Hollywood Century, 1947: In which we are Very Serious about Important Topics
"Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics,Some years ago, Northwestern film professor and queer studies scholar Nick Davis* wrote an analysis of the 2009 Best Actress Oscar race that included one of those perfectly formed and winningly pithy critical phrases that stuck with me and bubbles up in my mind with rather stunning frequency: "[Sandra] Bullock is often the only thing standing between The Blind Side and complete, vile unwatchability." There are a lot of movies where that sentiment applies, far more than any of us would hope for, really; but since The Blind Side was a Best Picture nominee, and we're here to look at 1947's Best Picture winner, and so the taste and priorities of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are very much on my mind anyway, I think I shall now take the opportunity to steal and gently rework Davis's statement. To wit: Celeste Holm is often the only thing standing between Gentleman's Agreement and complete, vile unwatchability.
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews."
-Tom Lehrer, "National Brotherhood Week"
Gentleman's Agreement is a message movie, which is like calling ebola a disease: accurate, but not nearly vivid enough to describe the agonising extremes of the thing. I suppose "vile" is overdoing it a little, but "unwatchable" is almost peerlessly appropriate: having now seen the film, for Christ knows what reason, three different times, my response has always been that I'd rather be doing almost anything with that 118 minutes, up to and including watching my television with the power off. More than anything, it's diabolically dull and somber to the point that it's almost worth laughing at it, except that Gregory Peck's incredibly serious expressions have the tendency to make laughter dry out and die. And this, unmistakably, is the kind of film Hollywood thinks it Should make; at least, it's the kind of film that Hollywood promotes in self-congratulatory ways as proof that the motion picture can be a noble way of teaching lessons and imparting morals to everyday folks, thereby taking off just enough pressure from watchdog groups to return to the business of making fast money on trashy potboilers (although Gentleman's Agreement was one of the year's biggest hits, so bang goes that theory).
It's about antisemitism; and in a twist that rather neatly mirrors its content, it exists because the most prominent gentile studio head of the era, Darryl F. Zanuck, was hellbent on making it. He cared more about the theme than the story, and felt that Laura Z. Hobson's new novel and the period immediately after World War II had ended presented the perfect moment for it, with the recent discovery of the breadth and depravity of the Holocaust making it clear just how toxic antisemitism could become if left unchecked. The story follows a celebrated California journalist with the impeccably posh name of Philip Schuyler Green (Peck) who arrives in New York to take a job at one of the biggest liberal issues magazines going. The publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), wants him to write about antisemitism; and what possible angle could we take on such a well-trod subject, Phil wonders, till he chances onto the most obvious possible
The only thing that's more intensely irritating than how baldly Gentleman's Agreement vocalises its themes in clumsily anti-natural dialogue is how delightfully it stacks the deck; in this film's universe, virtually every human being other than Phil himself hates Jews, including the Jews themselves. We know from history that even in the depths of Nazi Germany itself, there were goyim willing to risk their lives and their family's to protect fugitive Jews; this small population of genuinely sympathetic, decent people was apparently not to be found in such a metropolis as New York City, where even the most dedicated, socially responsible liberals are prone to spouting off with grossly ill-informed opinions and accidentally traffic in the odd racial slur. But not Phil! He is a paragon of stability and grim-faced sincerity, as we know when the opening scene that finds him and Tommy admiring a statue of Atlas, the Titan supporting the entire world on his shoulders, which Tommy adroitly notes is just like what Daddy does. Because if Gentleman's Agreement finds an opportunity to put flatly thematic statements of purpose into the mouths of its character, by God it will take all of them. This is a script that sees fit to require one of its chastened characters to passionately rant, about the racism that has crept even into the publishing offices of the liberal magazine, "Well, there just isn't anything bigger than beating down the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice! Yessir, I'm ashamed of myself." Screenwriter Moss Hart was primarily a comic playwright, collaborating with George S. Kaufman on pieces like You Can't Take it With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, so maybe he thought it was funny. It should be funny, frankly.
