The death of Gregory Peck on June 12 sparked extensive media commentary on how his film performances epitomized the best, most accepting, aspects of American culture. While almost all of the appreciations began by praising his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch, a Southern lawyer defending an African-American man accused of raping a white woman in the 1962 masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they then immediately mentioned his performance as Philip Schuyler in Elia Kazan’s seminal 1947 movie “Gentleman’s Agreement,” one of the first Hollywood films to confront antisemitism.
Indeed, both the film itself, as well as Peck’s performance as a muckraking, gentile reporter who “passes” as a Jew in order to expose the prevalence of middle-class antisemitism, have become ingrained in the popular imagination as the first milestone in popular culture to deal with this topic. Even the title of the film –– which was based on Laura Z. Hobson’s widely praised 1946 novel –– instantly became inextricably identified with the phenomenon of “genteel” antisemitism. But, as important as both the novel and film were in fostering a public discussion of antisemitism, the historical context and critical evaluation of the film are more complicated.
Many of those who praise Kazan’s film and Peck’s performance as groundbreaking are not aware of another popular and highly praised 1947 film, released only months before “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which also grappled with the problem of antisemitism. Edward Dmytryk’s “Crossfire” –– based on Richard Brooks’s 1945 novel “The Brick Foxhole” –– was a film-noir detective story about the murder of a Jewish veteran by a rabidly Jew-hating army sergeant. “Crossfire” quickly ran into pre-production problems; representatives of the American Jewish Committee, who feared that the film would reinforce, not contest, audience’s prejudices, urged that production be halted and that the murder victim be changed from a Jew to an African-American. But AJCommittee failed and, even with its modest $500,000 budget, “Crossfire” went on to be nominated for two Academy Awards.
“Gentleman’s Agreement,” however, was considered a far classier, more culturally important project. Not only was Hobson’s novel judged an immediate classic, but directed by the acclaimed Kazan, scripted by Moss Hart, and starring Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Celeste Holm and John Garfield, the film was instantly viewed as a “quality” production. AJCommittee once again voiced its fears that even a discussion of antisemitism in popular culture could lead to a rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in the audience, but again it lost. “Gentleman’s Agreement” achieved huge success, winning three Academy Awards and gaining a reputation as one of the most important socially redeeming films ever made in Hollywood.
But for all the praise, “Gentleman’s Agreement” was subject to criticism from the beginning. Some people felt that it’s gentile-as-Jew plot, while effective as a narrative device, essentially undercut its progressive message. One Hollywood wag noted — in a story that is ascribed to a number of sources –– that the message of the film was that you should always be nice to Jews because they might turn out to be gentiles later on. And even Hart’s script suffered from political naiveté that, crossed with its political earnestness, produced some very embarrassing scenes. When Peck’s character tries to imagine how his Jewish friend, Dave, would write the story, the master plan at the heart of the film comes to him; looking in a mirror, he intones in a heartfelt voice: “I’ll be Jewish. All I’ve got to do is say it. I’ve even got a title, ‘I was Jewish for six months.’ Hmm. Dark hair, dark eyes, just like Dave. No accent, no mannerisms, neither has Dave. I’ll just call myself Phil Greenberg. Ha! It’s a cinch.”
To our more culturally sensitive ears, this is silly, verging on offensive. Maybe it took the 1964 film “Black Like Me,” featuring James Whitmore in chemically-induced blackface as a writer on a journey to expose racism, to point up the absurdity of this method of seeking social justice. Whatever the reason, viewed today, the premise of “Gentleman’s Agreement” chafes on even the most conservative sensibility. At least the antisemitism in “Crossfire” was aimed at a Jewish character. And in a curious turn-of-plot, three of the four main Jewish characters in “Gentleman’s Agreement” voice what might be taken as vaguely antisemitic positions. A Jewish investor at the magazine for which “Phil Greenberg” is writing feels that it is better never to publicly mention antisemitism, and “Phil’s” secretary, a Jewish woman who has changed her name to get her job, hopes that the magazine doesn’t hire any more Jews because they might be “the kikey ones, who cause trouble.”
Yet even with its ultra-assimilationist politics –– Jews are no different from other Americans, except for the fact that they are Jews –– “Gentleman’s Agreement” still packs a punch, due in large part to Peck’s performance. Even saddled with silly lines and an earnestness that would kill any performance, Peck’s “Phil Greenberg” is a man of integrity and intelligence. Peck embodies an empathy that, despite the script, avoids condescension and exudes a kindness that feels authentic. As wrong-headed as much of the movie might be, its heart, and Peck’s performance, was in the right place.
Michael Bronski writes about culture, sex and politics for The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice. His latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martin’s, 2003).