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When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

Screening this week on TCM, Elia Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life

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Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in a scene from the film ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ 1947. (20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)
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For an industry run primarily by Jews, Hollywood had long been fearful of any special pleading for Jewish causes. In the years leading up to the American entry into World War II, American films had chosen not to talk about the tenuous status of European Jewry—even in films ostensibly about the Nazi menace. (The word “Jew,” famously, never made an appearance in the 1940 anti-Nazi drama The Mortal Storm.)

But as writer Mark Harris describes in his fascinating new book Five Came Back, prominent American filmmakers returned from WWII convinced that Hollywood would have to grow up, at long last, and tell adult stories marinated in the pain and horror of the real world, at home and abroad. A series of award-winning pictures followed (as Hollywood was quick to pat itself on the back). The 1945 Best Picture winner The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland, deals with the subject of alcoholism, and the 1946 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives tackles the topic of the reintegration of WWII veterans back home. Fitting squarely into this trend was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which in 1947 took on an equally serious topic, and one long ignored in Jewish-run Hollywood: anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement screens on Turner Classic Movies May 18, and to watch it today is to glimpse both the virtues and limitations of the newly mature Hollywood described by Harris, one in which prestige and seriousness intertwined.

In the film version of Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays Philip Green, a prominent journalist recently relocated to New York and assigned the task of writing a magazine series on anti-Semitism. After struggling to locate a hook for the series, Green settles on a catchy stunt: “I Was Jewish for 6 Months.” Green looks at himself in the mirror, assessing his hair, eyes, and mannerisms, and assuring himself that each could “pass” as Jewish. He then proceeds to present himself to his new colleagues and friends as Jewish, and the film is assembled out of his charged encounters with editors, secretaries, hotel managers, and superintendents, each of whom reveals a new facet of prejudice.

Kazan based Gentleman’s Agreement on the best-selling novel by former advertising writer and Time Inc. executive Laura Z. Hobson, whom many readers assumed was, like her protagonist, not Jewish. While identifying herself as avowedly secular, Hobson, born Laura Zametkin, was Jewish as well, making for a Möbius strip of shifting cultural allegiances: a Jewish author with a WASPy name creating a non-Jewish character intent on passing himself off as Jewish for the purposes of peeling back the ugly truth of anti-Semitism. (And to add another layer, the film version was produced by the sole major non-Jewish studio head, Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck. According to Richard Schickel’s Elia Kazan, Harry Warner of Warner Bros. organized a meeting of studio executives in a fruitless attempt to convince Zanuck to drop his plans, for fear of prompting more anti-Semitism by tackling the topic head-on.)

Gentleman's Agreement poster

Gentleman’s Agreement is about passing, requiring the presumably disinterested gentile intermediary of Philip Green to give its audience access to the brutality of anti-Semitism. Jews, as represented here primarily by a returning vet named Dave Goldman (played by John Garfield), might feel the anguish of anti-Semitism, but contemporary social mores seemed to require a non-Jew to explain, codify, and present it. The film version of Gentleman’s Agreement is a strange mix of daring and cowardice. It was, in the words of film historian Siegfried Kracauer, “a mountain of dialogue bringing forth a mouse.” Names are most decidedly named; prominent anti-Semites like Rep. John Rankin (who once called Walter Winchell “the little kike”), Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, and America-First founder Gerald L.K. Smith are mentioned, as are well-heeled Connecticut towns like Darien and New Canaan, notorious for keeping Jews out. And yet, anti-Semitism is a distinctly local affair here, confined to the United States, and the well-heeled corridors of the East Coast at that. Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life, as much for what it chooses not to depict as what it does.

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In both novel and film, Phil Green is a scold, climbing atop his moral hobbyhorse at regular intervals to lecture others—his upper-class WASP fiancée Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) in particular—about their inconsistencies and failings. Anti-Semitism is a poison that only Phil—and a handful of likable supporting characters, like his mother—are immune to.

