20. Gentleman’s Agreement (1948)

Title: Gentleman’s Agreement

Release Date: 11 November, 1947

Oscar Ceremony: 20 March, 1948

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire & John Garfield

Dictionary.com offers two definitions for the term “gentleman’s agreement:”

  1. an agreement that, although unenforceable at law, is binding as a matter of personal honour.
  2. an unwritten agreement by a socially prominent clique, private club, etc., to discriminate against or refuse to accept members of certain religious, racial, national, or other groups.

When it comes to this 1948 Best Picture winner, definition #2 is the one we’re interested in.

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A widowed reporter named Phil Green has recently moved to New York with his son and mother for a new job. He gets a meeting with magazine publisher John Minify, who gives him an assignment to write a piece on anti-semitism. Phil struggles to find original content on the topic, until Minify’s niece gives him the idea to pretend he is Jewish in order to experience what it’s like firsthand. In other words, he decides to go all in, similarly to Daniel Day Lewis in pretty much all of his projects. Hey, you do what you gotta do for the sake of your craft right? As a result, Phil Green takes on the identity of “Phil Greenberg,” and starts experiencing day-to-day life as a Jewish man. The blunt injustices he ends up facing shock him.

For the most part, this movie was boring and slow to get through. Even Gregory Peck, the personification of class and warmth, fighter for the greater good (let’s not forget he played the great Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) could not entirely save this movie. I feel bad for thinking that, because I empathize with the weight of its subject. I am not one to belittle the impact of racism, but this movie was clumsily executed and had a rather bad script overall. Many scenes are incredibly quiet and filled with slow soft-spoken dialogue. Oddly enough, the rest of the scenes were really intense; there was no in-between. When things got heated, the movie wasted no time. Unfortunately, it came off a bit desperate, and lost a bit of its credibility in the process. The worst part is, like most Hollywood movies, the final word was about Phil and Kathy’s romantic relationship instead of the issue it claimed to perpetrate. It shifted our focus away from the horrors of racism and towards the film’s numerous lulls and exaggerations.

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When Phil starts being deeply affected by the discrimination he witnesses, he becomes aggressive. Walking a mile in a disadvantaged man’s shoes is no joke, and his behaviour really proves it. If only the rest of the privileged world could feel what he feels during this experience. He learns that companies deliberately refuse job offers to Jewish people regardless of their qualifications, he starts realizing how much trouble his Jewish friend has when it comes to finding housing, he gets dirty looks from his doctor and postman when he tells them he is Jewish, and he gets refused at a hotel. However, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is when his own son gets bullied at school and comes home distressed after having been called a “dirty Jew.” Phil still holds on to his mission and refuses to console his son by reassuring him that he is not Jewish. As a matter of fact, when Kathy tries telling the boy that it’s a mistake and that he’s not really Jewish, Phil confronts her: “You’ve only assured him he’s the most wonderful of all creatures– a white Christian American. You instantly gave him that lovely taste of superiority, the poison that millions of parents drop into the minds of children.” I assume this must be a tough scene for parents. Would you be able to resist the temptation to console your suffering child at the expense of his future perceptions of so-called minority groups? It looks like Phil’s son is going to learn about the dangers of discrimination the hard way.

Phil’s bride-to-be Kathy is actually an important character. She is an example of a deeply good person that unintentionally condones anti-semitism because of her apathy. I think a lot of us can relate to her; we don’t consider ourselves racist, but when the time comes, we don’t really do anything about it and we choose to blend in instead. As a viewer, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I felt just as furious as Phil about the way Jews were treated; however, I felt just as hurt as his fiancé that he alienated in the process. The problem is, antagonizing your loved ones for not being as obsessed with a cause as you are is not necessarily the best way to get them on your side. There has to be a better way to get them to join the fight, but it’s definitely not an easy problem to solve.

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I have to say that this movie did touch me though. I found it very noble for its time and I was surprised to see how extremely relevant it still is today. Many people are tempted to say that we’ve come a long way since the 40s, and while we’ve made progress, we’re far from perfect. Yes, Gentlemen’s Agreement is softened for old Hollywood purposes, but it can still open our eyes and teach us a thing or two about our prejudices. After Phil’s piece gets published, his mother gives a significant speech:

You know something, Phil? I suddenly want to live to be very old. Very. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that’s why it’s so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Maybe it won’t be the American century after all… or the Russian century or the atomic century. Wouldn’t it be wonderful… if it turned out to be everybody’s century… when people all over the world, free people, found a way to live together? I’d like to be around to see some of that… even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while.

To that I say, I’m sorry Ms. Green. The century has ended, a new one has begun, and we are still living in conflict over our differences. We’ve been working on it and have already accomplished wonderful things, but we still have a long way to go.

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