Thursday, November 6, 2008

Then and Now: Gentleman's Agreement - Part 2

“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.


Anonymous said...

Your thoughts are very clear here, Jacqueline. I enjoyed these posts very much. You've uncovered much about the film, the times in which it was produced, our own times, good and weak DVD commentary tracks, and yourself. I have a lot to comment about these posts. Let's start here:

“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.

“See? That’s how it was then.”

“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.”

“It was a good movie for the moment,”

It is precisely this sort of presentism that makes reading or listening to the DVD commentary of critics or so-called historians so painfully irritating for me too. It is also among the reasons why I wanted to explore films of the past myself--and make up my own mind about them--the reason why I adore blogs like yours, and why films as history are important to our understanding of the past.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Thom. I agree with you that films as history are an important to our understanding of the past.

I've heard some commentaries I thought were good. Some were not that great. Sometimes hearing the directors on the commentary track of modern films is even more disappointing. I recall one who confessed in more than one scene he didn't know what he was looking for, or why he shot something in a particular way. It sounded like he didn't care much.

Sometime I'd actually like to discuss the details of the film rather than its legacy, but for now, I felt it was more important to say some things that weren't being said.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you said, or wrote, them. I wonder if the details of the film and its legacy aren't intertwined. I want to pick up on one of the things you wrote about near the end of the second-half of the post:

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.

I think the difference between the way this movie and Casablanca are remembered is a matter of critical consensus. Gentleman's Agreement is considered a timely picture that grapples with a social ill prevalent at the time of its release and Casablanca a timeless one. The latter film's themes are thought to transcend its content while the same notion isn't accepted of Gentleman's Agreement. Isn't that so? I think we'll need to delve into the film itself to understand why and/or to argue for a recognition of the timeless nature of the picture.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I think you've articulated the core issue very well. I think you've hit it exactly, that one film such as "Casablanca" could be regarded as timeless, while "Gentleman's Agreement" is not.

"I think we'll need to delve into the film itself to understand why and/or to argue for a recognition of the timeless nature of the picture."

Human nature does not change, though societies do change, which I suppose is a conundrum by itself. There is sometimes an emotional and philosophical clash. The thing I like best about "Gentleman's Agreement" is it deals with this clash in teh form of prejudice among nice people. It's easy to pick out a raging bigot. The villany in this movie is more subtle. The film forces us to be more introspective, because all the characters are forced to be more introspective.

I think it's wrong to write this movie off as a museum piece. Moreover, to do so smacks of an arrogant defensiveness unworthy of our era of so-called truth and realism.

However, there may be another element to the movie which does not easily translate to today, and that is the suggestion that the "nice" people in this movie represent the educated upper class. We still have levels of our society marked by our income, but there is perhaps the notion that we have become a classless society. (There's a pun here, but unintended.)

Today we have celebrities, sometimes very young ones, earning enormous amounts of money but never entering what we used to call the upper class. This might be partly due to their backgrounds before their celebrity, partly due to unfortunate public behavior or not-so-private scandal, and partly due to our viewing an upper class perhaps as an archaic cartoon.

The very fur-coat, chauffeur in livery lifestyle my mother idolized in her girlhood has become, as least as far as modern viewers see it, as too elite to be imagined or too cartoonish to be taken seriously.

Perhaps "Gentleman's Agreement" could not be filmed today, not with any empathy or understanding of the characters, the class division, and the subject. And maybe that's why many feel this film has little relevance for them today.

Class division in the old movies would be a good subject for a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Can we follow the timely/timeless idea just a little bit farther ( I'm very interested in reading more of your thoughts on class division in movies of the past)? I meant to write something a little bit differently above...

I agree, the central ideas in Gentleman's Agreement remain relevant: not only realizing and overcoming our own prejudices but recognizing bigotry when we encounter it and refusing to tolerate it. As you say, these ideas are still sharp because they're parts of human nature, parts that we all have to come to grips with in some way. However, is this message enough for us to consider Gentleman's Agreement a timeless motion picture rather than a timely one? Not if timeless refers to more than just the theme(s) of a picture.

What I actually intended to write about the timely vs. timeless debate above is that Casablanca can be considered a timeless picture because the content transcends the theme (not the other way 'round, sorry). A willingness to sacrifice ourselves for something more important than ourselves is a great theme, but the casting and chemistry between the stars, the flashback romance, unforgettable performances, the sheer number of memorable lines of dialogue delivered with natural flair, the integration of Sam's music into the narrative, the liminal location, the exotic look and feel of the crossroads setting in Rick's Cafe American, etc. -- These are the aspects of the filmmaking that combine with the theme to create an experience that one wants to return to again and again. I'm not sure if we can say the same about the way Gentleman's Agreement tells its story.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Here's a thought. "Gentleman's Agreement" was meant from the start to be a serious message movie. The script follows quite closely the novel, which was written directly as a response to a report of a congressman using anti-semitic slurs on the floor of the House, and the other representatives cheering him.

No studio would touch this serious movie, until Daryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox took a courageous stand. Gregory Peck and several other of the actors were warned not to take roles in the film because it would damage their careers. Peck himself was specifically warned that people might really think he was Jewish.

Most of these actors took these roles for idealistic reasons, to take a stand on an issue.

