January 3, 2008
While not as momentous as another major event in Jewish history that took place 60 years ago, the premiere of Gentleman’s Agreement marked the first time a major motion picture considered anti-Semitism as its main theme.
The movie, based on the novel of the same title by Laura Z. Hobson, featured Gregory Peck as Philip Green — a journalist bent on “blowing the cover” off anti-Semitism by pretending to be Jewish — and costarred Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkel), Celeste Holm, and a very young Dean Stockwell. It made its American premiere in New York on Nov. 11, 1947, to qualify for the 1948 Academy Awards.
Although Gentleman’s Agreement would prove to be a critical and financial success for 20th Century Fox — it won three Oscars and was nominated for five others — it was initially and vociferously rejected by Jewish studio executives, according to film historian Eric A. Goldman.
“They basically didn’t want it made,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “Everyone knew they were Jewish, but they didn’t want that to be too visible. If it was perceived that Hollywood was churning out ‘Jewish films,’ it made them far more vulnerable, even though they were not the ones doing it.
“If anything, they thought making a film about anti-Semitism would have audiences turning against the Jews, sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Goldman, who holds a PhD in cinema studies from New York University and is founder and president of Ergo Media, a New Jersey-based video publishing and distribution company specializing in Jewish and Israeli films.
How ironic, then, that Gentleman’s Agreement was made by Fox, which was considered a “goyishe” studio, and was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Elia Kazan, two gentiles who championed the social significance of the project.
Fox took a big chance going through with the project at a time when such liberal themes were viewed with suspicion by anti-communist factions. Years after the film’s release, Kazan said, “Gentleman’s Agreement was not very daring, but at the time it marked a step. It made a clear commitment about anti-Semitism.”
Goldman said the movie could not be made today. “It’s clearly dated. Yet it’s fascinating that filmmakers still feel a need to make that kind of film,” he said, referring to more recent movies like School Ties (1992), about anti-Semitism at an elite prep school in the 1950s, and Focus (2001), based on the 1945 Arthur Miller novel about a case of mistaken Jewish identity in World War II-era Brooklyn. Modern-day studio executives might still use the issue of anti-Semitism, Goldman said, but they decline to contemporize it, setting their stories instead in the 1940s and ’50s.
Asked if the Gentleman’s Agreement cast members might have given any extra thought to the depictions of their characters, Goldman said, “The romantic in me would like to think that actors have a new understanding about the problems of the people or groups they portray. Is that realistic? Is there anything in the books that address [Peck’s] impressions of anti-Semitism or was it just another role? What about any of the other characters? Sam Jaffe [who played a Jewish professor in the film] “was Jewish; I wonder if it had any special meaning for him?”
Dean Stockwell, who played 10-year-old Tommy Green, was already a veteran of the screen; in his film debut three years earlier, he had played Peck’s son in The Valley of Decision.
“It wasn’t a message with which I could closely identify [at the time] because I wasn’t that familiar with the problem,” he told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview from his home near Taos, NM. “But I was aware of the fact that it was a problem or else this movie wouldn’t have been made.” Now 71, Stockwell looks back and “takes some pride in having been in” Gentleman’s Agreement.
Stephen Whitty, film critic for The Star-Ledger, put the movie in American cinematic perspective.
“It was not only one of the first Hollywood films to deal with anti-Semitism, but one of the first…to deal with Jewishness at all,” he told NJJN in an e-mail interview. “In the 20 years following The Jazz Singer — which dealt frankly with assimilation — Jewish characters and concerns were hidden or pushed to the margins.”
Gentleman’s Agreement, however, “brought Jewish characters back to the forefront and dealt with a variety of complicated issues,” Whitty said. “Not just the crudest forms of anti-Semitism but the more covert or unconscious kinds, as well as the hidden self-loathing that can encourage the more successful members of a minority group to disparage those who ‘haven’t made it,’ or ‘are making it hard for the rest of us.’”
Over the years, some critics have complained about the heavy-handedness of the film’s message. “Of course the movie isn’t perfect,” Whitty said, “and the device used to make the issue palatable to wider audiences — having a gentile as the main character, who ‘passes’ in order to experience discrimination firsthand — isn’t quite as strong as, say, making Garfield’s character the hero.” Garfield played Green’s best friend, Dave Goldberg, a World War II veteran who experiences difficulty finding housing in New York, ostensibly because of his religion. “It’s not unlike current films about Africa, in which the story is always told from the point of view of a white eyewitness, rather than a black participant.”
Rob Edelman includes Gentleman’s Agreement in a course he teaches at the University of Albany. He has particular empathy for the Goldberg character, whom he called “the only Jew in the film not embarrassed by his religion.”
“Garfield was a major star then,” said Edelman, “but he accepted a supporting role…because of the film’s point of view. I love the scene in which [Dave] fights back after being called a ‘Yid’ while in the company of friends in a restaurant. The fact that Dave does not look the other way and rationalize a non-response is so very important. I also like the scene in which he discusses the manner in which anti-Semitism has impacted on his children and recalls a fellow GI who was subjected to the word ‘sheenie’ as he lay dying….”
“As far as I am concerned, it is a landmark film,” Edelman said. “It deals directly with issues that were extremely relevant in 1947 but had long been pushed under the rug.”
TOM: But, Pop, I...
PHIL: Tom, what is it? What’s the matter? Did you have a fight? Argument with one of the guys?
TOM (crying): They called me a dirty Jew...and a stinking kike...and they all ran off.
KATHY: Darling, it’s not true! You’re no more Jewish than I am. It’s just a horrible mistake.
