Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was a groundbreaking film in its day, and it is still a powerful story about prejudice in America. Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, based on Laura Z. Hobson‘s bestselling novel. The movie stars Gregory Peck as a journalist assigned to write a series of magazine articles about anti-Semitism. Searching for a “personal angle” on the story, he decides to pose as Jew, and soon discovers what it is to be on the receiving end of intolerance.
Darryl F. Zanuck produced it, and Elia Kazan directed. In addition to Peck, the film stars Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell, Celeste Holm, and June Havoc. Gentleman’s Agreement won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Ms. Holm.
The situation of American Jewry in the 21st century is without parallel in world history: we are better integrated and more welcome in U.S. society than Jews have been in any other time and place. This movie is a reminder that only sixty years ago, things were quite different. It catalogs many of the ways, large and small, that it was tough to be Jewish in America.
There is a curious art-imitates-life element to the film, in that Daryl F. Zanuck, a gentile, felt very strongly about bringing Hobson’s novel to the screen as a major film because he believed it was important to speak out against the anti-Semitism in society. The story goes that prominent Jews in Hollywood strongly discouraged him against making the film because they feared backlash. In the movie, the boss who assigns the magazine article about anti-Semitism is a gentile who wants to raise consciousness about the subject, just as Zanuck did.
The film is remarkably current in its depiction of “soft” bigotry. The journalist discovers in the course of his research that many well-meaning people hold him at arm’s length with protestations of innocence: ‘Some of my best friends…” A true mensch watching this film must ask him or herself, “Is there anyone I patronize with behavior and words like those?”
Watch Gentleman’s Agreement before or after watching Exodus. They are set in exactly the same time period, one in the Middle East, the other in the United States. Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.