Gentleman’s Agreement is one of the early movies Elia Kazan directed, and it is based on the best-seller book by Laura Z. Hobson of the same name. After seeing the book, the studio wanted to make the movie, and it was one of the first movies made about anti-semitism; there was a social movement starting at the time to bring this out into the open. Elia Kazan is a first generation American of Greek heritage; the family had lived in Turkey before emigarating. As an immigrant and of a culture other than WASP, he had experienced prejudice first hand.
The reception of the movie was huge; it was a massive hit and won Best Picture, with Kazan winning Best Director. Kazan himself was not overly fond of this movie as he felt it was too Hollywood. The public loved it though. It was released in February 1948, and the box office brought in over 7.8 million dollars on a 2 million dollar budget. It starred Gregory Peck as Philip Green, Dorothy McGuire as his finace Kathy Lacy, John Garfield as Philips’s Jewish friend Dave Goldman, and Dean Stockwell as Philip’s son Tommy.
The plot of the story is that Philip gets an assignment from his editor to do a piece on anti-semitism. It is Philip’s idea to play a Jewish man himself, and to just see what happens. On this same visit to his editor’s office he meets his romantic interest, Kathy, and they soon become engaged. Kathy is not outwardly anti-semitic, but if she sees it she does nothing about it, and neither does she do anything to actively help someone who may be in need because of prejudice towards the person. This is brought out when Dave, Philips’s Jewish friend, needs a house for him and him family so that he can take the great job that he has been offered. Kathy has a house that is too big for her, and that she never uses. Philip asks her why she cannot let Dave use it for a while, but she is worried about having a Jewish man in a neighborhood where her sister and other people she knows live. She is not outwardly anti-semitic, but if she sees prejudice happening she just doesn’t do anything about it. At the end the finace does start to realize that her passivity is the real issue that she has, and that so many people have, and without this, anti-semitism could start to be stamped out.
There is a second female lead, and there is a lot of controversy now about why Philip stays with his fiance. There is a lot of flirting in the scene with her and she hints that she is attracted to him. Kazan discussed this in an interview. He said that one of the things was that Zanack had his idea of how he wanted to approach issue films, and this was that you could basically do any issue film in the context of a romance. You have one side really passionate about an issue, and another side nervous about the issue, and in the end they fall in love, and the issue is basically solved. The second female lead is the fashion editor at the magazine, and today a lot of people are upset that in the film Philip doesn’t end up with her instead of the fiance. The fiance is very beautiful, but she is so wishy-washy, and she gets upset with him for this idea he is pursuing for his article.
I found the filming to be incredibly aesthetically pleasing. The film shows Philip and Kathy happy in their engagement, but then at 101:56 he has just found out that she broken his trust by telling her sister that he is not Jewish, but that he is only pretending to be for his story. Philip is really upset that she has done this, and he is not really sure how to express it. He is confused, so Kazan shoots him in the shadows, dominating most of the room. He is in the foreground to theleft, which indicates dominance in the scene, but he is also the darkest object in the scene. There is a sort of a cinematography rule that the most important person in the scene should be the brightest object, so even though Philip is the biggest object and he is in the dominant space, the actual most dominant part of the scene is where Kathy is. First of all,she is framed and brightly lit. The light shows her clarity on the issue, and she is saying that, oh they think it is great, and don’t worry, they won’t tell anyone about it. She is clear; she is not thinking the complicated thoughts that he is.
