“It’s hard to talk about abstract issues.” Commentator Mr. Schickel remarks about the prejudice issue in “Gentleman’s Agreement.”
“See? That’s how it was then.” I still hear my father’s voice.
Intolerance is not abstract when it happens to you, as Gregory Peck finds out when he is on the receiving end of prejudice. I learned this myself on a handful of occasions in my life when certain people I met over the years told jokes and made derogatory remarks about “those people” of that country from where my mother’s parents had emigrated. I had the anonymity of my father’s surname, so they did not know they were insulting my mother and myself. When I informed them that I was one of “those people” they did a little verbal tap dancing. I was less apt to live and let live with these people, admittedly because it was me they were insulting. Abstract issues? Not when it’s you, and my experiences have been nothing compared to what others have faced.
Expressions of prejudice may change, but one thing remains constant in the human experience. There are always going to be some people for whom being just as good as anybody else is never going to be enough. They must be superior. Since actually being superior is out of their reach, they go the easier method by insisting that others are inferior.
How interesting that today much of the former open vehemence of prejudice has shifted from the now socially unacceptable derision against race or religion to the more socially acceptable ridicule of political affiliation.
“Conservative” and “liberal” are used today like dirty words, accusing labels, where the opposing political party, or politician, or even individual voter, is vilified with a degree of condescension, arrogance, and meanness that would appall most of us were it applied against a person’s race or religion. It is no longer enough to simply disagree. We must condemn. Those people.
I don’t know when it started, but our need to compromise as laid out by the founding fathers morphed into a need to bash each other mercilessly. The first time I can personally remember seeing this evolve was in college when a schoolmate and I discovered we were members of opposite political parties. Though I was unconcerned for my part, her surprise was overwhelming, and she blurted out, “You can’t be! Really? But you seem so intelligent!”
In today’s political climate I might be defensive, but at the time it cracked me up and I laughed.
Just before the scene where Gregory Peck goes to the restricted hotel for the showdown, he retorts to Dorothy McGuire that he must stand up to the bigots because they insult “everything this country stands for.”
The phrase seems to make Mr. Schickel squirm. “I don’t know. ‘Everything this country stands for.’ See, you know, maybe there’s a way to just slightly avoid that line. I think we’ve got it.”
Avoid that line? That line is the whole point of the movie. That’s the point of this nation. That seems to be what George Washington thought when he visited the synagogue at Truro, Rhode Island and declared to the Jewish community, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Idealism has the air of naiveté or even falseness to us these days where cynicism equates sophistication. Fear mongering has replaced it as a hip and edgy alternative.
Now we have a new President. Those who did not vote for Barack Obama will be disappointed, as it is only human to be disappointed when the candidate you did not want for office wins. We are on the brink of a hopeful time with a new President who embodies the diversity of our society, but we are also at a perilous time, and not strictly because of outside threats or economic collapse. There is another insidious problem, deep at our core. We get lazy. Some decent people who did not want Senator Obama to win might say nothing to the bigoted, the resentful, the fear mongers, preferring smug silence, satisfied that the one they did not want to win will not have an easy time of it. A good chunk of “Gentleman’s Agreement” is about guarding ourselves from our worst impulses, from taking the easy out.
After 9-11 there was a great call out to moderate Muslims to distance themselves from the radical Muslims and condemn their terrorist actions. Why were they not more vocal, protest their indignation, many wanted to know.
That’s what the movie’s about, too. As the Dorothy McGuire character had to learn, it’s not enough to be a nice person who would never act like a rude nutcase. She learns that in silence lies not only cowardice; there lies complicity.
On this point, I observed the influence of four people in my younger years. These were my father, who bristled at people who thought they were so great, and my mother, who disdained nonsense.
The other two people were John Garfield, who played a quiet but intense scene with Dorothy McGuire where he showed that a person could talk frankly about prejudice, but still maintain gentlemanly kindness, and Dorothy McGuire, who went through a scene-after-scene crisis of conscience, and got the message at the 11th hour with shamed self-revelation. My mother would have admired her epiphany of self knowledge. My father would have admired her humility.
