Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947)

Scene from Gentleman's Agreement
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Gentleman's Agreement
Release Date: November 11, 1947
Director: Elia Kazan
Written By: Moss Hart & Elia Kazan (Screenplay), Laura Z. Hobson (Book)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 118 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm)

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Gregory Peck)
-Best Actress (Dorothy McGuire)
-Best Supporting Actress (Anne Revere)
-Best Editing
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Bishop's Wife
-Great Expectations
-Miracle on 34th Street

And the winner is...

During the 1940's, The Academy Awards had found a niche of awarding films that can be regarded as the modern prestige film. Whether it was serving as commentary about World War II (Mrs. Miniver) or alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), the decade was packed with some of the strongest pieces of its time. Among the more forgotten is director Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement - which takes the theme of anti-Antisemitism and tackles it in post-WWII America. While the other prestige films of the era have at least aged to be compelling stories, there's something that feels strangely disconnecting about Kazan's film to a modern audience. It's not entirely clear, but it's likely why even with Gregory Peck, it's not highly remembered.

It's important to remember the context of 1947. The world was just starting to recover from World War II. This was even evident in 1946's Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives, which tackled what is now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The world was ravaged by the war. It was in this mindset that Kazan thought that it was the perfect time to tackle "Gentleman's Agreement" and the Antisemitism movement. This was largely inspired by his revelation of what happened at the internment camps in Europe. Even if the story has little focus on WWII, it definitely has airs hinting at the hostility that the minority would feel during this time. It was so controversial that even Gentile producer Daryl F. Zanuck claims to have been told not to make it for fear of backlash. He was enthused by this, even listing a few bigots in the film - two of whom died around the film's release, and the third (Gerald L.K. Smith) attempted to sue, but was thrown out of court.

While the novel was about Antisemitism, it was also about homophobia during the era. This was obviously scrubbed out due to it being even more controversial than the Judaism. Gregory Peck was also dissuaded from playing the role. Still, everyone remained strong and went through with the best of intentions. The issues were not in the subject matter, but that members of the cast would end up having hostility towards Peck. The most notorious incident was that Peck and Kazan would argue, and thus never worked together again. Peck would claim that it was more of a misunderstanding and that, in 1984, he claimed that he would give a more mature performance if he could. Celeste Holm also claimed to dislike Peck's workmanship.

It wasn't the only film of 1947 to deal with Antisemitism. Director Edward Dmytryk would release Crossfire, starring Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame; which became the first B-Movie to ever receive a Best Picture nomination. Despite Gentleman's Agreement's controversy, it ended up becoming the studio's most successful film of the year. Critics praised its bold yet unforced approach to the subject. It even earned Zanuck the title of "Man of the Year" by Hollywood's B'nai B'rith section. During a gala on December 12, 1948, he was honored. While this may not seem like a big thing, it was the premiere of the famous Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy act. The film would do rather well at The Academy Awards, winning 3 of its 8 nominations.

The film's immediate impact was a little more troubling. Beyond its lawsuit from Smith, it also caused the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to bring forth Kazan, Zanuck, and actors John Garfield and Anne Revere. Revere and Garfield refused to name names regarding potential communists - of whom HUAC thought that Gentleman's Agreement was secretly about. They were blacklisted and Garfield died before he could return for a second testify. Meanwhile, Kazan notoriously participated in a measure that would make him a divisive figure in Hollywood. This caused a rift with writer Arthur Miller, who used this as the basis for "The Crucible." Likewise, Kazan used On the Waterfront as his attack on Miller. On the Waterfront would become Kazan's second Best Picture winner. Even into his autumn years, he remained divisive for ratting out people for his own safety.

The legacy of Gentleman's Agreement is one that's almost entirely undermined by everyone involved. Kazan claims to be disappointed with the film, feeling that he didn't give it his all. He would go so far as to say that he didn't even like the finished product. Peck was more critical. While he seemed to grow apologetic, his reason for disliking the film had a lot to do with the fact that he and Kazan weren't able to collaborate in a successful way. He also felt that while the film was important at the time, a lot of its value now feels dated; especially since Antisemitism has pretty much not been a major public problem in a considerable time. It's especially odd, since people were worried about it ruining careers, which it didn't really do.

If there's one thing that's hard to consider nowadays, it's that Gentleman's Agreement used to be sharp and aggressive commentary. While it still holds up as a film, it definitely feels foreign to modern audiences who would ever think that Jews were discriminated against. It joins a few other classics, such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, of films that had their heart in the right place, but have since felt tame due to the changing social landscape. While it isn't neither Peck nor Kazan's best movie, it remains a strong piece of film about American life post-WWII and how society saw a minority that was already under repression. It may not hold up as the greatest activist picture out there, but it definitely is very telling of its time. 

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