BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 11, 2011
Twice in a season, Hollywood has broken its self-protective silence on social questions to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, in many ways the nastiest of them all. Crossfire was a melodrama in which an instance of race hatred contributed to murder, and as the first film to challenge a basic taboo, it was a courageous piece of work. Gentleman’s Agreement, however, goes much deeper into the subject to offer the anatomy of anti-Semitism in an entire social group.
Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of the Laura Z. Hobson novel is an unrelenting diagnosis of a miserable disease, and though it offers no cure (except the now obvious one that ‘‘we must do something’’), it gets the subject off the pages of moral reform and into the nation’s sanctuaries of escapism. And since those who have worked with the problem thus far have produced no veryeffective remedy, they can scarcely object if greater numbers are now urged to take part.
The power to shock. Though the film is largely a copy of Mrs. Hobson’s original idea, it is more effective than the book by the nature of its medium. The spoken word carries a greater shock than the written one; images of the mind can never be as convincing as images of the eye. That fact, which has always been the only valid excuse for the timidity of Hollywood’s moral code, now in different context gives force to this film. You find the word ‘‘kike’’ distasteful here on the page; it is much more offensive when you hear it spoken in a theater.
Zanuck and his aides, Moss Hart, who wrote the adaptation, and Elia Kazan, who directed, have kept their film in the Hollywood vernacular, and to the outward eye nothing has been changed. Gentleman’s Agreement is an ‘‘A’’ picture from the opening panorama of the New York skyline to the closing embrace.
It is a picture of deep carpets and sleek cars, of bright cocktail chatter and intimate luncheons to soft music, of the love at first sight that has drawn wistful crowds off the streets for so many years. The subject has seemed to lend a new dignity to the actors, but the level of their performances is really the one to which they have long since accustomed us. The creators of this film made it to play long runs in big houses, and they have not exchanged their infallible motley for sackcloth.
The faults of a tract. By dispassionate critical standards, Gentleman’s Agreement is not a success. It is a tract rather than a play and it has the crusader’s shortcomings. The incidents build up too rapidly and they come too pat; the characters are chosen too consciously as types to advance the argument. You can pick flaws if you wish. It seems overdoing it, for example, that John Garfield, playing Gregory Peck’s Jewish boyhood friend, should be an Army captain and thus appear, as it were, wrapped in the flag. Some observers may be bothered that Peck’s fiancée (Dorothy McGuire) should have such a fatal knack for saying the wrong thing, or that the secretary assigned him by the huge magazine for whom he is doing the series on anti-Semitism should turn out to be an anti-Semitic Jew. But it is not necessary or perhaps even wise, to be too dispassionate in this case. Artistic objections will scarcely evade the indictment.
Questions for nice people. In its story of a young magazine writer who pretends for a few weeks to be a Jew and who, unprotected by habituation, experiences the frustrations, humiliations, fears and rages that are commonplaces to the Jew, the film probes far beyond overt Jew-baiting and the sleazy subterfuges of restricted neighborhoods and selected clienteles. Right-minded people readily deplore these abnormalities, but Gentleman’s Agreement goes on to the right-minded people themselves. It forces them into a corner where their code of acceptable behavior will no longer shield them, and asks them how they stand.
The attitude expressed by the phrase ‘‘some of my best friends’’ has been in disrepute for many years, but others akin to it have remained in vogue. One has no feeling oneself on the matter of race, but in a specific case one likes to know; one is disgusted by anti-Jewish stories, but a scene would only emphasize the matter; one deplores segregation, but wouldn’t want to place a friend in a position to be hurt; one pities the Jew and is very glad to have been born a Christian. One wonders, finally, if talking about it doesn’t just make the evil that much worse. Most, but by no means all, Jews have understood these attitudes all their lives; Gentleman’s Agreement gives the Gentile an incentive to wrestle with them for himself.
Both as a book and as a film Gentleman’s Agreement is projected at a level calculated to catch the largest audience, and the individual may thus be tempted to deny its pertinence for him. But though some of the implications are obvious, others go deep, and the man who can avoid them completely is thoughtful and honorable beyond the common run.
This article originally ran in the March 17, 1947, issue of the magazine.