Gentleman's Agreement and Anti-Semitism

Elia Kazan's film was Hollywood's first major attack on anti-Semitism. Kazan 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 changed many people's ideas about the treatment of Jews. Although the film limited itself to anti-Semitism in the upper class, professional world, 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!”

Scenes depicting the effects of prejudice are explicit in the film. These include: professional bias, discrimination by hotels, being called ugly names, and as previously mentioned, the effects on relationships. These kinds of scenes had never been seen before in a Hollywood movie. In the film's key scenes, Peck and John Garfield, his boyhood friend who is now a Jewish Army Captain just returned from Occupied Germany, have preachy, yet compelling dialogues about racial discrimination.

Although many critics, including director Kazan himself, tended to later discount Gentleman's Agreement, the film marked a stage in Hollywood's growing up by facing the important issues of race. It was Hollywood's first overtly “liberal” film. Kazan later said that the film was too smooth and glossy. On another occasion, Kazan compared “Gentleman's Agreement” to “an illustration for Cosmopolitan magazine.” Rather than genuinely affecting prejudiced viewers, Kazan later felt the film merely flattered audiences, giving them the illusion that they were already on the “good side,” and that they were more liberal than they thought.

The film faced a lot of resistance in production from the Hollywood establishment, which is telling of what a turning point it was in Hollywood history. Primarily, surprisingly enough, the film faces resistance from Hollywood's Jewish establishment. In fact, a meeting was held at Jack Warner's dining room where the wealthy Jewish community was to meet with “Gentleman's Agreement” producer Darryl F. Zanuck. They wanted to ask him, “Why make this picture” Their contention was that Jews were getting along fine in America, so it was a bad idea to stir things up with a movie. Zanuck sent Moss Hart in his place, with a message that Jack Warner and his friends could “go boil their bagels.” The Catholic-backed Breen office also opposed the film, but for a different reason. They objected to the Dorothy McGuire character, as she was a divorcee.

Around the time of the shooting of “Gentleman's Agreement,” actor Gregory Peck had to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee, but wound up not being accused as a Communist. He had made many donations to charities and thus was suspect. Kazan also came under suspect, especially since he had at one time been a member of the Communist Party. “Gentleman's Agreement” thus came to typify the sort of “liberal” filmmaking that came under fire from Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Over the years, many sociological studies have been done of “Gentleman's Agreement,” which supports the film's notable effects on changing audience members' prejudicial preconceptions. The most famous of these studies is Russell Middleton's 1960 study. By the way, social scientists have been studying how and to what extent films affect people's ethnic attitudes since the 1930s. In the early thirties, a psychologist named Lewis L. Thurstone tested the effects of several features, including “Birth of a Nation,” for how they significantly increased anti-black prejudice.

In the late 1950s, Middleton advanced this line of study by testing the effects of “Gentleman's Agreement” upon the anti-Semitic attitudes of white college students, concentrating on the idea of “receiver's persuasability.” He discovered that this film significantly reduced their anti-Semitism. Middleton examined the effects of Gentleman's Agreement upon college students who had different demographic and personality characteristics, including: sex, home residence, degree of personal anxiety and social isolation, socioeconomic status, status concern, conservatism, authoritarianism, religious orthodoxy, and initial degree of anti-Semitism.

The film was marginally more effective in reducing anti-Semitism of women than that of men, but the only truly significant receiver variable in terms of persuasability was the initial degree of anti-Semitism. Middleton's attitude-measurement scale had certain inherent problems that made it difficult to draw definite conclusions.

However, Middleton found that the amount of attitude change that took place was related to the receiver's recognition of the specific theme. He concluded that “people who are chiefly to blame for the persistence and growth of anti-Semitism are the decent, intelligent individuals who are not anti-Semitic but who remain passive and take no militant steps to stamp out prejudice.” In other subsequent studies, there was evidence that “Gentleman's Agreement” increased viewer toleration of other marginalized groups as well as of Jews.

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