I liked that it showed the possibility of redemption exists for us and our society. Such redemption takes courage, and it also takes practice.
There is of course, that final ironic aspect to “Gentleman’s Agreement”, the aftermath. Several people connected with the film had their careers and their lives damaged by the Committee for House Un-American Activities, abetted by the bigoted Congressman John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi). This man who spat racial slurs on the floor of the House of Representatives took particular interest in Jews on whom he could pin Communist affiliations, which made Garfield, a Jewish man in a watershed movie about anti-Semitism that some people in some parts of this country were trying to ban from being shown, a prime target. A film so controversial that a handful of Jewish studio heads wouldn’t touch it.
But June Havoc (real name Hovick), and producer Daryl Zanuck could not escape just because they were not actually Jewish: their names sounded Jewish to somebody. Guilt by surname consonants is an unusual reason to call someone to defend their patriotism. But these days we can still see how it could happen. President-elect Obama’s middle name of Hussein caused more than one ignorant person to assume he was Muslim, which to them must mean he was a terrorist, or at least anti-American. My mother’s first name was changed to sound less foreign and more American. She would have identified with President-elect Obama in that on his father’s side at least, he is first generation American as she was.
Anne Revere, who played Gregory Peck’s mother in the film, a descendent of Revolutionary era figure Paul Revere, obviously had a very American name and very American family heritage, but that did her no good. She was not Jewish, either, but she was married to a Jew, so evidently that was enough to not escape the Committee. That and the fact she refused to cooperate with the Committee (unlike the film’s director, Mr. Kazan who famously did, as well as Mr. Zanuck ). As Miss Revere is quoted, "I'm a free thinking Yankee rebel and nobody's going to tell me what to do!"
They nailed her good. That’s one Academy Award winning actress we won’t be bothered with again. Well, that Paul Revere relative of hers was a radical himself. They’re all alike. Those people.
To persecution, no assistance, George Washington said, rather naively.
We also have calls these days, not unlike the days of the Communist witch hunts, for an investigation into who is anti-American among our elected officials, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) most recently vocal among them. Hard to tell who is anti-American with everybody rather self consciously wearing the same flag pins on their lapels. To some people, anyone who does not agree with them is anti-American, which makes accusing people very easy and convenient.
“See? That’s how it was then,” my father shook his head at the TV where “Gentleman’s Agreement” showed us a world of decades ago where nice people allowed prejudice to flourish right under their noses, when people with “foreign sounding” names were suspect, when politics got so nasty that people were forced to prove their patriotism in public forums.
“You know,” Mr. Schickel allows, “antique as this movie sometimes seems in some of its aspects, the truth is that at that time it was an important statement to make.”
Antique a movie? Dated and preachy, the labels from which this film has yet to escape. “Casablanca” is also dated and preachy, but its bad guys were the Nazis, so we don’t mind speeches against them. In “Gentleman’s Agreement”, we are the bad guys, or we could be if we’re not careful. That’s the difference.
“It was a good movie for the moment,” Mr. Schickel comments.
I agree, but I will add that maybe the moment is now.
Incidents, these days, of cowardly thugs leaving nooses displayed on college campuses, a factory, even a United States Coast Guard training ship. Here’s a link to a story about an incident of refusing to hire Jews or African-Americans, these days. We’ve just been subjected to one of the most hostile campaign seasons in years, with much of the hostility flourishing on the blogs of anybody with an ax to grind. In such a climate, we have little right to be so blasé about this old, dated, preachy movie.
“It is a little weird why she’s taken so long to learn such a simple lesson,” Mr. Schickel complains about the film. This nation has so far taken well over 200 years, since George Washington’s day, in its continuing struggle to sort out prejudice. It takes Dorothy McGuire just under two hours.
I do not believe “Gentleman’s Agreement” has lost any of its edginess, its eloquence, or its relevance. The trouble is, grass grew over the ground it broke.
See? That’s how it is these days, Father.