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Laramie Movie Scope:
Gentleman's Agreement

Among the earliest Hollywood films to focus on racial prejudice

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1947, b/w) "Wouldn't it be wonderful ... if it turned out to be everybody's century ... when people all over the world - free people - found a way to live together?" Fifteen years before To Kill a Mockingbird, Darryl F. Zanuck picked Laura Z. Hobson's novel for its content and controversy to produce one of the earliest Hollywood motion pictures to take up the theme of racial prejudice. The same year that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its investigation into the Hollywood film industry, Elia Kazan directed this daring drama from Moss Hart's screenplay - nominated for eight Academy Awards, receiving Oscars for best supporting actress, best director, and best picture.

Similar to the lawyer Atticus Finch but younger, investigative journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is a conscientious man of principles ("carrying the world on his shoulders") and widower (seven years) raising his eleven-year-old son Tommy (Dean Stockwell). The following year Stockwell would be in another film fablistically treating prejudice, The Boy with Green Hair.

Phil has come to New York City from California, staying with his mother (Anne Revere), to work on a series of articles, an assignment which initially he's not enthusiastic about tackling - "What can I say about anti-Semitism that hasn't been said before?" - from John Minify (Albert Dekker), publisher of the national, liberal magazine, Smith's Weekly. Minify introduces his writer to his niece, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a nursery-school teacher and divorcee, who had given her uncle the idea for the series, as she reminds him, bringing up an incident of a Jewish teacher's resigning.

In Phil's attempt to explain anti-Semitism ("when some people don't like other people just because they're Jews") to Tommy -"Why don't some people like them?" - he's stymied: "Well, I can't really explain it, Tommy." But the conversation with his son propels him into wanting to find an explanation: "What must a Jew feel about this thing?" For a week he struggles to find a dramatic angle beyond "statistics and protest," finally hitting upon: "I'll be Jewish."

Keeping his true identity a secret to all but his mother and Minify, he begins letting it be known that his surname is actually Greenberg. From a Jew's perspective, industrialist Irving Weisman's, Phil hears (as did Zanuck from Jewish movie moguls heading other studios) criticism of his concept to expose the polite prejudices of Gentiles as a "bad idea" that will accomplish nothing more than stir things up; another, physics professor Fred Lieberman (Sam Jaffe), treats the topic with rationalization and sardonic humor: "Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I've often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?... Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews."

His new secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), reveals how she got her job with "The great liberal magazine that fights injustice on all sides" and that her actual name had been Estelle Walovsky: "So one day I wrote the same firm two letters, same as you're doing now. I sent the Elaine Wales one, and I sent it after they said there were no openings. Well, I got the job, all right."

Even Kathy, about to become his fiancée, disappoints Phil with a startled reaction when he tells her his plan: "Jewish? But you're not! Are you? Not that it would make any difference to me."

Phil's best friend from childhood, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), Jewish and an Army captain, comes to New York also from the West Coast, looking for work. After sharing his covert operation with Dave, who's stunned that anyone would want to do such a thing, Phil gets full backing: "You've got to fight back once. I did it at Monterey" (probably while stationed at Fort Ord).

In addition to numerous subtle snubs and jocular snips daily ("I've been having my nose rubbed in it, and I don't like the smell"), Phil witnesses occasional overt events of discrimination: in a restaurant a drunk patron hurls the epithet "yid" at Dave, nearly resulting in fisticuffs; the Flume Inn where Phil and Kathy had intended to celebrate their honeymoon is "restricted"; Tommy comes home crying that a gang of boys had called him "a dirty Jew and a stinking kike."

Up in Darien, Connecticut, Kathy introduces Phil to her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) and brother-in-law Harry, who throw a big party for them, where she shows Phil the virginal cottage she'd lovingly had built and furnished but never lived in: "This house and I were waiting for you." But like everything else when viewed through his new eyes, the invisible intolerance becomes tangible: there's an understanding, "a gentleman's agreement," in Darien not to rent or sell property to Jews.

Phil's exasperation explodes: "You aren't going to fight it at all, Kathy! You're just going to give in and let their idiotic rules stand!" For this reason, Dave is giving up his hope of finding a home for his wife and children to return to California.

After a falling out with Kathy ("You think I'm an anti-Semite"), Phil - "No, I don't. But I've come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people. The nice people" - goes to see Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), the magazine's sophisticated fashion editor, who has demonstrated not a whiff of anti-Semitism (at one point cutting Bert McAnny's quip that "Some of my best friends are Jews" with "And some of your other best friends are Methodists, but you never bother to say that") for solace. Anne calls them as she sees them - saying that Kathy's a hypocrite - all but proposing to Phil: "She doesn't rate you."

Finished with the assignment of writing the series of articles, "I Was Jewish for Eight Weeks," realizing that Kathy, feeling that being Christian is somehow better than being Jewish, is like so many others who feel the shame of anti-Semitism yet let it pass, Phil (no longer wanting to remain in New York) summed up his conclusion earlier saying to Dave and Kathy: "They're persistent traitors to everything this country stands for, and you have to fight them, not just for the Jews, but for everything this country stands for."

In its witch hunt for Reds under beds, the HUAC hounded Garfield for his leftist sympathies, probably contributing to his untimely death in 1953 at 39; all but destroyed Revere's film career; and tarnished Kazan's reputation, compelling him to name names. As for Peck, while the Hollywood Ten and others were being blacklisted, he signed a letter in 1947 deploring the investigation of alleged subversives and communists in the film industry.

However, what is it about Anne that didn't appeal to Phil - her vivacious forwardness, her blonde hair, something else about her appearance? We're all bigots and hypocrites in one respect or another with our preferences and prejudices, only some discriminatory attitudes are far more insidious than others. You and I have to educate ourselves and then fight them, not just for the blacks, gays, Hispanics, elderly, Asians, handicapped, or any other minority suffering discrimination, but for everything this country stands for.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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