Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gentleman's Agreement (DVD) with Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire

This is a movie about “anti-Semitism”—prejudice against Jews.  In many ways this 1947 film deals with a dated topic.  We may feel that this kind of prejudice doesn’t exist anymore.  While that issue can be debated, what struck me the most in viewing the film was how simplistic it seemed.  The film’s protagonist, Gregory Peck, makes statements that may have stirred his audience at the time, but for us barely begin to scratch the surface of what we know about racism and prejudice and how they work.  Peck is a journalist who is given an assignment to write an article about anti-Semitism in America.  He decides to “become” a Jew, for six months.  This move is possible for him since he and his mother and son have just moved to New York, where they are strangers.  With only his editor and girlfriend knowing the truth, he can experience being a Jew in reality, somewhat like John Griffin did for his book “Black like me”.    

Major obstacles that existed at the time for Jews: being barred from universities, workplaces, and dwelling places—are not exactly relevant to Peck, since he has a job, he has an apartment (which his boss had found for him) and he is not trying to go to summer camp or attend college.  The apartment building supervisor does take offense when Peck pencils in the name “Greenberg” in addition to “Green” on his mailbox. ( Peck, whose name is Schuyler Green, sends out job applications as “research” for his article, using the names Green and Greenberg and comparing the results.)  When you consider what kind of widespread discrimination there was in housing against Jews, it’s interesting that nothing else happens in regard to his apartment.   Problems, however, do creep in to Peck’s life.  His child gets bullied in school, and his mother’s doctor is disinclined to accept a consultation with a Jewish doctor, regardless of his reputation.  The biggest conflict ends up with his girlfriend, played by Dorothy McGuire, who believes herself to be against prejudice but doesn't want to face up to its consequences.

"Gentleman's Agreement" was hailed at the time for its bravery in dealing with this sickness in our culture.  While someone in the film briefly mentions racial stereotypes of Jews as being loud, brash and untrustworthy (as well as dressing vulgarly), there's no one like that in the movie. Maybe this is why the1947 New York Times review criticized the film for only showing anti-Semitism in the upper classes.  Although today we would expect a deeper examination of this problem, the film is well acted and directed. But even if we may not take Peck’s distress about his well-meaning girlfriend as seriously as he does, we can appreciate seeing firsthand the depth of the silence that surrounded the Jewish issue.  I'm glad that I viewed it. 

Click here for the film listing in our catalog.  Click here for the book of the same name, by Laura Hobson, which the film was based on.

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