Gentleman’s Agreement: Best Picture, 1947

gentlemansagreement.jpgThe 20th Annual Academy Awards rounded up, let’s face it, a pretty dull bunch. Gentleman’s Agreement received 8 nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Actress (Dorothy McGuire), Best Supporting Actress (twice, Anne Revere and Celeste Holme) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Other Best Picture nominees included not one but two sentimental Christmas movies: preachy classic Miracle on 34th Street and unutterably dull Cary Grant flick The Bishop’s Wife. Also nominated were a British adaptation of Great Expectations with John Mills and Alec Guinness, and Crossfire, a noirish crime drama starring Robert Mitchum (I haven’t seen either one).

Ultimately, Best Actor went to Ronald Colman (who played an actor whose personal life is overwhelmed by the roles he takes in A Double Life), Loretta Young won Best Actress for The Farmer’s Daughter, Miracle on 34th Street got Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing went to Body and Soul (a boxing movie). Celeste Holme beat Anne Revere for Best Supporting and the other two went to Gentleman’s Agreement as well. No film won more than 3 awards, a rarity which did not occur again until 58 years later, in 2005. Gentleman’s Agreement is an extremely preachy, self-righteous film about anti-Semitism in the United States. Interestingly, Crossfire was also about anti-Semitism (it hinged on the investigation of a murder which turned out to be racially-motivated), but even more interestingly, the original novel on which Crossfire was based was actually about the murder of gay man. In 2005, Best Picture went to Crash (regarded by some as a preachy, self-righteous film about racism) over Brokeback Mountain (a film about . . . well, you know). Significant? Not really, but there it is.

The story of Gentleman’s Agreement, such as it is, runs like this: Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), a talented magazine writer, is assigned to do a story on anti-Semitism. After maybe 40-45 minutes of soul-searching and romancing Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), his editor’s niece, he finally figures out what angle to use in approaching the story: He changes his name to Philip and passes himself off as Jewish for eight weeks. The ruse has consequences he never expected, affecting every area of his personal and professional life, including his engagement to Kathy.

Even at under 2 hours, Gentleman’s Agreement feels padded with too much set-up and irrelevant subplots. Green struggles, as I said, for over a third of the movie to decide how to approach the article. When he finally decides he’ll pretend to be Jewish we find out that that’s his “thing.” For every successful article he’s ever written, he got down in the trenches and “became” whatever he was writing about. You’d think the idea would have occurred to him a bit earlier in the proceedings.

Overall, the film is self-absorbed and far from enjoyable to watch, full of stagy speeches and contrived tensions. Its message, though admirable, is clumsily rammed down our throats at ever turn. The characters question themselves and each other so much and with such serious intensity that it simply becomes exhausting. And yet, it all simply boils down to the fact that prejudice is bad and hurts everyone. Perhaps Peck’s character says it best when he asks at one point, “What can I say about anti-Semitism that hasn’t been said before?” The answer, apparently, is nothing. Certainly, in pre-Civil Rights America, it couldn’t hurt to get that message across as often as possible, but Gentleman’s Agreement hasn’t held up well beneath the passage of time.

Far more interesting than the movie itself is a quick look at its context. Most of the Best Picture winners of the late 1940s were heavy, socially-conscious fare, so this was certainly no exception. This was director Elia Kazan’s first Oscar nomination, and he went on to be nominated 4 more times for Best Director, with 1 win. However, just a few years after this, Kazan went before HUAC and “named names” as part of the ridiculous hunt for communists in Hollywood. Already disliked by the right for his socialist leanings, Kazan’s collaboration with HUAC earned him the hatred of the left, and his actions cast a pall over the rest of his career. Many saw his multi-Oscar-winning On the Waterfront (his 2nd directorial win) as an answer to the critics in 1954. However, even nearly fifty years later, controversy surrounded the Academy’s decision to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and many in the audience refused to even applaud when his name was announced. Meanwhile, Gregory Peck’s nomination for Gentleman’s Agreement was his 3rd of 5, though he only won once. His moment finally came over a decade later, when he played another man staunchly and courageously opposing racism: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I haven’t seen many films from 1947, but those I have seen are not what I’d call “best” anything, or even terribly significant. After reading up on the nominees, I’m very interested in seeing Crossfire. Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple (during the final years of her movie career!) are fun in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (which won Best Original Screenplay), but that’s pretty light-weight stuff. I’ve heard good things about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (which was nominated for its cinematography, but lost to Great Expectations), but have yet to see it. Alfred Hitchcock directed his final film for producer David O. Selznick in this year, a courtroom drama (which also starred Gregory Peck) called The Paradine Case. The film was marketed heavily as an Oscar contender, but fell flat, receiving a single nomination, for Best Supporting Actress (Ethel Barrymore). I haven’t seen it, but from what I hear it suffers from many of the same flaws that make Gentleman’s Agreement such a painful experience without the benefit of being an “issue” movie.

~ by Jared on February 12, 2008.

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