When you need someone to root for, Gregory Peck is the man to call!
Screenplay By: Moss Hart & Elia Kazan
Directed By: Elia Kazan
Gregory Peck is never going to be an actor accused of having tremendous range. Time and again he plays similar characters with similar beats and emotion in the portrayal of said characters. However, Mr. Peck is great at playing the stand-up guy. When the film needs a character to rally behind there’s perhaps no better actor to play the part than Mr. Peck. His presence is calming, soothing, and authoritative. It goes without saying that Mr. Peck is the father figure that most people wish they had, or remember having if they did in fact have a tremendous dad. Gentleman’s Agreement is another standout stand-up performance from Mr. Peck as a man who exudes everything that should be great in a man. He doesn’t need tremendous range to be a stand-up guy, but no range in the world can replace the earnest believability of Mr. Peck as Philip Schuyler Green, the reporter willing to make a stand on antisemitism.
Having a stand-up lead actor is great, but a film like Gentleman’s Agreement would be lost without bite to go along with its bark. Elia Kazan confronts the issue of antisemitism head on and refuses to allow his film to back down. Words like kike, coon, nigger, yid, and even kikey, are tossed around in a screenplay that isn’t willing to take any prisoners. Moss Hart is right there alongside Elia Bey staring down an issue that had to be tough to write about. As a character in the movie says, facts are facts. A fact of the matter is that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable confronting racism. They don’t like racism, but they don’t feel comfortable with racism being addressed in their presence. The bite of Gentleman’s Agreement is in how it places antisemitism in the lap of the viewer and does not allow for them to back away.
I did have some issues with the character of Anne Dettrey, as played by Celeste Holm. I understand her role, as the embodiment of the complete opposite of Kathy Lacy, the schoolteacher who doesn’t realize her silence is a form of bigotry. However, as a romantic interest to Philip she feels out of place. Especially given the way the film ends and the path of Miss Holm’s character in general. Anne is a great character up to a point, and a great performance is given by Miss Holm. That being said, she needed to stay a counterpoint philosophically as opposed to a romantic counterpoint.
It’s amazing to think that in 1947 Hollywood was willing to tackle an issue like racism as earnestly and honestly as they did with Gentleman’s Agreement. The reason for my amazement is that I have seen the “manipulating racism with a sledgehammer” approach of modern films like Crash. Gentleman’s Agreement is tame in its unwillingness to resort to sensationalism. However, by drawing back and presenting an honest appraisal of antisemitism Gentleman’s Agreement is worth more than a film like Crash, a million times over. Sensationalism is okay, but I much prefer the open and honest tact of Gentleman’s Agreement.
Great performances, and deft direction help to bolster the high minded aim of Gentleman’s Agreement. Elia Bey has his hands on the wheel the entire time and he stays the course. It’s important that Gentleman’s Agreement stays its course, because to deviate would have been to sell the issue of antisemitism short. There’s a brazen attitude to Gentleman’s Agreement, a stare the devil down attitude that I appreciated. There’s nothing easy about racism or tackling the topic of racism. Yet, Gentleman’s Agreement makes it seem so easy. It’s amazing what an honest approach and a trustworthy lead can do for a film when compared to cartoonish sensationalism, no?