Gregory Peck, who plays the "hero" if you will, is seen perhaps in a less sympathetic light than some of his other idealistic roles because he is so rigid, so confirmed in his stance against bigotry. Some reviewers have suggested this makes his performance and the film unappealing. (I see his obsession with his quest as being his character's necessary human flaw. He has to have one. This is more clear in the novel.)

The one who undergoes the most emotional turmoil is the Dorothy McGuire character, who represents the nice girl, the prototype good American daughter and sister. (Though her playing a divorcee is unusual in this era.) How can the nice girl be a bigot?

For all of these reasons, "Gentleman's Agreement" is tough for some viewers to cozy up to. There's a lot of baggage attached to it. However, ironically, it was reportedly the top grossing film of that year.

I feel the film, for reasons of current social and political issues, is timely for today. Perhaps being timely for today also means timeless, perhaps it does not.

Timeless, well, that can be a different set of criteria. "Casablanca" is timeless perhaps because it is unrealistic, a fairly tale. It is easy to couch a tale of heroism in a fantastic environment which none of us have ever, or will ever, experience.

How more courageous is it to stand up to everyday intolerance? Nobody's wearing white dinner jackets at the company picnic. Our interaction with our friends, family and co-workers is the only gauntlet most of us run to prove our integrity.

Let's compare this film instead to "The Best Years of Our Lives" which deals with real issues, but issues which were very much locked in the year this film was made. They cannot be duplicated today, except that the homecoming of military personnel is always filled with variables of joy, anxiety, depression, etc. This film may not be timeless either, but it is timely for today.

I still cannot help but feel that "Best Years" is warmly received even today and remains popular where "Gentleman's Agreement" has the stigma of preaching, is because the message of "Gentleman's Agreement" is directed at our conscience more than our heartstrings.

"Casablanca", well there again, once you've got Nazis as bad guys, there is no moral dilemna directed at the audience. They are not in Rick's. They are safe from harm and any crisis of conscience.

Marilyn said...

I'm in my 50s and Jewish, and I just saw Gentleman's Agreement for the first time a few weeks ago. I think the preachiness label it has been tagged with probably put me off, as well as an antipathy I have for Gregory Peck and his stiff acting style.

I must say I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this film is. It reminded me of Black Like Me, a book I really admire and love. I could identify with Sam Jaffe's assertion that he will remain Jewish as long as there are people who hate Jews. I also loved Garfield's line about Peck being able to end his experiment now that his son has been attacked. "Now you know it all."

There is still a huge amount of prejudice of every stripe in this country, and it's hard for me to reconcile my admiration for Schickel and his remarks about this film. I think people do not like to be reminded that America isn't the land of equal opportunity we'd like to think it is; Schickel seems to want to believe that the country has changed quite a bit. Yet, we still haven't had a Jewish president. Or a woman. Perhaps your parents' neighbors were right about African Americans being the most American, if Barack Obama is an indication of how deeply rooted a group must be before they can ascend to the top job.

The film isn't wrapped around lovable actors like Tracy and Hepburn, and even Poitier, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. My criticism is that Peck and McGuire made up in the end. They should have stayed broken up; that would be real, that is, if Peck really was as rigidly opposed to prejudice as you suggest. I personally believe that even when made to stand in someone else's shoes, people who come from privilege are very happy to get back to "normal".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Marilyn, thank you so much for your insightful comments on "Gentleman's Agreement". I'm glad you agree that it is a good film, and that perhaps part of the tag of preachiness it bears is due to our own reticence to face personal prejudice.

I also like the Sam Jaffe character. He gives strength to the film, and a humanity that Peck's narrowly focused quest does not always have.

The characters reconcile at the end pretty much because they do in the book. I think this is meant to be a hopeful nod to the prospect that we can mend our differences in a spirit not just of reconciliation, but of redeeming ourselves of our faults. I will say that I like the way the film tagged on the scene with Garfield and McGuire in which she finally faces her latent prejudice and her fear of taking a stance on it. In the book, she slowly comes to this conclusion by herself. A film can't be so introspective and needs to be dramatic, so they had this scene to force the character to speak aloud her feelings and come to the conclusion that in the book took her weeks.

You may be right when you say that people from privilege are very happy to get back to normal. It might be a more "realistic" movie if they remained apart, but it would not be as uplifting as I believe the film really is. Forgiving and being forgiven is a big part of our personal development.

Thanks so much again for your comments, and welcome to the blog.

Marilyn said...

Glad to be here. I found you on Cinema Styles. Any friend of Jonathan's is a friend of mine.

I do think the film, when it was released, was meant to offer hope and give people a mirror onto their own, sometimes unconscious attitudes. Philadelpha is a film I didn't like very much, but I saw how it opened eyes among some people I knew who were casually prejudiced against a lot of people, including homosexuals.

I, too, liked Garfield's scene with McGuire. It was so honest and realistic. It was the enactment of the phrase "Evil flourishes when good men do nothing."

I don't often like didactic feature films, but the well-crafted ones provide dramatic satisfaction as well as food for thought. I like that a lot.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Jonathan's blog is excellent.

"I don't often like didactic feature films, but the well-crafted ones provide dramatic satisfaction as well as food for thought. I like that a lot."

Well said. I suppose it's a fine line to walk for films which try to put forth some social message. Maybe "Gentleman's Agreement" works to some degree because it holds up a mirror and reflects accurately the era in which it was made. That it also happens to continue to reflect in some measure our era, is the thing that moves me.

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