Monday, November 3, 2008

Then and Now: Gentleman's Agreement - Part 1

“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) is often labeled today as dated or preachy. This is what I’d like to address in this post. Observations could be offered on director Elia Kazan’s work on this film and on the performances, but that could be for another time.

Because of this essay’s length, this will be divided into two posts, beginning today and concluding Thursday.

The 2003 DVD release of “Gentleman’s Agreement” features a commentary by two actresses in the film, Celeste Holm and June Havoc, and by film historian and critic Richard Schickel. I think the comparison of their comments on this film best illustrates the road this movie has taken from being seen as edgy and eloquent at its release, and seen today as being quite dated or preachy. Though Mr. Schickel (whose vast experience of having written many books and articles on film can be viewed here at his website) acknowledges at the outset that the film was a “pioneering study of anti-Semitism in America” he quickly demonstrates what I think has become common among critics today, both those experienced and knowledgeable and those not: a certain condescension over this movie. There is perhaps a wish to like it better, a grudging sense of obligation to note its place in film history, but a nagging discomfort about how it holds up today.

(Being aware of Mr. Schickel’s opinions on the validity of critic bloggers, I write this post, which challenges some of his remarks, with some amusement, but with sincerity. Despite my challenges to his commentary, he provides insightful remarks, including on the career of director Elia Kazan, the subject of one of Mr. Schickel’s books.)

Mr. Schickel’s remarks contrast sharply with the comments by Miss Havoc and Miss Holm, who both speak unapologetically of the idealism of the film. Miss Holm seems to almost respond directly to Mr. Schickel’s more cynical, rather “yeah, whatever” attitude with, “The writers had a real sense of responsibility to the audience. They had a point. They were written for a reason. That seems to have gone out of style.”

At times Mr. Schickel seems to vacillate in his opinions, wavering. While he notes the “great American silence” on prejudice which prompted the book by Laura Z. Hobson and the film, he complains that the characters’ passion as expressed by Moss Hart’s script “kind of over-explains what’s really sort of not that difficult a moral issue.”

Not that difficult a moral issue? It was then. I think it still is now, for many people.

His opinion may reflect his own experiences, which in his case is the longtime analysis of film, which may make him more sophisticated. We mostly speak from our experiences, just as June Havoc and Celeste Holm speak from theirs. However, Miss Havoc’s and Miss Holm’s voices come over as authentic, as people whose experiences give them a certain cache on this issue and this movie, because of having lost none of their idealism of the era and a film which was so dangerous for them to make. Mr. Schickel’s comments are truly from another era, in contrast emotionally remote, and occasionally irritatingly irrelevant, as when he remarks, “Notice how guys always wore hats in the movies in those days? It’s funny, we don’t do that anymore, wear hats,” followed by chuckles at his own remarks.

My first experience seeing this film was many years ago, watching it on television with my parents. I don’t normally like to interject personal stores in this blog, because then it becomes a blog about me and not about old movies. But I hope you’ll indulge me.

My mother grew up in a poor urban neighborhood of many ethic groups, religions, and races. She referred to it as a League of Nations. Because she pre-dated the United Nations, to her, it was always the League of Nations. Most were from Eastern Europe, but there was a fair representation of immigrants from the Balkan countries, the countries around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, some from Asia, Quebec, but the majority at this time were from Eastern Europe. To these immigrants, the most “American” people in the neighborhood were the people whom they called Negroes or colored people, because they had been in the US for several generations and could speak English well. Next in being more “American” came the Irish family that lived around the corner; they had been here probably two or three generations. But everyone else were newcomers, most of them escaping something unpleasant in the old country.

Though this polyglot neighborhood could be said to represent the whole world, to my mother the real world was outside of it. The world was what she thought she saw in the movies. Hollywood’s view of the US and the world was pretty narrow in those days, but not to a young girl who was enchanted by what she saw on the silver screen.

When she was a teenager, she got a job in a big downtown department store. It had marble, and elevators, and well-mannered, well-speaking sales clerks. It was just like in the movies. She worked in some sort of seasonal part-time stock or inventory capacity. She did not wait on customers. She and a handful of other teenaged girls hung clothing or unpacked merchandise, and when nobody was looking, playfully slipped the expensive fur coats over their shoulders and pretended what it was like to be those people that shopped here, those people that had lives that were just like in the movies.

At some point, I don’t know if it was while she was still employed there or sometime afterwards, but she found out that the store was “restricted” in its hiring policy. They did not hire Jews.

This brought her up short, because she was an analytical person. This restriction on Jews did not add up.

