This is not drama.
It’s really not. It’s polemic with elements of drama inelegantly hanging over different parts here and there in an effort to make it look like drama, wearing a drama suit that doesn’t fit. This is didacticism at its most forceful, obvious, one-sided, earnest, and well-meaning, taking a fight for a good cause and finding no way to frame it properly in a dramatic structure. Elia Kazan himself was reportedly unsatisfied with the finished product (his frustrations resting with how the romance angle plays out) while Gregory Peck resisted Kazan’s direction on set. At least All Quiet on the Western Front had a story to tell while it was beating me over the head with a point. Gentleman’s Agreement can’t even manage that. All I get is the point, endlessly beaten over my head for two straight hours with nary a dramatic bone to cling to. This is a social justice speech masquerading as a film.
Philip Green (Gregory Peck) is a widowed, California based journalist brought to New York City with his mother (Anne Revere) and young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) to take up a mystery assignment from a weekly magazine’s editor, John Minify (Albert Dekker). He wants Green to write about antisemitism, to blow up the whole thing. He doesn’t want an article filled with facts and figures, man. He wants something deep and personal. Out of the gate, I feel like there’s something wrong with this film’s dramatics when it takes nearly an hour of screentime for Green to figure out what his angle is: he’s going to pretend he’s Jewish and write about the antisemitism he experiences in all of its forms, from big to small. It seriously takes about fifty minutes. Normal screenwriting rules would put that between ten and fifteen pages to introduce, but maybe the film is really building up its characters. Let’s see.
Well, Phillip is…perfect. He is the most uninteresting central character since Kirk Douglas played Spartacus (okay…Spartacus came a couple of decades later, so sue me). He has no flaws other than he’s too dedicated to his work. He’s strong, smart, without sin, and single, opening him up to the interests of Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a New York socialite and Mr. Minify’s niece. They have a quick rapport, start seeing each other, and are in love. And, because she was introduced to Phillip before Phillip discovered his angle, she has to know that he’s faking his Jewishness, and that, I think, is the single largest mistake in the whole film.
This is actually the second time I’ve seen this film. The first time wasn’t that long ago, but I hadn’t set out to right about it, so as the movie continued to bore me, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and just assumed that there was something there. However, going into it a second time, knowing that I needed to put thought to paper as well as the fact that I hadn’t engaged with the film on any meaningful level the first time, I started this screening with the intent on figuring out either if I had missed the point the first time or, if I hadn’t, what bothered me the most, and it was quickly evident that it was Kathy and Phillip’s romance.
There is no drama to this romance. She knows it from the beginning, but she has moments where she’s not supportive enough (Phillip always ends up being right, probably because he was written in the New Socialist Man model which demanded that the protagonist never had flaws). That’s what ends up passing for drama. Now, imagine we get into a time machine and go back for a rewrite. Instead of knowing that Phillip is faking his Jewishness, she doesn’t know. They fall in love before the gossip reaches her. In fact, they have already gotten engaged, and then she finds out. And then she must deal with the fact that she’s fallen in love with a Jewish man and plans on marrying him. That has implications not only for her but any potential children, and she gets cold feet. That is drama. It put Phillip in opposition to the woman he loves. Does he tell her and potentially unravel the whole story if she leaks it out to protect him? Or does he keep his secret because this story is so important to him? That’s drama, not Phillip and Kathy having a couple of little tiffs where Kathy isn’t supportive enough and then they make up moments later. That’s the trappings of drama.
The film honestly gets almost unbearable once Phillip starts his ruse because it becomes a series of speeches, mostly from other, minor characters like the famous physicist Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffe) who talks about trying to rid the world of racial classifications (he’s never seen or referenced again). Phillip’s childhood friend David (John Garfield) shows up about two-thirds of the way through and is the source of a couple of the speeches that are honestly just polemic and barely couched in anything character related (he’s Jewish by birth). There are the makings of a good story here and there, but they don’t work after 90 minutes of a poorly structured series of speeches done by underwritten, uninteresting characters, and one of the other things I would have done in a massive rewrite is introduce David early in the film, not late. David would be the emotional support that Phillip needs (cut out the mother and child as well) as he tries to navigate this new world of prejudice that’s so hateful. In the film as it is, David actually has a great little line where he tells Phillip that he’s trying to squeeze a lifetime of experiences into a few weeks. That’s honestly the best line in the film, and it’s a good one. I just wish it was in a better film that knew how to use it more effectively.
There’s a moment late where David, who was in New York looking for a place to live so he could bring his family from California and he could take a promised, well-paying job, fails to find a place for his family. He gives up, deciding that he can’t manage it in the city, and he’s going to go back. What does Phillip do? He…runs to the resort where he and Kathy were supposed to go for their honeymoon (the marriage delayed because of health problems with his mother), a place rumored to be Restricted. He confronts them righteously, demanding to know explicitly, getting it as explicitly as possible. Do you see how this is wrong dramatically? His friend is in trouble, and Phillip righteously goes…somewhere else to chastise someone else about their antisemitism?
Honestly, this movie is a mess.
The only place it works is towards the end, though, when the two dramatic thrusts (Phillip’s quest and Kathy’s insufficient dedication to it) finally intertwine when Tommy gets into a fight at school because they call him Jewish slurs. She tries to comfort him by assuring him that he’s not Jewish, and this pisses off Phillip to no end. They get into a yelling match and the relationship seems over. Except, we know it’s not because Phillip is perfect and never wrong, so of course Kathy’s going to figure out that she’s no sufficiently dedicated to the cause and will now do better (she does so by finding David a place to live).
I kind of feel bad about being so harsh on this movie because it’s heart is in the right place, but heart only gets you so far when you mangle drama so badly. I also feel bad because Elia Kazan wasn’t exactly some kind of slouch when it came to making movies. It’s just…he was so much better than issue movies that forgot they were movies. On the Waterfront is an issue movie that works dramatically. A Face in the Crowd is an issue movie that works dramatically. Gentleman’s Agreement is an issue movie that forgets what dramatics are and never bothers to learn.
I also can’t bring myself to hate the film because of the cast. If there was one thing that Kazan was good with, it was actors, and everyone gives good performances. Peck may not have been fully dedicated to the role (for whatever reason, he seemed to attribute it to youth), but he’s solid as the central character. Dorothy McGuire plays her thankless role of Kathy well. John Garfield is a welcome addition once he finally shows up. And I really enjoyed Celeste Horn as the fashion editor who has a wonderful energy and keeps a lovelorn look at the perfect New Socialist Man that she can never have.
So, no. Good intentions do not override what is honestly pretty terrible writing by Moss Hart. This is the problem with “important” movies. They use their importance as a shield from criticism. Gentleman’s Agreement is a well-intentioned but bad film.