The political crusading drama reappeared in the late 1940s, when Hollywood devoted its efforts to exploring racial discrimination, first against Jews, then against blacks and Indians. The 1947 Oscar-winning film was Elia Kazan's "Gentleman's Agreement," based on Laura Z. Hobson's novel and adapted to the screen by Moss Hart, which illustrated the cruelties and injustices of anti-Semitism.
Although "Gentleman's Agreement" seems tame and naïve by today's standards, it was definitely a big step in the maturation of Hollywood. Leonard Quart and Albert Auster have correctly noted that the political crusading dramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s conveyed "an optimism which refused to see any problem as insoluble," but at least these films were directly confronting problems. Amazingly, "Gentleman's Agreement" was the first time the word "Jew" was used explicitly in a mainstream film.
Kazan's film was Hollywood's first major attack on anti-Semitism. The director once said that the film was saying to the audience: "You are an average American and you are anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is in you."
This film is supposed to have changed many people's ideas about the treatment of Jews. Although the narrative examined anti-Semitism as it prevailed in the upper classes and professional worlds, thus entertaining the late 1940s "station-wagon-set," "Gentleman's Agreement" did bring the fundamental issue of anti-Semitism to the screen for the first time.
"Gentleman's Agreement" set off a cycle of social problem films about racial issues, which included "Pinky" (1949), "Home of the Brave" (1949), "Intruder in the Dust" (1949), "Devil's Doorway" (1949), "Broken Arrow" (1950), "Apache" (1954), "The Lawless" (1950), and "Viva Zapata!" (1952).
In the film, Gregory Peck plays a crusading journalist who decides to pose as a Jew in order to experience racial prejudice first-hand. All for the sake of a magazine article. Like most social consciousness films of the time, "Gentleman's Agreement" also has a romance, here between the daughter (Dorothy McGuire) of Peck's publisher and journalist Peck. McGuire turns out to be bigoted enough herself to nearly nix the affair; despite her intelligence, she just cannot shake her prejudices. In one of the film's best lines, she tells Peck, "Don't treat me to anymore lessons in tolerance. I'm sick of it!"
"Gentleman's Agreement" was praised by most critics, with one finding it to be "more savagely arresting and properly resolved as a picture than it was as a book," and describing its script as "electric with honest reportage." Its major competitor for the Oscars of 1947 was Edward Dmytryk's "Crossfire," which lost in each of its five nominated categories. "Crossfire"'s nominated screenplay, by John Paxton, was based on Richard Brooks's novel The Brick Foxhole, though in a typically Hollywood manner it changed the book's homosexual hero into a Jew.
In retrospect, many critics feel that "Crossfire" is a better film than "Gentleman's Agreement" in every aspect: theme, characterization, acting, and visual style. Also dealing with racial bigotry, although more disguised, it was directed by Dmytryk as a tense noir thriller about an obsessive, psychopathic sergeant (Robert Ryan, who specialized in this kind of role), who beats a Jewish ex-sergeant to death. Detective Finlay (Robert Young), helped by sergeant Keely (Robert Mitchum), sets out to trap the killer. Like Gentleman's Agreement, it is a heavy message film, with many speeches against prejudice, but it boasts great acting by Ryan and Gloria Grahame, as a floozy dance hall girl, who were both nominated for supporting awards.
That "Gentleman's Agreement" was voted Best Picture more for ideological than considerations is clear not only from its win over "Crossfire, but also in its win over David Lean's masterpiece, "Great Expectations." The Academy proved that when weighing a film's contents against its style, the former counts more. "Gentleman's Agreement" won two other awards, for Director Kazan, and for Supporting Actress Celeste Holm, who had all the biting dialogue.
Anne (Celeste Holm): "Tell me, why is it that every man who seems attractive these days is either married or barred on a technicality?"