This post is part of the third annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by three classic movie bloggers: Kellee Pratt (@IrishJayHawk66) of Outspoken & Frecked, Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen, and Paula Guthat (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club. The blogathon was started as an adjunct to Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar marathon during which TCM shines a spotlight on the hits and misses of the Academy Awards. Kellee, Aurora, and Paula will be focusing on a different aspect of the Oscars each week in February. This week’s focus is the good, bad, and ugly of the Best Picture and Best Director winners.
Well, the Oscars are finally behind us. I was rooting for Boyhood to win Best Picture, but I do think Birdman was a very interesting and worthy film. When you look at the list of Best Picture winners from the inception of the Academy Awards in 1927, some of them truly boggle the mind. While there are many films on the list that remain beloved by classic movie lovers the world over, a few of them are real head scratchers. For me, one of the most puzzling winners is Around the World in 80 Days (1956) which won over Giant, Friendly Persuasion, The King and I, and The Ten Commandments. I mean…come on! But the all-time worst choice for Best Picture, in my opinion, was Cecil B. DeMille’s God-awful The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) which won over High Noon, The Quiet Man, Ivanhoe, and Moulin Rouge. Are you freaking kidding me? And let’s not talk about the movies that weren’t even nominated that year — incredible films such as The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin’ in the Rain, Come Back, Little Sheba, and The Member of the Wedding. Ugh.
Then there are the Best Picture winners that rightfully captured the Academy’s attention that year but are seldom discussed today. One of those is 1947’s winner, Elia Kazan’s powerful Gentleman’s Agreement.
Adapted from the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement stars Gregory Peck as Phil Green, a Gentile journalist for a progressive magazine who decides to pose as a Jew in order to write a series of hard-hitting articles about anti-Semitism. Although skeptical at first that people will treat him differently, Green soon learns firsthand about the insidious forms of prejudice that Jews had to face in 1940s America. Green is a widower raising his young son Tommy (played by Dean Stockwell), and he’s horrified when Tommy is attacked on the school playground when his classmates find out that he is “Jewish.” Even Phil’s staunchly liberal girlfriend Kathy (the great Dorothy McGuire — don’t get me started on how this wonderful Oscar nominee was snubbed in the Academy’s In Memoriam segment following her death in 2001) reveals her latent anti-Semitism in several superbly written encounters with Phil and Tommy.
While the movie may seem slightly creaky when viewed with our modern sensibilities, you have to remember what a taboo subject anti-Semitism was in those days. True to form, the Jewish studio heads wouldn’t touch the film, and they even went so far as to beg the producer not to make it, saying it would just “stir up trouble.” I always think of the scene in the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy classic Woman of the Year when Hepburn’s Tess Harding is seen at her desk conversing easily in foreign tongues with world leaders. At one point in the scene, as originally written and shot, Hepburn is on the phone with someone in Eastern Europe and launches into fluent Yiddish. MGM’s honchos, many Jewish immigrants themselves, forced director George Stevens to delete this segment, refusing to let their shiksa star utter a language they apparently felt was beneath her. Despite the ban by most studios, Gentleman’s Agreement found a champion in, of all people, Midwestern Methodist Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox (known back then as “the goy studio”). Zanuck hired Eliza Kazan to direct the film and even ordered a scene to be written that mirrored the movie moguls’ reluctance to see this topic addressed publicly.
Laura Z. Hobson wrote the book after witnessing the appalling actions of Rep. John Rankin, who called columnist Walter Winchell “ the little kike” on the floor of the House of Representatives and spewed other anti-Semitic epithets that were wildly applauded by members of Congress. Rankin is named in the film along with several other national figures who were blatant bigots including Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo and Christian Nationalist Leader Gerald L. K. Smith who claimed the Holocaust was a Jewish fabrication.
