Gentleman's Agreement

A theme seems to be developing here. This is yet another post about a movie that was produced before I was born (though in this case not actually released until shortly after I was born). Gentleman’s Agreement is an effective but preachy film about anti-Semitism, rather too earnest about its moral but well done and worth watching, based on the premise that a Gentile reporter for a liberal magazine goes under-cover as a Jew for six months in order to write an article about anti-Semitism. The reporter, Phil Green, is played by Gregory Peck — an odd choice under the circumstances. But anyway…

To my mind the most interesting thing about this work is the interplay between some material that feels out and out-of-date (65 years ago, after all) and other material that feels fresh and applicable today. Anti-Semitism, of course, still exists today, but it is rarely explicit and out in the open anymore. However, all you have to do is replace “Jew” with “gay” in most of the movie, and you get the present American political climate. That puts Gentleman’s Agreement in a whole new light.

Here are a few examples:

  • the ostensibly well-meaning character who says “Some of my best friends are Jews” [I wonder whether Gentleman’s Agreement originated or at least popularized this cliché]
  • references to explicit anti-Semitism in speeches by U.S. Senators and Congressmen at the time
  • suburbanites who don’t want Jews living their neighborhood [Darien being “restricted” in those days]
  • the response by Green’s love interest, Kathy Lacey, when he tells her, “I’m going to let everybody know I’m Jewish,” and she replies, “Jewish? But you’re not! Are you? Not that it would make any difference to me.”
  • the astonishingly honest language for 1947, as in the exchange when Green’s Jewish (but still somewhat anti-Semitic) secretary says, “You just let them get one wrong Jew in here, and it’ll come out of us; it’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones” and Green replies, “Miss Wales, I’m going to be frank with you. I want you to know that words like yid and kike and kikey and coon and nigger make me sick no matter who says them.”
  • the way Lacey attempts to comfort Green’s young son who has been taunted by his new classmates, and instead of telling him that they’re wrong she says, “You’re no more Jewish than I am; it’s just some horrible mistake”

So don’t just watch this as you would see any old movie; watch it in full consciousness of the times in which it was made, and with an expanded realization that Jews could be replaced in the movie by any other target group. It will resonate with you.

Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV