in all groups; going so far as to permeate the groups that are being oppressed! (Elaine is Jewish, but fears that the “wrong kind” will be let into the office.) There’s a sad humor that pops up throughout, where characters are nice to Phil and say something racist, only to backpedal when Phil reveals he is Jewish. You want to laugh at their embarrassment, but feel sad for Phil who is being ridiculed to his face.
Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t flawless, but the script and performances are evocative and make this worth watching. The message is simple, but effective for the time period. It’s not a life changer for the audience, nor does it do much except show non-Jewish people how Jews are being treated; but it does this in a glitzy and compelling way. Peck and Garfield are a force to be reckoned with; just try to ignore Dorothy McGuire.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.