Gentleman’s Agreement: “Openly Jewish”
Making the film: Gentleman’s Agreement
Based on a book by Laura Z Robson, in which a news reporter pretends to be a Jew and his experiences. The book was well known in its time – however no big studio would touch it. The Movie Moguls were mostly Jewish themselves and suffered many indignities and slights. In fact they were banned from the prestigious clubs of Los Angeles. However they did not do the film. Finally a gentile had to brave the storm.
The only exception was Darryl F Zanuck. He was not Jewish but a Christian from Holland. His name sounded Jewish in America, which caused him many problems. Zanuck was against anti-Semitism but also railed against “stupidity” and “Big Guys crushing Small Guys”.
The U.S.A at that time was extremely paranoid (surprise, surprise!) and was actively encouraging a climate of intolerance, especially against communists. In fact they set up a Congressional Committee for investigating un-American activities. Also, in 1947, U.S.A was not willing to face the truth about its own society. The Nuremberg Trials, where hundreds of Nazis were tried and punished, were just winding up. The country believed that anti Semitism was a “European Problem” which was not happening at home.
There was a “Gentleman’s Agreement” in place all over U.S.A. There was an unwritten agreement not to rent homes or even hotels to non-Aryans. Jews and Blacks were actively discriminated against. Even the so-called liberals were part of the pretension. One of the characters says, “some of my best friends are Jews”. The response is “then why mention it?”Even immigrants tried to be a part of American society even at the cost of denying their identity. This was all part of a great whitewashing of society.
When Zanuck acquired the film rights from the author, there was a firestorm among all the studios who felt that this was an uncomfortable and controversial subject. Many actors were scared of associating with the film, even those with Jewish heritage. Finally Gregory Peck agreed to play the part. At that time, Peck was already popular and the audiences were sympathetic to him. Peck’s best friend was played by John Garfield, Hollywood’s “bad boy”. Garfield was himself a Jew and had changed his name from Julius Garfinkel. (Hey, looks like Garfield the cartoon cat was named after him).
To keep the audience interest, an adult romance was played out during the film. The girlfriend is one of those liberals who is not racist but is not a full supporter. Claire Bloom played a supporting role.
In order to get the heroine’s reactions exactly right, he disapproval was subtle and the sequence was apparently re shot several times. In a scene, Garfield picks up a fight in bar. He is approached by a drunk customer who says that he hates “Yids”. Garfield tells Peck that he is “not fully insulated” from the anti-Semitic world outside. He is described as being openly Jewish, which is as funny as “openly gay” today.
In a scene, Peck’s son is bullied at school as someone calls him a dirty jew. The girlfriend consoles the child saying, “But is all pretend, you are not really a Jew”. Peck is aghast that she has failed into even see that there is a problem.
In the final scene, she asks Garfield, “where did I go wrong?”
He tells her, “Each time someone says a racial joke with intent to hurt, the listener has a duty to actively protest. It is not enough to simply avoid that person and criticise him behind his back.”
A dark cloud hung over Hollywood from 1947, when the House UnAmerican Activities Committee began hearings. The committee was headed by John Rankin, an openly racist Senator. The cast of Gentleman’s Agreement was called to testify against their colleagues. Anyone with a suspicious “foreign sounding” last name was targeted. Ten professionals – known as the “Hollywood 10” – refused to testify. There was great pressure to get rid of these. Zanuck was forced to fire one man.
This film was 1948’s biggest hit. At the Oscars, the film was awarded for Best Picture (Garfield accepted for Zanuck) Another immigrant was awarded for Best Direction(Elia Kazan). Claire Bloom got the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
The Government pressure increased in 1950. Many more were targeted. Elia Kazan was their biggest prey and he named 8 names. This became extremely controversial as Kazan had let down his fraternity.
Garfield did not name names and was blacklisted and could not work. In 1953 he died of a heart attack. He was just 39 years old.