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When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

Screening this week on TCM, Elia Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life

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Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in a scene from the film ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ 1947. (20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
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For an industry run primarily by Jews, Hollywood had long been fearful of any special pleading for Jewish causes. In the years leading up to the American entry into World War II, American films had chosen not to talk about the tenuous status of European Jewry—even in films ostensibly about the Nazi menace. (The word “Jew,” famously, never made an appearance in the 1940 anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm.)

But as writer Mark Harris describes in his fascinating new book Five Came Back, prominent American filmmakers returned from WWII convinced that Hollywood would have to grow up, at long last, and tell adult stories marinated in the pain and horror of the real world, at home and abroad. A series of award-winning pictures followed (as Hollywood was quick to pat itself on the back). The 1945 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland, deals with the subject of alcoholism, and the 1946 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives tackles the topic of the reintegration of WWII veterans back home. Fitting squarely into this trend was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which in 1947 took on an equally serious topic, and one long ignored in Jewish-run Hollywood: anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement screens on Turner Classic Movies May 18, and to watch it today is to glimpse both the virtues and limitations of the newly mature Hollywood described by Harris, one in which prestige and seriousness intertwined.

In the film version of Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays Philip Green, a prominent journalist recently relocated to New York and assigned the task of writing a magazine series on anti-Semitism. After struggling to locate a hook for the series, Green settles on a catchy stunt: “I Was Jewish for 6 Months.” Green looks at himself in the mirror, assessing his hair, eyes, and mannerisms, and assuring himself that each could “pass” as Jewish. He then proceeds to present himself to his new colleagues and friends as Jewish, and the film is assembled out of his charged encounters with editors, secretaries, hotel managers, and superintendents, each of whom reveals a new facet of prejudice.

Kazan based Gentleman’s Agreement on the best-selling novel by former advertising writer and Time Inc. executive Laura Z. Hobson, whom many readers assumed was, like her protagonist, not Jewish. While identifying herself as avowedly secular, Hobson, born Laura Zametkin, was Jewish as well, making for a Möbius strip of shifting cultural allegiances: a Jewish author with a WASPy name creating a non-Jewish character intent on passing himself off as Jewish for the purposes of peeling back the ugly truth of anti-Semitism. (And to add another layer, the film version was produced by the sole major non-Jewish studio head, Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck. According to Richard Schickel’s Elia Kazan, Harry Warner of Warner Bros. organized a meeting of studio executives in a fruitless attempt to convince Zanuck to drop his plans, for fear of prompting more anti-Semitism by tackling the topic head-on.)

Gentleman's Agreement poster

Gentleman’s Agreement is about passing, requiring the presumably disinterested gentile intermediary of Philip Green to give its audience access to the brutality of anti-Semitism. Jews, as represented here primarily by a returning vet named Dave Goldman (played by John Garfield), might feel the anguish of anti-Semitism, but contemporary social mores seemed to require a non-Jew to explain, codify, and present it. The film version of Gentleman’s Agreement is a strange mix of daring and cowardice. It was, in the words of film historian Siegfried Kracauer, “a mountain of dialogue bringing forth a mouse.” Names are most decidedly named; prominent anti-Semites like Rep. John Rankin (who once called Walter Winchell “the little kike”), Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, and America-First founder Gerald L.K. Smith are mentioned, as are well-heeled Connecticut towns like Darien and New Canaan, notorious for keeping Jews out. And yet, anti-Semitism is a distinctly local affair here, confined to the United States, and the well-heeled corridors of the East Coast at that. Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life, as much for what it chooses not to depict as what it does.

***

In both novel and film, Phil Green is a scold, climbing atop his moral hobbyhorse at regular intervals to lecture others—his upper-class WASP fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) in particular—about their inconsistencies and failings. Anti-Semitism is a poison that only Phil—and a handful of likable supporting characters, like his mother—are immune to.

Gentleman’s Agreement finds its emotional heft in the ups and downs of Phil and Kathy’s relationship. Kathy is supportive—she is the one who first had the idea for a series on anti-Semitism—but not as fervent on the topic as Phil, and her subtle prejudices, like reassuring Phil’s son that he is not actually Jewish, are the source of much friction in the film. This is true in Hobson’s novel as well, with one key difference: Phil, too, feels it. Hobson describes the “dart of relief” Phil feels when he realizes that he, alone among all the Jews of the United States, has an “escape clause” from being Jewish. The book’s Phil is its moral conscience, and also a bit of a drip, as he himself acknowledges in an argument with Kathy: “I’m a guy that gets tense, see? I snarl up and I goddam well can’t help myself. I care about a thing and forget about other things.” Peck’s Phil, by contrast, is relentlessly, and somewhat tiresomely, upstanding.

Every direction Phil turns, he encounters prejudice in his new life as a Jew. A doctor who pays a house call on his sick mother recommends a specialist with a Jewish name who, he specifies, doesn’t overcharge, like some of those others. An editor at the magazine asks him if he was in public relations in the Army, because he is so “clever.” His building’s superintendent strongly hints that he would never have been able to rent his apartment if its owner had known he was Jewish. A pricey Vermont resort that Phil books for his planned honeymoon with Kathy rescinds his reservation when he reveals he is Jewish. And Phil’s childhood friend Dave struggles to find housing for his family in order to take a prestigious new job in New York, in part because of the restrictive housing practices in many middle-class suburban towns.

In the film’s most prominent set piece, Phil flies to Vermont to confront the employees at the restricted Flume Inn. They are, he says, “persistent little traitors to everything this country stands for, and stands on. You have to fight them.” The desk clerk and manager both hesitate to explicitly acknowledge they do not accept Jewish guests, trying to ascertain whether Phil is Jewish himself, or a fellow anti-Semite. Peck’s Green presses them: “Do you, or don’t you?” Eventually he is asked to leave, and in the film’s most memorable shot, he stands facing away from the hotel lobby, hyperventilating from rage and shame, as guests stare at him and a bellboy carries his bags away. (“Always pushing in, that’s the Jew of it,” a woman comments in the novel.)

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When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

Screening this week on TCM, Elia Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life