Gentleman’s Agreement finds its emotional heft in the ups and downs of Phil and Kathy’s relationship. Kathy is supportive—she is the one who first had the idea for a series on anti-Semitism—but not as fervent on the topic as Phil, and her subtle prejudices, like reassuring Phil’s son that he is not actually Jewish, are the source of much friction in the film. This is true in Hobson’s novel as well, with one key difference: Phil, too, feels it. Hobson describes the “dart of relief” Phil feels when he realizes that he, alone among all the Jews of the United States, has an “escape clause” from being Jewish. The book’s Phil is its moral conscience, and also a bit of a drip, as he himself acknowledges in an argument with Kathy: “I’m a guy that gets tense, see? I snarl up and I goddam well can’t help myself. I care about a thing and forget about other things.” Peck’s Phil, by contrast, is relentlessly, and somewhat tiresomely, upstanding.

Every direction Phil turns, he encounters prejudice in his new life as a Jew. A doctor who pays a house call on his sick mother recommends a specialist with a Jewish name who, he specifies, doesn’t overcharge, like some of those others. An editor at the magazine asks him if he was in public relations in the Army, because he is so “clever.” His building’s superintendent strongly hints that he would never have been able to rent his apartment if its owner had known he was Jewish. A pricey Vermont resort that Phil books for his planned honeymoon with Kathy rescinds his reservation when he reveals he is Jewish. And Phil’s childhood friend Dave struggles to find housing for his family in order to take a prestigious new job in New York, in part because of the restrictive housing practices in many middle-class suburban towns.

In the film’s most prominent set piece, Phil flies to Vermont to confront the employees at the restricted Flume Inn. They are, he says, “persistent little traitors to everything this country stands for, and stands on. You have to fight them.” The desk clerk and manager both hesitate to explicitly acknowledge they do not accept Jewish guests, trying to ascertain whether Phil is Jewish himself, or a fellow anti-Semite. Peck’s Green presses them: “Do you, or don’t you?” Eventually he is asked to leave, and in the film’s most memorable shot, he stands facing away from the hotel lobby, hyperventilating from rage and shame, as guests stare at him and a bellboy carries his bags away. (“Always pushing in, that’s the Jew of it,” a woman comments in the novel.)

The film’s peculiar sense of balance requires that Jews, too, be guilty of anti-Semitism, and that Phil—the Jew for six months—repeatedly lecture them about their failings. At the editorial meeting announcing the new series, an accommodationist editor, pointedly named Irving, takes umbrage with the project. Later, Phil’s secretary, Elaine Wales (played by June Havoc, sister to Gypsy Rose Lee), tells him that she changed her name from the more Jewish Estelle Walovsky after being turned down for a job at the magazine. Phil convinces the magazine’s editor to revamp its hiring practices, but rather than be flattered, or pleased, Elaine is unhappy about the new arrangement. “It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones,” she tells Peck, describing her fear of being associated with the kind of Jews who are loud and wear too much rouge. Phil takes umbrage at her use of the word, telling her that “words like yid and kike and kikey and nigger and coon make me kind of sick no matter who says them.”

“Jew” was at long last an acceptable cinematic word, repeatedly intoned like a mantra in Gentleman’s Agreement, but the words “Europe,” “Nazi,” “Hitler,” and “concentration camp” are never mentioned in the film. This is a hard-hitting movie about anti-Semitism, unafraid of specificity in its choice of targets, that nonetheless depicts anti-Jewish sentiment as being primarily confined to the types of people and places a well-heeled Manhattan journalist might encounter. The irony was not lost on contemporary viewers. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review of the film:

Although the hero of the story is apparently assigned to write a definitive article on anti-Semitism in the United States, it is evident that his explorations are narrowly confined to the upper-class social and professional level to which he is immediately exposed. And his discoveries are chiefly in the nature of petty bourgeois rebuffs, with no inquiry into the devious cultural mores from which they spring.

Most reviews were more in line with Time magazine’s, which described it as “an important experiment, honestly approached and successfully brought off.”

Kazan himself changed his opinion of his work over time. For some years after making Gentleman’s Agreement, he argued that it had expanded the American consciousness. “For the first time,” Kazan said, “someone said that America is full of anti-Semitism, both conscious and unconscious and among the best and most liberal people.” But by the 1970s, as Richard Schickel documents in his biography of Kazan, the director had changed his mind, focusing more on its antiseptic qualities. “Whenever I see it,” he now said, “it reminds me of those illustrations in ‘Redbook’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ in those days. I mean, those people don’t shit.” Its characters were wooden, mouthers of liberal platitudes without blood or nuance.

