A reporter pretends to be Jewish in order to cover a story on anti-Semitism, and personally discovers the true depths of bigotry and hatred.
Year 2, Film #50
THE REVIEW: For the past two films (All Quiet on the Western Front and The Grapes of Wrath), I’ve enjoyed the films to some extent because of the story and message that are trying to get across. However, they’ve both fallen short because they aren’t that engaging. Many parts are boring and are easy to lose interest in. The films lacked a certain energy to them so it was hard to look at what was really good about the films in terms of entertainment. With Gentleman’s Agreement you not only get a top-of-the-line story about anti-Semitism and the serious repercussions it has in society, but it’s done in such a way that you want to keep watching it; you’re invested from start to finish.
Like the past two films, and as I’m gathering most old films in general, Gentleman’s Agreement covers a major topic or issue, in this case, it’s anti-Semitism. Philip Green (Gregory Peck) is a writer who is hired by magazine editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) to write a series on anti-Semitism. After struggling to figure out how to write the articles, Phil eventually decides to write it like he does most of his other stories: by becoming one with the topic. In order to do that, Phil, who is new to New York and therefore is unknown to most people, tells everyone he is Jewish when he’s really Christian. The result, which is Phil’s goal, is that people believe he is a Jew and therefore act accordingly.
How people actually act, or rather change the way they act in front of Phil, is very surprising. Compared to today where anti-Semitism is, as far as I can tell, mostly extinct, in 1947 it was a very serious issue. Jews were denied from jobs, renting apartments, staying at “high-end” resorts just because of their religion. And on top of all that, they were called many slurs, names, and look at as if they were inferior. The whole situation seems akin to, although much less severe, than racism against black people in the south. While racism and segregation in the south is usually accompanied by violence with groups like the KKK killing black people over the color of the skin, with anti-Semitism it was much more “peaceful” although still very demeaning towards Jews. The most shocking part, which is something Phil learns after he begins to tell people he’s Jewish, is that people will visibly struggle with how they deal with you. A great example is at the Flume Inn when Phil tries to check-in to his reservation. The manager begins by acting very kind and polite, as if Phil is just any ordinary customer, but when Phil asks if the Flume Inn is restrictive, the manager loses his smile and becomes shocked and somewhat afraid. It’s as if he’s scared that a Jew is in his presence and wants to get him out of the hotel as quickly as possible.
But what really made Gentleman’s Agreement stand out was that it kept you interested the whole way through. Unlike the other old films I’ve seen (or even a present-day film) which can be fairly pointless, Gentleman’s Agreement actually had a reason to keep watching. Not only do you want to see how Phil’s story turns out in the end, but the other character’s also serve as meaningful additions to the film rather than just filler. Phil’s mother (Anne Revere) is there to support Phil but she runs into a few health related issues along the way. Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) is Phil’s girlfriend and then fiancé but also acts as a reminder to Phil, and in some cases an instigator, as to why he’s writing about anti-Semitism to begin with. This film was never boring or disinteresting because there was always something going on and provided more than just a good story. Watching the characters interact produced laughs and contemplative moments, times to cheer and times to root against someone. There was an energy to this film that made it entertaining; it makes you want to watch this investigation on prejudice and societal stereotypes.
As is often the case when I watch films in chains like I’m doing now for Oscar month, subsequent reviews tend to have an increasing amount of comparisons with the films that came before. This is meant as a way, both for you and for myself, to expand upon and go deeper into specific thoughts and ideas. Gentleman’s Agreement is certainly the best and most entertaining Best Picture nominee out of the three I’ve seen this week. But the reason I’m giving it top marks isn’t just because it succeeded in areas where the previous two failed, but because it succeeds at all areas, period. Gentleman’s Agreement has an engaging story with deep societal implications, something that while seemingly common decades ago is all but lost today. And that’s a shame, because it’s always great to feel something more than just personal emotions when watching a film. On top of that, Gentleman’s Agreement has that “energy* which I find lacking in many older films and is often present in modern day films, albeit in the form of explosions and visual effects. Instead of resorting to tactics like those, Gentleman’s Agreement is able to do it through a fantastic group of characters and a sense of urgency that keeps you invested with what’s going on rather than give your mind an opportunity to wander off. Highly recommended viewing and definitely a highlight of older filmmaking.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5