Written by: Moss Hart & Elia Kazan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, June Havoc
Coming from a privileged background makes it difficult to fully realize what it’s like to experience what the marginalized must go through in their daily lives. One can have it explained but it can never be made clear until the experience becomes theirs as well. Something the somewhat misguided Gentleman’s Agreement attempts to display. By digging deeper, this film shines a light not only on the oppressors but those idly standing by.
Journalist, Phillip (Gregory Peck) receives the assignment of uncovering the discouraging amount of anti-Semitism existent in the world around them. Challenged to dig deeper than statistics and figures, Phillip decides to pose as a Jewish man in order to see how people treat him, which exposes the people and institutions around him for being quite hateful.
Now, the method taken on by Phillip, while noble in a sense, does seem a bit wonky in the way he goes about it. In discussion with his mother, he speaks on how he accurately wrote on the homeless experience by going through it himself for the story. In theory, yes, the best way to see the issues a particular group of people faces is to live the experience, but homelessness and one’s religion and cultural existence cannot be comparable. One can be a temporary state while the other goes to a much deeper level for an individual. This mainly makes this noble quest a bit misguided at its inception, but through its fumbling, Gentleman’s Agreement uncovers something not often discussed in regard to oppression and it deserves praise for taking it on, especially during its time.
Through Phillip’s experience, he notices the way people treat him before and after disclosing being Jewish, which demonstrates the level of hate existent at the time, but the constant battle he has with his fiancee, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) brings about a more engaging conversation. As two Christian individuals who never have to worry about being harmed or discriminated against for their beliefs, this experience reveals plenty about them both. Kathy even suggests this assignment for Phillip but through the process, it is revealed that the young woman would prefer mild discrimination for the sake of comfort. An issue plaguing many family discussions in our contemporary times, this remains a huge talking point and the idea that a 1947 movie would take on this idea completely befuddles me in the best ways.
Phillip and Kathy come to intellectual blows when he realizes she does not want to give up being near anti-Semitic individuals, even if they do not show their disdain, simply because she enjoys the benefits of her privilege. Yes, she condemns what these people say behind closed doors and to Phillip but in the moment all she’ll do is laugh off the comments. Something I have personally seen on occasion from supposed allies who do not want to forsake their seat at the table even if letting such evil remain for all to see. How exactly are these people going to stop if the very people at the top do not join in on the fighting? An age-old question posed by this story, Martin Luther King Jr., and many activists even to this day. This tension does not serve as a simple side-plot with nothing being truly fleshed out; at a certain point, it becomes the actual main story simply because of the emotional connection of it all. It moves from a lover’s quarrel to the main argument this story attempts to tackle. There are contemporary features failing to tackle this issue with this level of nuance, even with the discussions becoming informative, which speaks well to everyone behind making this feature.
With his deep voice and ever-present nobility, Gregory Peck was always the perfect person to portray this character. While his career-defining role in To Kill a Mockingbird did not come for another 15 years, Peck demonstrates with this feature that he knows how to capture braveness and strength with such composure. Maybe it’s the voice or the way he delivers his lines with a certain level of conviction but he makes the perfect Phillip. Someone learning through this process and realizing that those around him do not stand up for what’s right on multiple occasions makes for many vulnerable moments, which Peck handles with complete class.
Again, while a bit misguided with its initial dive into the subject matter at hand, Gentleman’s Agreement shines when taking on a very difficult subject even people today do not want to face. Could you continue to be with someone content with upholding the status quo in favor of retaining access through privilege? While it may not land the conclusion with a level of deftness one would hope, the mere attempt and discussion it brings along with the rest of the story makes it a worthy movie for others to see and discuss.