Cinema Club: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Posted on November 26, 2013

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Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)

Based on Laura Hobson’s novel of the same name, ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’ starts off innocently enough. Phillip Schuyler Green, played by the impossibly handsome Gregory Peck, is a journalist who has just moved to New York with his son and his mother. His first assignment is to write a series on antisemitism. He’s unsure at first, but eventually finds a breakthrough when he decides to adopt a Jewish identity in an attempt to gain first hand experience of the subject. He goes on to experience constant difficulties and awkwardness from the people around him. He finds out that the magazine he works for themselves wouldn’t hire people with Jewish names and encounters a hotel that is restricted to only Gentiles. When his mother gets sick, the doctor on call is visibly uncomfortable with the idea of a doctor with a Jewish name treating her. His son eventually becomes caught up in the storm, as he is subsequently bullied at school. It builds and builds until the assignment is finished.

Along the way, well, early on in fact, Green meets his publisher’s niece, Kathy, and they embark on a romance that spans the entire movie. They have highs, they have lows, and their relationship is strained by Green’s work. Other side stories include the appearance of Green’s Jewish chum David, the health of his mother and the struggles of his son. These are mere side stories however, with the bulk of the film focusing on antisemitism in upper class America immediately following World War Two.

That wasn’t the only subject that was brought into my mind at the end of this film however. Jamie Lenman recently released a solo album, the first song of which is called ‘The Six Fingered Hand’. The lyrics of this song deal with Lenman’s disappointment at the modern age, at the new century. Decades past seemed so full of hope, so full of creativity, so full of optimism. Indeed, the beginning of this film is full of optimism, of a country looking ahead. All the characters are confident, and it gives an impression of good things to come. What do we have now? Obsessions with celebrities who are famous for being famous, music that is adored because it retreads the steps of bands past, and cinema that is more interested in explosions and box office takings. This is only the majority, but when looking at a generation the biggest are generally remembered. As the lyrics of Lenman’s song hint at, the 2000’s have been a grand disappointment. The first quarter of ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ really rammed this home for me.

But this film will always come back to the original issue that is pushed forward. Where this film is so clever is that it confronts prejudice not at its extreme ends, but in it’s brain. A lot of films throughout history have attacked forms of racism at it’s most violent, which people will watch and then say to themselves ‘well, I’m not a racist’. We link racism to the uneducated, to the ignorant, to those who don’t know better. Racism is something that other people are. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ focuses on those who claim to be against prejudice of all kinds, but then sit quietly when faced with it. It is the almost invisible racism that is confronted here, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing, as it should. Much like many of the other films on the ‘Best Movies Ever’ list, there were many aspects of this picture that I unfortunately saw in myself.

In life, it is often too easy to avoid confrontation, to close your eyes or ears and forget about bits and pieces. This is especially true when the prejudice comes from people you know and love, from friends, family or peers. Without confronting it and bringing people up on it, it’s true that you are essentially facilitating it. If you can’t stand up for right in the face of wrong, why bother standing up at all?

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Posted in: Cinema