ACADEMY AWARD WINNER: BEST PICTURE
A journalist researches an article on anti-Semitism by pretending to be Jewish. [ Gentleman’s Agreement credits: Dir: Elia Kazan/ Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm/ 118 min/ Drama/ Social Tolerance]
Nowadays social tolerance films are common fare, not to mention Oscar-bait, but long before there was Philadelphia or even To Kill a Mockingbird, there was Gentleman’s Agreement.
At the center of the story is a journalist who has been hired by a magazine to do a series on anti-Semitism, not just the usual facts-and-figures kind of articles, but something from the heart that will touch people and really help to change attitudes. He’s not sure how to accomplish this task. Then it occurs to him that by pretending to be Jewish himself, he could get an inside perspective on what it’s like to suffer anti-Semitism. The experience turns out to be far more revealing than he imagined.
It’s not that he encounters open hostility. What he finds instead is something much more insidious: a pervasive, subtle cloud of prejudice that colors his relations with even the most benign people. Even some Jews express to him prejudice against other Jews. Likewise troubling is the way such prejudice is allowed to spread, because good people do nothing to oppose it when it surfaces.
This aspect of the story comes close to home for the journalist, when his girlfriend refuses to face down anti-Semitism among her own friends. The two become estranged over this, as his growing anger at the injustice of prejudice won’t be satisfied with anything less than open social rebellion.
Made just two years after the public revelation of the death camps of the Holocaust, this was part of a broader response by well-intentioned people to do something about prejudice before it manifested itself in another such horror. The film makes its point persuasively.
On the downside, it’s a little heavy handed, and takes such an aggressive posture against intolerance that it occasionally borders on questioning the right not to associate. But it should be remembered that back in the comparatively innocent, prelitigious 1940s, every moral question was not followed on its heels by a pack of hungry lawyers, so aggressive codes of moral correctness could function on a persuasive level without ever becoming dangerous to individual rights.
In artistic terms, Gentleman’s Agreement is above average. Acting and direction are mostly superior, and Gregory Peck is appealing as always in the role of virtuous hero. But it clearly won its three Academy Awards (including Best Picture) more for its moral content than for its entertainment value.