Her closest neighbors were Jews in the tenement where she lived. She identified with the people who were restricted from working in that store more than she identified with the people who owned the store or shopped in the store. She had long admired the store and the movie upper crust it represented. She accepted that they were her social superiors. She could see that they were: they had education, better clothes (them fur coats), and a lot of money. But the idea that they assumed she was good enough to hire and the Jewish families in the building and the neighborhood who probably went through Ellis Island the same time as her parents were not made her question how logical these social superiors really were.

She did not speak English at home. Her first name had been changed by a self-conscious older sister at the time she enrolled my mother in kindergarten to sound less foreign and more “American”, just as she had change her own name. What would the store think of her if they knew this?

My mother watched “Gentleman’s Agreement” and thought of this when Gregory Peck, posing as a Jew, tries to register in a hotel that is, like the store she worked at, restricted. The years melted away, and it all came back.

It was a scene my father liked. He was less analytical about prejudice than my mother. With something of a chip on his shoulder, he bristled under the arrogance of bigotry. Though he had seen “Gentleman’s Agreement” before, I think when the hotel scene came up, he was hoping that this time Gregory Peck would sock somebody. He liked movies where somebody got socked.

He shared an experience he had as a recruit in World War II, traveling on a troop train, heading for basic training in the South. An African-American recruit among them was told when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, to move to the back. My father and a few others questioned this and complained. They were told, “Boys, you don’t know where you are.”

The remark grew less cryptic the more they saw as they traveled further south.

My father remarked that the first time he saw “colored only” signs, it made him sick. Once on a pass from camp, he and another buddy or two tried to make use of a “colored only” restroom to show what they thought of this segregation business, and were informed, I think by an MP, that they were not to try this again. I’m paraphrasing.

These two incidents of prejudice witnessed by my parents were not the stuff of mob violence. They knew nothing of lynchings or pogroms. These incidents were mild in comparison to the experiences of others, but though there was no mob violence, there was mob rule. There was an insidious consensus that this is the way it should be. It was, if you will, a “gentleman’s agreement.”

Raised again, the specter of their memories, by an old movie considered by some critics today to be no longer relevant. To be a quaint museum piece of its day.

In a way, my parents felt so, too. I recall my father gesturing to the film on TV excitedly, “See? That’s how it was in those days.” They marveled that the world had changed so much in their lifetime.

A few months ago, someone was telling me the story of how someone they knew, a friend of a friend, got a great bargain shopping somewhere because they “jewed down” the seller.

I was as astonished by the use of the archaic phrase as much as by its malicious inference. I can’t remember what my comment was, but evidently my remarks and my expression were enough to make the speaker quickly respond, “I know. I shouldn’t say that, huh?” With a slight embarrassed chuckle, the person changed the subject.

Within the past couple of decades, a handful of incidents like this stand out when I watch “Gentleman’s Agreement” today, just as when my parents were reminded of incidents from their past. I recall the time a non-Jewish friend telling me of a new boyfriend and right after telling me his German-sounding surname saying, as if to assure me, “But he’s not Jewish.” Again, her instant embarrassment at what she said when I pointed out this was not a matter of great importance to me. The time another acquaintance, upset at being laid off from her job, ranted that her employer’s being Jewish was the cause of his unfairness to her, because those people were all alike and didn’t I think so?

I disagreed, politely but firmly refusing to placate her. Another time someone else complained of being the victim of backstabbing by a co-worker, who in this case was African-American. She pulled the “N-word” out of her holster and fired it off. I told her I did not like that word and the conversation was over if she used it again. This time an apology.

In each case I do not believe I changed the attitudes of any of these people; I only showed them they would not change mine. Less enamored of confrontation than my father, I prefer mannerly stubbornness. To my knowledge, my relationships did not suffer with these people for challenging their remarks. They backed off, and I for my part was willing to live and let live. None of us have halos; we all mess up sometimes. My parents, I’m sure, experienced occasions where prejudice rose up and they said nothing. For each of us, life is a learning process that never ends.

Despite my parents’ view that times had changed, all of these people to whom I had to say “please stop” were born in that supposedly enlighten era after 1947. They grew up in the great modern society my parents thought had eradicated restricted hotels and society’s acceptance of prejudice, all the “gentleman’s agreements”. These acquaintances were not dangerous nutcases, but basically decent people with bad habits.

Albert Dekker, who plays the editor, Mr. Minify, in the film remarks, “There just isn’t anything bigger than beating down the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice.” Preachy and dated?

I’ll see you Thursday.

No comments:

Related Products