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Gentleman's Agreement

Groucho Marx used to joke that since his daughter was only half Jewish, maybe she could go into the pool at a restricted club only up to her waist. It is the kind of under the table anti-semitic sentiment Marx was talking about which is the subject of our next stop on the My Year with Oscar tour, 1947ís Gentlemanís Agreement.

The movie itself is based on a series of articles written by Laura Hobson in Cosmopolitan in reaction to a particularly hate-filled speech by Rep. John Rankin (Nazi- MS). The series debuted in November 1946 and was so popular so quickly Darryl F. Zanuck snatched up the film rights, put together a crew, and the movie version was released only a year after the magazine articles began.

The movie follows Phil Green, a single father and magazine writer who takes on a project meant to expose anti-Semitism. For previous articles he threw himself into the story and he feels that is a good approach here, pretending to be Jewish to see if people treat him any differently. First his new secretary reveals herself to be Jewish, but says she was unable to get a job at the magazine until she changed her name to something a bit more gentile. When Phil mentions this to the editor, a change in employment policy comes about, resulting in the secretary fearing that the wrong kind of Jew will gain employment.

Meanwhile, Phil has fallen in love with the bossís niece, named Kathy, who came up with the whole idea in the first place. At first she is supportive, but when it comes time to have Phil up to her sisterís place in Connecticut for a party, she wants to out him as a gentile for fear that her family might be ostracized by the not-so-liberal neighbors. Then Philís old buddy Dave comes to visit. Dave is about to retire from the military and interviewing for a job in New York, so heís staying with Phil for a while. The two get into some trouble when a drunk bigot tries to start a fight with Dave at a bar. They get into more when Dave cannot find a place to rent and Kathy shoots down Philís idea of having him stay at a cottage she built in Connecticut. Eventually it looks like the relationship might not last, but Kathy sits down to talk to Dave and realizes what the issue is, that she sees the injustice but wonít do anything about it. So she lets Dave live in her cottage and gets back together with Phil, who publishes the article with great success.

The movie doesnít just go after the overt bigotry. It goes after the Jews, like the secretary, who try to pass as gentile. It goes after those who dislike bigotry, but sit back in passive acceptance so as not to lose their own places in society. And years before the debate over the N-word, this movie takes a stand against racial slurs of any kind. Shockingly, it doesnít mention the biggest case of anti-Semitism ever, even though Dave, being a GI, might have been in a position to have been a witness to it. But perhaps there is a point to that. These Jews arenít Hasidic, or in a German concentration camp, or even wearing a yarmulke and tossing Yiddish words into everyday conversation. No Star of David ever appears in the movie. Nor does any line from the Torah. Phil doesnít even worry about keeping Kosher. They arenít overtly Jewish. Like Philís secretary, they are Jews who blend into society, to the point that if they didnít mention any sort of religious preference, you would have no reason to think they werenít gentile.

What it doesnít go after, at least not much, is discrimination against other minority groups. It does mention several times Sen Teddy Bilbo (KKK- MS) (and seriously, what the fuck was wrong with the voters in Mississippi?) In terms of any decent liberal opposing his views, but the only real mention of segregation comes when Philís mother is reading his finished article and optimistically and prophetically states that the 20th century could be a century of social justice. Sure, when this movie was filmed, Jackie Robinson was just completing his rookie year with Brooklyn and Mohandes K. Gandhi was on the verge of winning Indiaís independence without firing a shot, but there was still a long ways to go. This was still a long time before Rosa Parks, the "I Have a Dream" speech, Stonewall, Mario Savio, and womenís lib. But that ended up being a good call, the 20th century was the century of social justice. Then we went and traded it in for the century of religious fundamentalism, but cíest la vie.

Director Elia Kazan thought later that the romance was too tacked on, and I can see his point, but the story does work. You can tell that the script was thrown together somewhat hastily, especially where Philís mother and boss disappear for long stretches in the middle (Philís mom spends so much time off screen in this movie at one point I was convinced actress Anne Revere must have died during filming, when in fact she died in 1990). I think it does work though. Nothing is tacked on, where if you did away with even the most minor of characters the story would lose some of its punch. This includes Philís son, played by Dean Stockwell, who years later would portray a horny hologram in Quantum Leap. He serves as an innocent person Phil can explain anti-Semitism to at the start of the film, in case anyone in the audience didnít know what the phrase meant, but towards the end he falls victim to an anti-semitic slur and the true weight of bigotry hits home for Phil.

The other nominees that year included Crossfire, basically a cross between Gentlemanís Agreement and the previous yearís winner Best Years of Our Lives, but itís a film noir, so in other words, pretty weird. You also had two Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishopís Wife, one of which was far better than the other, and Miracle is still not that great despite having some good moments. Then you have Great Expectations, based on one of the more despicable Dickens novels, and thereís a lot in that manís catalogue to dispose. There really werenít any good movies that year not nominated, so itís pretty clear that the Academy made the right choice. Gentlemanís Agreement is not only a very good movie, but also a very important movie. It opens your eyes to the true horrors of bigotry in the world, then asks, "if you dislike hatred so much, what are you going to do about it?"


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