PHIL: Kathy! Come with me, Tom. We’ll talk about it in here. Want some water?
PHIL: Where did it happen? Jimmy in it? Somebody sock somebody?
TOM: No. They just yelled. It was at our corner. One was a kid from school. They were playing hop, and I asked could I play, too. The school one said...no dirty little Jew could play with them. And they all yelled those other things. I started to speak, and they all yelled...my father has a long, curly beard and turned and ran.
Why did they, Pop? Why?
PHIL: Drink some of this. Did you want to say you weren’t Jewish?
PHIL: That’s good. There are kids just like you who are Jewish...and if you said it, it’d be admitting there was something bad in being Jewish and something swell in not.
TOM: They wouldn’t fight. They just ran.
PHIL: I know. There’s a lot of grownups just like that, too, Tom. Only they do it with wisecracks instead of yelling.
In a scene with Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, right — born Jacob Julius Garfinkel — played Phil Green’s best friend, Dave Goldberg, a Jewish war veteran facing difficulties finding housing in New York.
ALTHOUGH GENTLEMAN’S Agreement was considered the first major motion picture to deal with anti-Semitism, Crossfire — a “B” melodrama about an anti-Semitic murder with one-sixth GA’s budget — had its American premiere four months earlier.
Both movies were well received by critics and were in competition for the 1948 Academy Award for best picture. “Chances are had Gentleman’s Agreement not been made, Crossfire would have won…,” said Goldman. Directed by Edward Dmytryk and with Dore Schary as executive producer, Crossfire was nominated for five Oscars — best picture, actor (Robert Ryan), supporting actress (Gloria Grahame), director, and screenplay — and received the grand prize for outstanding“social film” at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie also featured Robert Young and Robert Mitchum in lead roles.
In an e-mail to NJJN, Schary’s nephew, Joel Freeman, said Crossfire “opened the door” for Hollywood and American audiences to examine anti-Semitism.
“The courage to do it, led by Dore, inspired Fox to do Gentleman’s Agreement and get it out as quickly as possible.”
• Gentleman’s Agreement mentions three contemporary figures notorious for their racism and anti-Semitism: Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, who advocated sending all African-Americans back to Africa; Mississippi Rep. John Rankin, who called newspaper columnist Walter Winchell “the little kike” on the floor of the House of Representatives; and Christian Nationalist Crusade leader Gerald L.K. Smith, who instigated court action to prevent 20th Century Fox from showing the movie in Tulsa, Okla.
• Zanuck sought legal advice regarding the naming of the three anti-Semitic political figures. When told there was a small risk of libel, he replied, “Let them sue us. They won’t dare, and if they do, nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or defendant at the trial.” Rankin and Smith filed lawsuits that ultimately failed; Bilbo died before the film’s release.
• Hobson wrote Gentleman’s Agreement after Rankin’s comments were applauded in Congress. The novel was serialized in Cosmopolitan from November 1946 to February 1947. She was the daughter of Michael Zametkin, a writer and editor for the Jewish daily Forward, who described herself as a “Jewish agnostic.”
• The film garnered 1948 Oscars for best picture, director, and supporting actress (Holm), and was nominated for best actor (Peck), actress (McGuire), supporting actress (Anne Revere), screenplay, and editing.
Filmmaker Jamie Kastner visits Auschwitz in his documentary Kike Like Me.
SIXTY YEARS have not erased some of the sentiments addressed in Gentleman’s Agreement.
Jamie Kastner evidently “looks Jewish,” although he is not. Questions posed to him about his religion annoyed him so much that he addressed the topic in his 2007 documentary Kike Like Me.
“I saw theatrical possibility from seeing how Jewish identity plays out in so-called civilized cultures where we’ve gotten over all ‘that,’” Kastner said in an interview.
He underwent a crash course in Judaism for his project, including a shotgun bar mitzva from proselytizing hasidic Jews in Brooklyn asking passersby, “Are you Jewish?” He was kicked out of Pat Buchanan’s living room after asking why the TV pundit attacks neocons for being Jewish; debated Israeli-born Gilad Atzmon, a self-described “devoted opponent of Israel and of Zionism”; partied with Amsterdam soccer hooligans proudly calling themselves Joden (Jews); met the “dominatrix” behind Berlin’s largest memorial to dead Jews; and ate lunch at the hot dog stand at Auschwitz.
He also caused a near-riot in a Parisian suburb simply by asking what people think about Jews. “I just say, ‘I’m here making a film about Jews,’ and two seconds later, pow! All the worst stereotypes are flying back and forth....”
“Clearly the title is intentionally provocative,” Kastner said. “I’ve stuck by it for a few reasons. My journey in the film is a reference to the conceit used in Black Like Me” — a 1961 book and 1964 movie in which a white journalist dyes his skin to experience bigotry first-hand — “and its precursor, Gentleman’s Agreement....”
Why not just ‘Jew’ Like Me? Kastner said, “For one thing, it’s an ironic wink at some of the more recent attempts by recent pop-Jewish movements to ‘rebrand’ Jews in the mode of hip-hop culture: Heeb Magazine, Jewcy Couture.... I haven’t actually heard of any attempts to reappropriate the word ‘kike’ per se, but I seriously question whether even, say, ‘nigger’ has been successfully reclaimed. It may appear harmless enough when young black kids (or their white imitators) bandy it about historically, but I worry about what happens when one day a black kid gets blindsided when he’s called ‘nigger’ by a real redneck — it sure isn’t going to feel like a compliment.”