There's not a smackeral of non-ironic mirth to be found anywhere, something Kathy tries to point out multiple times in scenes that I believe are meant to showcase that she's shallow and running from the Brutal Truth that Phil so earnestly plumbs. Though frankly, for all that Maguire is an impossible wet blanket whose performance is mostly just an exercise in looking befuddled and unhappy with her jaw hanging open in the oddest way, I'm going to have to concede those scenes to her entirely. Peck is stuck in one gear throughout the film, and it's the most fucking tedious thing: granite respectability and bottomless integrity, dimly like his future iconic role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird with all of the warmth and humility drained out to leave just the statuesque father-knows-best shtick which, in this case, feels downright bullying. He's smug and boringly self-righteous, with absolutely no minute scrap of shading that might make the character even a little complex or interesting. Neither he nor the film seems aware that, at any minute, Phil could reveal that he's not a Jew; in the right hands, the tension of how much bigotry Phil can withstand before caving in (not much: the six months silently turn into eight weeks) could point out that real Jews don't have that way out of bigotry, but these are the wrong hands. In fact, his absolute best friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield) - because there was no way this story was going to avoid giving Phil a Jewish BFF - seems to very deliberately kill this possibility when sagely noting that, if anything, Phil is trying to experience too much antisemitism all at once, more than proper Jews do, even. And there's even less of a possibility that Phil perceives, or even suspects, that there's some scrap of bigotry within himself; keeping the story's morality clear, no doubt, while stripping it of a chance for any kind of drama beyond the "Phil angrily declaims sociology at Kathy, scene after scene" structure that the film in its completed form possesses.
It's worth noting that the director, Elia Kazan, would later distance himself from the film, which even he admitted with dry and dull, and he would claim that Peck's performance didn't work; the latter is just kind of a catty thing to say, but he's completely right of course, and while I run more cool than hot on later Kazan, there's complicated, vibrant humanity in most of the performances he directed than anything we ever see here. Even in his later, still more broken fake racism story Pinky (where a white actress plays a black woman pretending to be white), the place has a heaving, visual tactility about it (Gentleman's Agreement is plagued by a cavalcade of nondescript residential interiors that the gifted Arthur C. Miller can make look smoothly attractive, though he is hard-pressed to do anything more; there are a couple of scenes where the staging has some creative depth to it, but these moments are fleeting), and the characters at least seem like they have passions. Not so in Gentleman's Agreement, where everything is at the same stoic, turgid level, where everyone is just as pinioned by one-track characterisations as in that future Oscar-winning tub-thumper about how racism is bad and everyone is racist, Crash.
Except for Celeste Holm! Rightfully winning an Oscar for her efforts, she plays a colleague of Phil's at the magazine, a bubbling life force of sarcasm and barely sublimated sexual energy (let us suffice to say that she obviously loves the though of men in just their pajamas) that covers up for a deeply sublimated sense of romanticism that's beautifully and wrenchingly teased out in her final scene. She's a lifesaver in the midst of yawning averageness and stubborn mediocrity, but she's also giving a real performance too, not just just an act of triage. It's genuinely one of the best turns in Holm's underappreciated career as a top-notch supporting actress, spiky with enough sadness to give it weight, and a skill at delivering lacerating barbs with as much knowing nastiness as anybody. Structurally, she's the film's much-needed comic relief; but functionally, she's the even more necessary human relief, a beating heart in the midst of all the deeply sincere and earnest mannequins populating the movie.
Now, compensating for all the ways in which the film is kind of fucking dreadful, it's incontestably a valuable and important and brave piece of political commentary. 1947 was, after all, the ideal year to start having That Conversation; Zanuck's instincts were dead on. And Gentleman's Agreement certainly got that conversation going; it's confrontational and direct and merciless and gives its audience no way out: do you support this toxicity, or do you abjure it; do you fight for a more just world, or slink away and give in to the one that exists now? It probably couldn't do any of those things if it was remotely subtle or artful, and the fact that it's a grueling slog through two hours of condescending lectures shaped into something that pretends to be a story should be tempered by admitting that it wasn't really looking to be entertaining in any quantifiable way in the first place. It's a Moral Lesson; an effective one, given the context.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that, behind Edward Dmytryk's film noir Crossfire, it was easily the second-best message movie about antisemitism nominated for the 1947 Best Picture Oscar. Can't hardly do better than that!
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1947
-Robert Montgomery directs and stars in Lady in the Lake, an MGM film noir with the odd gimmick of being entirely first-person
-In the midst of his embroilment in accusations of Communist sympathies, Charles Chaplin releases Monsieur Verdoux, his first major flop
-Walt Disney voices Mickey Mouse for the last time in Fun and Fancy Free and the short Mickey's Delayed Date
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1947
-Luis Buñuel directs Gran Casino, his first Mexican production
-Henri-Georges Clouzot is freed from a ban on filmmaking, and makes the crime thriller Quai des Orfèvres in France
-Ivan Ivanov-Vano directs The Humpbacked Horse at Soyuzmultfilm, the first feature-length animated film made in the Soviet Union
*Full disclosure: he's also a personal friend of your present author, a fact I like to bring up from time to time because it makes me seem all, like, classy.