Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan                                       Writers: Moss Hart & Elia Kazan
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield and Anne Revere

Gentleman’s Agreement is one of the most powerful “message films” ever made, and its status as a classic was forever cemented by winning the Academy Award for best picture of 1947. The film sought to expose anti-Semitism in America, especially ironic given that the U.S. had just finished fighting a war against the most evil anti-Semite in history, Adolph Hitler. Darryl F. Zanuck’s had the idea to make the film after reading the novel by Laura Z. Hobson and being mistakenly denied membership in the Los Angeles Country Club because they thought he was Jewish. But the other studio moguls, who were actually Jewish, balked themselves, reluctant to be seen as agitating the situation. Cary Grant was originally offered the lead role but turned it town. Most of his career had been spent as an independent artist and he didn’t want to jeopardize his career with something this controversial. Gregory Peck’s agent felt the same way, but Peck made the right choice and it’s one of his most powerful roles. John Garfield, Jewish himself, was willing to appear in a supporting role just to be a part of the film though it may have indirectly contributed to his early death.

After the opening credits, the music segues into the unmistakable theme of Alfred Newman’s music for Street Scene, one of the most ubiquitous tunes in all of film. It’s cinematic shorthand for a story about regular, everyday people in the city. The first scene really sets the tone. The dialogue is incredibly natural and to the point. Dean Stockwell as Gregory Peck’s son is absolutely natural and unaffected. Anne Revere is Peck’s mother, sassy and unafraid to speak her mind. Peck has moved to New York from California after the death of his wife. He’s working for a large magazine in Manhattan and his boss, Albert Dekker, wants him to do a series on anti-Semitism. But Peck is having trouble thinking of a way into the story. Every angle seems tedious and boring, until he hits upon the idea of pretending to be Jewish himself. In the meantime he has been dating Dekker’s niece, Dorothy McGuire. She’s an upper crust New York debutant and is a bit horrified at the idea that people will think she’s getting married to a Jew. It’s not until Peck’s best friend, John Garfield, shows up and tells her what it’s really like to be Jewish that she finally understands.

The thing that practically jumps off of the screen is the dialogue, and not just the words themselves but the delivery. There is a natural rhythm, a feeling of improvisation that sets a realistic tone for the entire picture. It’s not quite Howard Hawks, but that’s a good thing. Peck is wonderful as the struggling writer who wants the piece to be important, meaningful to people who don’t even think of themselves as anti-Semitic. And the perfect embodiment of that unconscious racism is Dorothy McGuire. In another irony, she’s the one who came up with the idea for the series after a Jewish teacher she knew was unfairly fired. And yet that tolerance doesn’t extend to her immediate family, which drives a wedge between her and Peck, especially when Dean Stockwell has to bear the brunt of the abuse at school and Peck won’t let him take the easy way out of it. Anne Revere, as Peck’s scrappy mother, is devoted to her son, but heart troubles keep her in bed for most of the picture. John Garfield, however, delivers a bravura speech near the end to McGuire that is the real message of the film. How he was ignored for a supporting Oscar nod is beyond me.

Elia Kazan, of course, was Jewish and the message of the film was no doubt close to his heart, and Kazan was the perfect choice for director. His feel for New York is terrific, from the high society of this film to the tenements of On the Waterfront, and in spite of the studio settings the few exteriors add yet another layer of realism. While Alfred Newman is credited with the film score, he did very little beyond the opening and closing credits. The idea, again, was to emphasize realism and eliminate the manipulating power of the music. In addition to best picture, Kazan won the Oscar for best director as did Celeste Holm for a wonderful supporting role as Peck’s friend at the magazine. And the film also garnered five other nominations, for Peck, McGuire, Revere, screenwriter Moss Hart and editor Harmon Jones. Gentleman’s Agreement is simply a brilliant film, one of those times when the best picture at the Academy Awards actually was.

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