Another figure who is alluded to is popular radio commentator Father Charles Edward Coughlin, Roman Catholic priest and vile son of a bitch who captivated millions of Americans in the 1920s and 30s with his fiery brand of hate rhetoric. On December 18, 1938, thousands of Coughlin’s followers marched in New York protesting potential asylum law changes that would have allowed more Jews to enter the country. These devoted Americans chanted, “Send the Jews back where they came from in leaky boats!” and “Wait until Hitler comes over here!” The Catholic Church finally forced Coughlin off the air in 1942 and sent him back to being a parish priest. Needless to say, Father Coughlin always maintained the full support (financial and otherwise) of automobile magnate Henry Ford, one of the most virulent anti-Semites this country has ever known.
Following World War II, film executives didn’t want to look at the plight of Eastern European Jewry, much less the Jews in their own backyard. Zanuck deserves a lot of credit for taking on Hobson’s book. He was appalled by the recent revelations of what happened to Europe’s Jews in the Nazi death camps and felt the time was right for this story. Writer Moss Hart adapted the book into a screenplay that was rife with gems:
Tommy: What’s anti-Semitism?
Phil: Well, uh, that’s when some people don’t like other people just because they’re Jews.
Tommy: Why not? Are Jews bad?
Phil: Well, some are and some aren’t, just like with everyone else.
Tommy: What are Jews, anyway?
Phil: Well, uh, it’s like this. Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.
Tommy: Why don’t some people like them?
Phil: Well, I can’t really explain it, Tommy.
My favorite scenes are those with Dorothy McGuire’s tortured upper crust liberal, Kathy Lacey, who is so reluctant to face her own prejudices.
Phil: I’m going to let everybody know I’m Jewish.
Kathy: Jewish? But you’re not! Are you? Not that it would make any difference to me. But you said, “Let everybody know,” as if you really were. So I just wondered. Not that it would make any difference to me. (Pause.) Phil, you’re annoyed.
Phil: No, I’m just thinking.
Kathy: Well, don’t look serious about it. Surely you must know where I stand.
Phil: Oh, I do.
Kathy: You just caught me off-guard.
Tommy: They called me a dirty Jew and a stinking kike, and they all ran away.
Kathy: Oh, darling, it’s not true. You’re no more Jewish than I am. It’s just some horrible mistake.
There’s a gaggle of superb character actors in this film including John Garfield as Dave Goldman, Phil’s Jewish army buddy. Garfield, born Jacob Garfinkle, gives one of his best performances as the good-natured Dave who is philosophical about the bigotry he faces as a Jew in America. The always wonderful Anne Revere plays Peck’s nervous but supportive mother (“You think there’s enough anti-Semitism in life already without people reading about it?”), and Celeste Holm won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the fashion editor Anne Dettrey. June Havoc (the former real-life “Baby June” from “Gypsy”) plays a self-hating Jew named Elaine Wales (who changed her name from Estelle Walovsky) who works for Gregory Peck’s character.
Elaine: You just let them get one wrong Jew in here, and it’ll come out on us. It’s no fun taking the blame for the kikey ones.
Phil: Miss Wales, I’m going to be frank with you. I want you to know that words like kike and yid and coon and nigger make me sick no matter who says them.
Elaine: Oh, but I only said it about a type of Jew.
Phil: Well, it’s the word that I’m talking about.
Elaine: Oh, but sometimes I even say it about myself. Like, if I’m about to do something I know I shouldn’t, I’ll say, “Don’t be such a little kike.”
Wow. Is Gentleman’s Agreement an outdated relic with little relevance to current American culture? No way. There may not be any more restrictive covenants barring Jews from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or preventing Jews from checking into fancy hotels, but I think you’ll agree that bigotry is alive and well in this great land of ours. There’s plenty to go around for African Americans, Arabs, Latinos, gays, and about a million other groups. As long as we think such bigotry is the doing of a few silly snobs, like Dorothy McGuire’s character does, we run the risk of not taking seriously the very real threats to our democracy.
Samuel Goldwyn famously said that “pictures are entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Not true, Sam. I’m grateful for consciousness-raising (and entertaining) films like Gentleman’s Agreement along with many of important films we honored last night at this year’s Academy Awards.