Our review of Gentleman's Agreement: Studio Classics Edition, published February 6th, 2003, is also available.
Bringing prejudice out of the closet.
Gentleman's Agreement is a film about prejudice. Not just the cross-burning, sheet wearing, Nazi skinhead kind, but the more subtle, insidious kind that we see every day in people we think are otherwise decent. Rather than discrimination by race or color this film deals with anti-Semitism, but the message is the same. This film, directed by the great and controversial Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden), and starring Gregory Peck (MacArthur, The Boys From Brazil, To Kill a Mockingbird) was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, for Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress in 1948. Twentieth Century Fox does an admirable job on this DVD as well, except for a dearth of needed extras.
I have to say that this film moved me. It made me think about how often tolerance is only skin deep; where underneath a person can be prejudiced and not even realize it. Even more subtle prejudice can be when someone says something derogatory of another race or creed and the others around him say nothing. These ideas, along with more overt forms of discrimination, are the meat and potatoes of this film.
The story is the progenitor of perhaps a more famous story of the 1960s, called Black Like Me. In that story a white man used pigmentation to make himself look black, and traveled throughout the South. This story came out 15 years earlier, in which Gregory Peck plays Phil Green, a Christian man trying to write an article on anti-Semitism for a national magazine. Not feeling he has the proper angle for the story, he decides to tell everyone he is Jewish and find out the reactions. Since he is new to this job and New York, he can get away with the deception.
The change in atmosphere is immediate, as reactions go from outright discrimination to plenty of the "some of my best friends are…" lines. The only Gentile who seems immune from it all is co-worker Anne (played by Celeste Holm in a Best Supporting Actress winning role) who retorts to one such line "You have plenty of friends who are Methodists but I don't see you mentioning them separately." Green feels the whole weight of being on the minority side of prejudice over the next two months, something that his friend Dave Goldberg (John Garfield, Body and Soul, The Postman Always Rings Twice) has had a lifetime to harden himself to. Even his fiancé Kathy (Dorothy McGuire, The Greatest Story Ever Told) , niece to the magazine editor and the originator of the idea for the series on anti-Semitism, cannot understand the feelings and realizations Green is undergoing. Worse yet, he sees the subtle nuances in her of acceptance and tacit agreement with the very prejudice she wanted denounced. The "Gentleman's Agreement" of the film is that the homeowners of Kathy's neighborhood and her friends agree not to sell to Jews, and she has done or said nothing. She is more afraid of her social standing than standing up for what is right.
The message of the film, as seen through the eyes of the man who has taken this journey, is that you must stand up against discrimination, in any of it's insidious forms. Of course you must stand up against blatant discrimination in jobs, housing, pay, and other public areas, but that is not enough. You must be willing to speak up to even a friend who exhibits prejudice, and not allow casual joking about another's race or creed to be listened to in silence. The stand that Green takes in this film is a guidepost for others to follow. In that regard, dealing with the covert as well as the overt racism and prejudice, the film remains a vital message today.
The film is full of great performances. The supporting cast is top-rate, and several were nominated for Oscars, though only Celeste Holm won as an actor. One bit of amusement; Green's son (pretty much a "Hi Pop!" Leave it to Beaver character, but with a bit more depth) is played by Dean Stockwell. It was hard not to think of the dozens of movies and TV's Quantum Leap he is known for now watching him as a kid. Kazan's direction was superb as well, with each shot composed perfectly.
The disc is worthy of the film in picture and sound. The black and white picture is absolutely fantastic, with deep, dark blacks and an astoundingly sharp level of detail. I was surprised to see almost nothing in the way of film defects, nicks, or blips; the film must have been restored with loving care given it's age. The only flaws I could detect was at one point in the middle a scene had some flicker in contrast levels, but went away never to return. An occasional edge problem (probably from the extremely high bitrate used) and a tiny bit of grain here and there were the only other tiny problems. Very high marks for the video.
The sound did not disappoint either. The mono soundtrack is clear and distinct. In one scene an annoying bit of hiss crept up from the normally low noise floor, and of course the musical score came off a bit shrill, as it normally does from soundtracks of this age. Dialogue, the most important factor, remained clearly discerned throughout.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the film moved me, it grated on some critics. You might say this film is a dose of good medicine for a society that needed (and still needs) it, but medicine isn't always pleasant to take. I'll give those other critics that Peck's character does become given to sermonizing and preaching. I attribute that to the character trying to absorb all the feelings that come from "being Jewish" amidst blatant and subtle prejudice all at once. When the truth comes out at the end, Holm's character even mentions "I wondered how you could keep up such a full head of steam about the issue for so many years" when in fact it had only been eight weeks. I think the other critics felt they were being lectured, and didn't like it. I'm not pointing any fingers, but I think the latent prejudice that many of us have buried deep does not want to be exposed, even to ourselves. I think the film is meant to bring some light into those dark places, to make each of us evaluate our own attitudes. Not exactly something for light viewing with popcorn in hand.
The weakest performance in the film was from the female lead, played by Dorothy McGuire. Her character just didn't have the life in her that I saw in the rest, and I kept hoping Peck's character would fall in love with someone else.
I found it also a bit ironic that Elia Kazan made this film on tolerance and five years later would be one of the people naming Communists for blacklisting. I'll leave it there rather than jump on a soapbox.
The biggest complaint with the disc is the dearth of extras. For a multi-Oscar award winning film, it deserved more. Especially given the subject matter, it begged for something to delve deeper into the topic. I think a commentary, documentary or feature, and weblinks would have all been good ideas for special features. Instead we get a trailer, a bonus trailer for All About Eve, and a picture gallery of the cast, with one photo of each actor. Not even bios and filmographies were included. While not every film deserves more extras than this, I think the Best Picture winning films do at the least.
Those who enjoy a film that makes you think, and enjoy classic film should at least see it once. A rental or purchase is recommended. Personally I'd like to have everyone see this film and perhaps help spur on the dialog on race and discrimination we are trying to get moving now. While I would have loved a special edition treatment, the fine picture and sound certainly help persuade for purchase.
The film's cast is acquitted, and most are commended for fine work. I'll leave the final verdict for Elia Kazan for history to decide, but in this film he was deserving of his Oscar. Fox is commended for a fine transfer but I'd like to advise them to give special edition treatment to all it's multi-Oscar winning films in the future.
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