The movie is stripping her of progressiveness and understanding of the Jewish people, and through her portrayal showing the problem about society’s atitude toward the Jewish people in general. It is showing that adverse anti-semites are probably not as much a problem as are the people that just will really not do anything about the problem. So to show the difference in what is going on with each of them, Philip is shot in the foreground but in the shadows, but she is shot far in the back but in the light. Metaphorically this shows the distance that has been established between the two characters by her telling her sister about what he is doing, and has told her without consulting him. The most important part about his project is that nobody is supposed to know about him portraying a Jewish person, and he only told his fiance because it was necessary. Now though, she has told her sister, and she also is planning to tell her brother-in-law. So a big part of the problem is that she does not understand what he wants to do, and the implication also is that she doesn’t take it seriously enough. She doesn’t realize how important this project and issue is for him. This is the whole theme of the movie, that appearing to fight anti-semitism is great, but as soon as it inconveniences someone they want to just ignore it. His fiance says that with them moving into her neighborhood where she has her large house, the neighbors might have an issue if they believe Philip is Jewish, and as her sister lives in the same neighborhood she wanted to let he know that he is not really Jewish.
The editing in the film in general is not that remarkable, however, there is an instance of great editing at about 1:20:09. With a bang of the door the manager stomps off into his office, and with the next frame we get stuck in the terrible scene with the awkward silence where the door has been closed to Philip who has no recourse to being refused a room, simply because he is Jewish. The manager had tried to mask why he was refusing him, and this is where the “Gentleman’s Agreement” had been displayed. The bellboy then walks out silently with Philip’s suitcase, going from the bottom of the screen on the right to the top of the screen on the left. This is actually a mirrored shot of him with the fiance when she first tells him that she has told someone about him acting as a Jewish man. Both times he is in the foreground, but this time he is on the right instead of on the left; he is in the weaker position, because any power he had has been removed from him, whereas with the fiance he was in the stronger position. What is going on in this scene is that Philip wants to make a reservation at the hotel where they are planning to go for their honeymoon, but he hears that this hotel may not want to accept Jews. So he flies out to make the reservation in person, and they are going to have to either specifically deny him or accept him. So this is where the Gentlemans’s Agreement, because usually everyone just agrees to not address the issue, but just give some other reason why they cannot take the reservation. This is the real theme of the movie, that society doesn’t express outright racism, but this hidden racism is oftentimes worse.
“I asked a simple question. I would like a simple answer”, says Philip. “You see, we have a very high class clientele, and naturally...”, says the manager, and goes on to look at the hotel cards, and appears to find that they are all booked up for that date, and that they can fix him up at the Brewster Hotel. Philip pushes the issue. He says that he does not want to stay at the Brewster, and addresses the issue head on when he says, “Look, I am Jewish, and you don’t take Jews....if you don’t take Jews, just say it.” The manager then starts to treat him like a lower class citizen and says, “Don’t raise your voice to me.” This is a movie clearly made with years of experience of racism that Kazan would have felt?. This is done from a whole different depth than what a white director could bring in, which would often be the explicit racism words and actions such as lynchings. But in this scene the more subtle aspects are shown, aspects that only a person who has actually experienced racism would be able to portray so effectively, such as the manager saying, “Don’t raise your voice”, which is really a way of saying that he is better than Skylar, who he believes is Jewish. Only someone who has legitimately experienced that racism would get the intricacies of these things said to him. The manager is basically saying that I can send you out of here anytime I want, simply because you are Jewish.
Another interesting aspect of this scene is how quiet it is. A commentary tells how silent movies were not ever really silent because there was always something going on in the theater as background, such as piano playing. So when sound was introduced, actually real silence was introduced. This scene is a demonstration of that. Everyone is staring, and the only action there really was was the bellboy walking out with the suitcase. In the silence one can see that Philip feels abjectly humiliated. Even though he knew this would happen, and he had come to this hotel explicitly to test it, and he is not really Jewish, but he is feeling the abject rejection. This scene probably show the prejudice more than does the scene with the manager where the prejudice was explicitly discussed. The manager was spinning the reservations board so quickly that he could not in reality be looking at the reservations, but it is an action he did just so he would not have to the Jewish man. It is a good use of the mise en scene, which is everything that is inside the universe, and what that means is that everything that is happening is actually inside the scene. What that means is what is here right now, what the characters are experiencing themselves. This is also an excellent use of extras, something Kazan is well known for. Kazan is very interested in the world around the main scene. He is very interested in filming in real time, This is an extra that acts very realistically. She and her husband are obviously a very WASP couple, and just from the look on her face, which is happening in the background, we see the prejudice that is felt towards the Jewish people is widespread.
