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A hornet's nest
by Asa Butcher
2007-01-16 10:12:01
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Gentleman's Agreement
Directed by Elia Kazan
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947

Gentleman's agreement: n. Personal understanding or arrangement based on honour and not legally binding.

Exactly sixty years, Hollywood witnessed the release of a landmark film that went on to win three Academy awards, including Best Motion Picture, and five other nominations. The film garnered so much attention because it addressed the issue of 1940’s anti-Semitism, but the difference was that it tackled the problem of ‘nice people’s’ prejudice.

Unlike later films, such as Mississippi Burning or another Peck movie To Kill a Mockingbird, the film approaches prejudice via the lack of willingness to take a stand against the blatant racism that occurred throughout America during that period. According to trivia surrounding the film, when other studio chiefs, who were mostly Jewish, heard about the making of this film, they asked Darryl F. Zanuck, the producer, not to make it because they feared it would stir up a hornet's nest and preferred to deal with the problem quietly.

Obviously, Zanuck went ahead with the project based upon Laura Z. Hobson’s novel of the same name and even included a scene inspired by those concerns. Six decades later, there is still anti-Semitism in the world, which is why films such as Gentleman’s Agreement should be re-released and promoted again.

Gregory Peck was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Philip Schuyler Green, a widowed journalist who has just moved to New York City with his young son Tommy (a very young Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). Green meets with magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) and Minify asks Green to write an article on anti-Semitism. After initially struggling with how to approach the topic in a fresh way, Green is inspired to adopt a Jewish identity and writes about his experiences.

One of my few complaints about the movie is just how serious and moralising Peck’s character becomes throughout the film. At first, you can understand at how offended and shocked he is at the rampant prejudice even within the building in which he works and from his Jewish secretary, but he just never lightens up for a minute. Perhaps Peck wanted to stamp a serious label on his performance, yet other characters did the same in a more effective way.

There are some particularly dated scenes in the film, but many of the sentiments are still valid in 21st century society, especially early on when Gregory Peck’s character, following a tough explanation of anti-Semitism to his son, realises that the issue should be discussed until one day there won’t be a necessity to give those explanations.

Phil Green: No, but this story is doomed before I start. What can I say about anti-Semitism that hasn't been said before?
Mrs. Green: Maybe it hasn't been said well enough. If it had, you wouldn't have had to explain it to Tommy right now.

Peck may have been lost in the role, but Celeste Holm, who plays Anne Dettrey, an unprejudiced colleague at the magazine, gives a superb performance and certainly deserved her Academy Award and Golden Globe wins, plus this was only the third film of her career. Celeste Holm is on record as saying that she found Gregory Peck to be no fun to work with and, following my earlier comments, I can see why.

Celeste Holm was lucky to receive some of the best lines from Moss Hart's Academy Award nominated screenplay. There a number throughout the film, including moralising monologues by Peck that are packed with appropriate sentiments, but I have to quote one of my favourite lines delivered by Celeste, which is still suitable today:

Bert McAnny: What? Now, Green, don't get me wrong. Why, some of my best friends are Jews.
Anne Dettrey: And some of your other best friends are Methodists, but you never bother to say that.

Celesta Holm was the best of the cast, although a number of other supporting actors equally deserve a mention. Dorothy McGuire was nominated for her performance as Kathy Lacy, Peck’s belittled love interest who is battling with her own guilty silences, and Anne Revere, who is fantastic as Mrs. Green, Peck’s on-screen mother; she was also nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. It was strange to see Al, the hologram in the TV series Quantum Leap, as a ten-year-old boy, although I can understand why he was such a successful child star from his few scenes in Gentleman’s Agreement.

I have left John Garfield, as Peck’s Jewish friend Dave Goldman, until last because he ties in with the director Elia Kazan. Garfield had real style in the film and brought the comedy and emotion that Peck had left off this particular set. Even though Garfield received no awards or nominations for this film, he was one of the top stars bringing a further realism with his anger and dialogue.

It was with surprise that I discovered during my research that about four years after making this film with Elia Kazan, the director named Garfield’s wife as a Communist during his appearances before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The HUAC failed to uncover any evidence of Communist Party membership by Garfield himself, but was nonetheless subpoenaed. Garfield refused to provide corroborative testimony about his wife or others, and was subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood, ending a promising film career. He died the next year, aged 39.

Kazan won the first of two Academy Awards for Directing for this film, his second was for On the Waterfront, but I can’t help feel angered by his actions, even sixty years later. Garfield was, by no means, the only one to suffer at the hands of the HUAC, yet to be betrayed by the director of a film that battled prejudice is hypocrisy. If the director ignored his own messages, then what can the world do? The film may have stirred up s hornet's nest, but it seems most people just ignored the stings.

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Sand2007-01-19 01:45:56
It should be noted that some, not all, anti-semitism today is equated with criticism of Israeli policy. This is a serious error and should not be accepted.

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