Monday, October 3, 2016
In the late 30s and early 40s, Fox was the vanguard studio in confronting socially relevant topics like labor reform (in The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley), and now in 1947, its founder, Daryl Zanuck, turned his lens toward another pressing matter: prejudice. He produced Gentleman’s Agreement, the first major Hollywood product to deal with anti-Semitism, and the risk was worth the reward: three Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, and heaps of praise. And, in my estimation, it earns all of it – I’ve only a few minor quibbles that I’ll arrive at later on.
Skylar “Phillip” Green (Gregory Peck) has just accepted an offer as a NY magazine writer; he’s made at home most readily by his new boss’s generous accommodations, including the affections of his niece, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who takes to Green immediately. But the newly relocated writer now has a tough beat –to pen an article on anti-Semitism – and he’s ripping his hair out to find the right angle. He finds inspiration in a tactic; he’ll pretend to be Jewish for a few weeks, using an assumed name (Greenberg) and telling no one of his secret so as to avoid disclosure. But the ruse takes its toll on his ailing mother; his young son, Tommy, who gets assaulted in school for his minority identity; and even for now-fiancé Kathy, who does not outwardly protest but doesn’t rally to his defense either, preferring a policy of under-rug-sweeping, especially at her family’s engagement party. His Jewish G.I. buddy, Dave, seems to be his one true ally, and he makes Kathy realize that her acceptance of bigotry has the same effect as condoning it. Phillip goes back to her, just after Dave announces his move to NY.
When I look back on Agreement, I’ll always remember one thing: dialogue. This was Hollywood’s Golden Age of sharp, finely crafted wordsmithing, and it’s perfectly apropos as the primary device in conveying the film’s message of racism and stereotyping. On a more focused level, it looks takes aim at passivity – the act of condoning racism simply by accepting it (which turns out to be Kathy’s great sin) – and in so doing offers up a more targeted, and thusly more effective, rebuke. But all of it comes out in dialogue scenes, with director Elia Kazan keeping up a good pace to keep all that talk flowing along.
The dialogue is so thick with polemic, in fact, that at times it gets a little to abstract, particularly in the film’s final act. Too often we get grandstanding speeches about race and bravery and feelings and who knows what, when action would far better drive the intended point across. The film’s best scene – in which Green wants to get a hotel room under his Jewish alias and is refused – succeeds because it combines hot, crisp lines with the drama of conflict, and perhaps a few more scenes along these lies could offer the film a stronger narrative drive. But it feels wrong to carp too much – particularly when you remember how daring it was to use confront such a topic on any level back in 1947.
Of course, the film would be a crushing bore if there weren’t also a strong personal story. And Agreement’s got one, in the form of a truly engaging relationship between Green and Kathy, two ordinary, insecure adults who enter their union without a true understanding of each other’s nuts and bolts. And Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire’s chemistry is as dynamic as it is homey – we know these people, and yet their big-screen presences provide just enough awe to remind us we’re watching a major-studio picture. It sure does pass the rudimentary test for all screen couples: do we want them to get back together in the end; I mean, really want them? Yes, yes we do.
There’s just one small complaint I have about the clarity of the picture. Early on, we get the strong impression that Skylar Green is Jewish (after all, it is a common Jewish surname). and that his decision to take on the undercover gig is based largely on that. Then he tells the he’s not, but I thought it’s because he’s hiding his Judiasm. Then he confides in his secretary that he is, but is he being honest or just playing the ruse? Do you see what I men – the frontloaded ambiguity of Green’s ethnicity causes great confusion later on. Looking it up confirmed that Green is, in fact, a gentile, but let’s make that crystal clear from the get go, and, quite frankly, the revelation that he could be a Jew would be better utilized if saved until at the end, when the audience discovers that he wasn’t really pretending about his identity after all.
But overall, fine work. A significant entry, not simply for its artistry but also its social relevance. Still important. Still, still.