January 26, 2016

Gentleman's Agreement

The opening credits of Gentleman's Agreement features obtusely tame music, at least compared to the typical fare of the time. I am accustomed to BIG, GRAND, THEATRICAL music which swells on the ears to indicate to me that yes, the film I'm about to watch is a real doozy. So from the get-go, there is a sense that Gentleman's Agreement is a film that exercises restraint.

That was essentially the most dominant attribute that loomed Gentleman's Agreement as I watched it--everything about it really, be that the subject matter, the sets, the characterizations--are really quite tame, radiating a sort of ordinariness that rubs off as atypical for a 'Best' picture.

Perhaps it's because with modern eyes, we cannot truly forge a deep connection with the story. To my knowledge, I have not lived within a society which discriminates against Jewish people (unless that Mel Gibson ordeal counts?). Digging through Inside Oscar, I find many ecstatic quotes from the time raving about Gentleman's Agreement's so-called 'importance': Elsa Maxwell called it, "...the most unequivocally honest motion picture ever shown." Look Magazine gave producer Daryl Zanuck a medal for what it called "a powerful indictment of a social wrong which a less courageous producer would have avoided." These quotes in and of themselves read as more theatrical and cinematic than the film itself. Given that anti-semitism is the film's selling point for which it exists--one might argue that this very selling point is what won it Best Picture--this creates an instant disconnect, an out-of-touch kind of irrelevancy if you will, for viewers such as myself.

Because isn't it horribly ironic then, that amidst all this stupid hullabaloo about the Oscars being so white, that I should watch a Best Picture winner which essentially acts as an exposé on how white people discriminate against other white people? There's a very thin layer of obsolescence beneath Gregory Peck constantly appalled by all these people discriminating against him, or Peck and Dorothy McGuire butting heads over her passive discrimination towards Jewish people.

I will say that in spite of this, I still found the film to be much more engaging than I had initially expected. It is bolstered by solid acting across the board, and manages to milk as much intrigue as humanly milkable out of a pretty dry--and docile--premise. Would I watch it again? Yeah, I probably wouldn't mind giving it another go. It's never bad--though it does err to the side of elementary-school-preachy when you have Gregory Peck teaching the theory of discrimination to a baby Dean Stockwell (and us, really)--but my qualm with Gentleman's Agreement is that it never feels important, I don't feel as though I'm watching something important, and yet the film knows it's important, and therein lies the issue. This is an agreeable enough film, but would it really have had an enduring legacy on its reputation alone sans Oscar?

1 comment:

  1. I think "Gentleman's Agreement" might just be the most non controversial "controversial" film in Academy history. Under the guise of uncovering anti Semitism in the society of the time, it glosses over and sugarcoats the more viscously racist aspects of that very same society. At a time just two years after Japanese Americans were sent to government assigned internment camps based on nothing but their race and the lynching of Black Americans was still commonplace, it's hard to get riled up over Gregory Peck being turned away from a "restricted" hotel because he's thought to be Jewish. Oh my!

    What I like about the film is that it exposes the actual "attitudes" of people who believe they're not bigoted but whose behaviors are driven by these same attitudes that they are relatively unaware of. That's how so much bigotry and racism occurs in many human beings (just look at our current political milieu for further evidence). That theme still rings true today and is the one aspect of GA that remains relevant. Still, the film plays it safe time after time and much of the dialog and characterizations exist in the platitudes of upper class white people offering homilies about prejudice rather than gutsy portrayals of what's actually going on around them. Example: Peck and Stockwell discuss the discrimination the boy experiences over his perceived Jewishness but we don't ever see it. When the actors talk, we often get speeches that sound more like the voice of the screenwriter than of the characters themselves.

    Also, I think the performances are erratic. Peck has never been more wooden and Dorothy Maguire's passivity becomes monotonous after a while. I also find Anne Revere's sermonizing insufferable. John Garfield does manage to register in a part that's barely there and Celeste Holm adds some insouciance to a role that's really more of a plot fulcrum than a fleshed out character, but they don't really elevate the film from its preachy doldrums. The one character that seems of flesh and blood is June Havoc as Peck' secretary. In just a few brief scenes she registers as a flawed but very human person who protects herself by buying into the very anti-Semitism she's been the victim of. It's an intriguing dichotomy that the screenplay never really explores and I wish we saw more of her in the film.

    "Gentleman's Agreement" was a BIG picture at the time because of its subject matter (especially when you consider that many of the heads and top executives of Hollywood studios of the time were Jewish) but it's rather tame stuff and it hedges that subject matter by placing it in a rather docile and whitewashed setting. When you consider the fact that this film was made at the very moment when McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist were rearing their ugly heads, you could see it as either very courageous for even attempting to tackle its subject matter or very timid for how it went about doing that. Either way, it doesn't make for very entertaining viewing.