Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Disagreeing with a Gentleman’s Agreement

With harsh words in Congress, a massacre in Philadelphia, and mock Nazi salutes in Orange County, California, the specter of anti-Semitism seems once again to be rearing its ugly head. Which puts me in mind of a movie my parents let me stay up to watch, many decades ago, on the late-late show. Gentleman’s Agreement, based on a best-selling novel, was released in 1947, a scant two years after Hitler’s Germany went down to defeat, and with it the Nazi plan to remove all Jews from the face of the earth. Gentleman’s Agreement, though, had nothing to say about death camps or refugees from Europe. Instead it dealt with the insidious way that anti-Jewish bias could be seen as part and parcel of American life. It’s pleasant to think that such bias is part of a bygone era, that America has learned acceptance of those of Jewish ethnicity, if not of African-Americans, gays, Latinos, Muslims, and other minority groups. But after some recent headlines, I’m not so sure.

The victims in Gentleman’s Agreement do not  look or act different from mainstream Americans. This is not a film arguing for tolerance on behalf of those whose customs or speech or form of worship single them out as “other.”  The main “Jew” in the film is the very handsome, very All-American Gregory Peck. I put the word in quotes because Peck’s character, hard-hitting investigative journalist Philip Schuyler Green, has assumed a Jewish identity only for the sake of an article-in-progress,  “I Was a Jew for Six Months.” Having previously lived in hobo camps to write about poverty, Green now takes on the overtly Jewish name Phil Greenberg to find out for himself what bigotry lies beneath the polite surface of American life. As the newly-minted Greenberg, Peck looks no different, sounds no different, acts no different than he did as Schuyler Green. But suddenly he’s refused service at nice hotels, his landlord looks askance at his name on the mailbox, and his son gets roughed up by classmates. When he’s a guest of honor at a party in the tony, “restricted” community of Darien, Connecticut, guests start cancelling.

A key character in Gentleman’s Agreement is Dave Goldman,  a longtime friend of Schuyler Green. Just back from military service and trying to enter civilian life, Dave has developed a thick hide and a cynical outlook to protect himself from the constant slings and arrows of bigots. (In one restaurant scene, we witness a nasty attack on him by a pugnacious drunk, and it seems near-impossible for him to find housing for himself and his young family.) The role is played by John Garfield, the real-life son of Russian immigrants. The rich irony is that Garfield became a star in Hollywood only after studio bosses insisted he give up his birth name, Jacob Julius Garfinkle.

In Gentleman’s Agreement (the title refers to the unspoken “rules” that prevent non-WASPs from fully participating in American life), Jews are not entirely let off the hook. In the offices of Schuyler Green’s editor, he’s surprised to discover that his newly-appointed secretary, played by June Havoc, is covertly Jewish. She’s pleased to have him as a boss, but she’s strongly opposed to his campaign to accept workers of all backgrounds at the magazine. She’s worried, you see,  about the potential presence of the “wrong” kind of Jews, those who might conform to the stereotypes (“loud,” “pushy,” “garish) with which American Jews have been saddled. The film’s strongest condemnation, though, is of the “nice” people who stay silent  when others face ridicule, or worse, because of who they are.

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