In the film, the early scene with his son and his mother lays the groundwork for Philip’s beliefs about religion and anti-semitism which will be accessed as he does his research for his piece on anti-semitism. This movie receives a lot of criticsm now because Kazan used a non-Jewish man acting the part of a Jewish man. Also, the movie is about anti-semitism, yet there is only one Jewish person in the entire cast. The way Kazan justifies this is that he is not trying to tell Jewish people about anti-semitism because Jewish people already know about it very well, but what he is trying to do is explain to middle-class America what anti-semitism is, and the intricacies of it.
Gregory Peck, a great actor, always seems to be cast in dad roles, and he again has that role here. This is probably because he has a natural softness to him; he is a very approachable person, so when someone was needed to be the moral fiber, of the story, the protector of the world, Gregoy Peck was the obvious choice.
Historically, this was just a couple of years after the second world war, just around the time when Israel was being created, and “Gentleman’s Agreement was part of a late flowering of that tradition in the late forties, with special emphasis in these films on the issue of racial and religious prejudice, Kazan must have believed that he, and Hollywood, would be able to go on conducting their socially conscientious business pretty much as usual.”1a
The film was shot in New York City. Kazan was obsessed with shooting in real locations, and the opening is shot in front of Central Park. At 00:02:50 there is amazing framing using the Atlas sculpture in front of the Plaza Hotel. One wonders how this was filmed, as the camera is looking down from the top of the large Atlas sculpture, but then one remembers that it is David Zanack who produced this film, the same person who produced Gone With the Wind, in which he created the breathtaking scene where Scarlet has gone to the Atlanta railroad yards to get a doctor. As she walks onto the yards the camera cranes up to slowly reveal an almost endless expanse of wounded and dying soldiers eventually framed by a Confederate flag.”2
After the amazing live scene in front of the Plaza Hotel, we enter the world of sets. Kazan preferred live locations, but at this point in his directing career Kazan was still the studio player. He did not have the authority to make his own films the way he wanted them, compared to Hitchcock, who when he moved to America already had the established reputation as the biggest director in England, and could pretty much do what he wanted.
It is interesting why movies became so set-focused. When sound first started being used, the sound cameras became too big to carry around, so for years it became the standard to shoot on sets, and once the system was in place it was very hard to go against it. People had grown up in the business who had used the set system, and were not comfortable with anything else.
The other thing that Elia Kazan loved was to get real people as actors. This had the aspect of method acting, of which Stanislavski became a great proponent and has carried it on. It is an acting theater that prioritizes subtlety in acting, underplaying it, and trying to be as realistic as possible. In 1947, Kazan co-founded the Actors Studio in New York, an organization that would offer training and performance opportunities to following generations of Method actors.4b
This is an excellent movie, but shot rather generically, and Kazan himself admits that it is shot generically.5 Old generic filming techniques can be seen in that there are very few close-ups.The filming itself is also interesting because the shots in the film have a stretched style, more like what would be used in a play. One of the tell-tale signs when playwrights start shooting films, it has been noticed, is that they like shooting a lot of wide shots which include the scenery and a lot of the people from the movie, as it resembles a stage production. The cinema language is just not completely there yet at this stage with Kazan’s filming, who at this point is a young kid coming into the film world.
This is a movie clearly made with years of experience of racism that Kazan would have felt. The more subtle aspects are shown, aspects that only a person who has legitimately experienced racism would be able to portray so effectively, such as the manager saying, “Don’t raise your voice”, which is really a way of saying that he is better than Philip who he believes is Jewish. This scene and the movie in general fulfills its purpose of displaying the deep hurts that prejudice causes. In this movie Elia Kazan has shown the incredible talent that was dipslayed in movie after amazing movie in his future filmmaking.