Saratoga Jewish Community Arts opens its fall season with a panel discussion of the film Gentleman’s Agreement. This series is presented through a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York and sponsored by Temple Sinai and the program will be on zoom Sunday, September 18, at 7 PM. Gentleman’ Agreement, the 1947 film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck, for the first time made anti-Semitism the focus in prosperous postwar America and exposes the insidious way that Jews were excluded from social clubs, vacation resorts, and jobs. There were no official bans, just a nod and a wink and a “gentleman’s agreement” among conservative-minded Wasp gentiles that they knew the sort of people they wanted to associate with. Explicit bigoted language was common. The movie is adapted by Moss Hart from the bestseller of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson in which she was moved to write from outrage at the way a congressman had called the columnist Walter Winchell a despicable insulting name without anyone raising a murmur.
For an industry run primarily by Jews, Hollywood had long been fearful of any special pleading for Jewish causes. In the years the years leading up to the American entry into World War II, American films had chosen not to talk about the tenuous status of European Jewry, even in films ostensibly about the Nazi menace. At the time, Hollywood was rather reticent about mentioning Judaism explicitly, and, in fact, perhaps that still is somewhat unexceptional. The film’s lead character, journalist Phil Green, a charming and personable widower, is asked to write about anti-Semitism for his new employer, a liberal New York magazine. Phil, looking for a way to grab onto the subject, immerses himself in a character that he has decided is the only way he can really know what it feels like to experience the sense of anti-Semitism. However, Judaism and Jewishness are almost entirely absent in the story.
The film wants Jew and Gentile to be indistinguishable in human terms. However, there is no Jewish household visible, no Jewish culture, no menorah, no synagogue. The movie is very apolitical. The elephant in the room is the Holocaust; it is not mentioned, despite just having happened recently. This could be because the character and the film can’t quite absorb the paradox of the US having gone to war to defeat Hitler and American troops, having liberated numbers of camps…and yet nurturing vile anti-Semites at home.
The film is remarkable as much for what it chooses not to depict as what it does. It is a hard-hitting movie about anti-Semitism, unafraid of specificity in its choice of targets that nonetheless depicts anti-Jewish sentiment as being primarily confined to the types of people and places a well-heeled Manhattan journalist might encounter. In 1947, just two years after the end of World War II, talking about anti-Semitism without mentioning the fact that six million Jews had just been murdered in Europe is more than an oversight. It was a coverup. The irony was not lost on contemporary viewers. Hollywood wanted to be serious, but was still terribly afraid of any ugliness more lasting than social shame.
Gentleman’s Agreement will be on Sunday, September 18, at 7 PM. Registration required for zoom panel discussion is at email@example.com. The film is available for $3.99 rental from various providers including Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and You Tube.