The absence of the Holocaust from the film had been a conscious excision. The novel by Hobson, whose father had been an editor at the Jewish Daily Forward, made sure to put its depiction of genteel anti-Semitism in the context of the concentration camps: “In a world where only yesterday human bones powdered to ash in blazing furnaces, the barred register of a chic hotel could scarcely be called disaster.” In its haste to tackle, at long last, the cancer of American anti-Semitism, the film of Gentleman’s Agreement eschewed some of the book’s necessary context. “No big things,” Phil thinks to himself in the novel. “No yellow armband, no marked park bench, no Gestapo. Just here a flick and there another. Each unimportant. Each to be rejected as unimportant. But day by day the little thump of insult. Day by day the tapping on the nerves, the delicate assault on the proud stuff of a man’s identity. That’s how they did it.”

It would be strange enough, in 2014, to describe anti-Semitism as a social ill whose primary effect was on Jews’ choice of homes and vacation destinations. In 1947, just two years after the end of WWII, talking about anti-Semitism without mentioning the fact that 6 million Jews had just been murdered in Europe was more than an oversight. It was an obfuscation. Hollywood wanted to be serious, but was still terribly afraid of any ugliness more lasting than social shame.

***

As it happens, another film about anti-Semitism came out in 1947, although it won no Oscars and received only a portion of the praise accorded Gentleman’s Agreement. Crossfire, directed by Edward Dmytryk, from a novel by Richard Brooks, was also about returned veterans and the Jewish problem, but it maintained a grubbiness missing from the often-antiseptic Gentleman’s Agreement. Everyone here is intimately familiar with violence. In the film, after a Jew named Samuels turns up dead, Robert Mitchum’s vet Keeley pleads guilty to having killed before. Det. Finlay (Robert Young, a long way from Father Knows Best) asks him where, and Keeley responds, “Where you get medals for it.” The war may have been heroic, but it was also brutalizing.

And anti-Semitism is not polite. “I’m not going to let any stinking Jew tell me how to drink his liquor,” the vicious Montgomery (Robert Ryan, chilling) says to his accomplice. The expressionist, near-noir shadows of Gentleman’s Agreement are matched here by a genuine sense of darkness. Everyone in Crossfire is constantly bathed in a light sweat, their faces shining with perspiration. Men kill each other for brutish, inexplicable reasons, and hatred cannot be expunged by well-meaning liberals or five-part magazine features. “There’s the ‘you can’t join our country club’ kind, the ‘you can’t live around here’ kind, there’s the ‘you can’t work here’ kind,” Det. Finlay enumerates, “and because we stand for all of these, we get Monty’s kind.” Crossfire pushes forward where Gentleman’s Agreement hesitates, taking the crucial extra step from social disapproval to violence.

James Agee praised Crossfire as “the best Hollywood movie in a long time” while acknowledging the recurring tendency of “awarding Hollywood a sprinting-prize for taking Baby’s First Step.” “In a way,” wrote Agee, “it is as embarrassing to see a movie Come Right Out Against Anti-Semitism as it would be to see a movie Come Right Out Against torturing children.” Crossfire beat Gentleman’s Agreement to theaters, substituting a Jew for the gay victim of Brooks’ novel to capitalize on the cutting-edge film topic of 1947. But it also offered a more compelling vision of the true ugliness of anti-Semitism, illogical and without purpose.

As Finlay observes, “The motive had to be inside the killer himself. Something he brought with him, something he’d been nursing a long time. Something that had been waiting. The killer had to be someone who could hate Samuels without even knowing him.” The camera tracks in on Finlay’s face, settling in for an uncomfortably intense close-up as he contemplates the nature of the Jew-killer. Crossfire, too, never mentions Hitler or the camps. But in this moment, we see Finlay, and we know, and we know he knows. Hating Jews is no country-club matter.

Correction: The star of the Billy Wilder film The Lost Weekend was Ray Milland, not John Garfield.

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When Hollywood Was Scared To Depict Anti-Semitism, It Made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

Screening this week on TCM, Elia Kazan’s film is a remarkable document of a vanished era of American Jewish life