By Cynthia and Sara Brideson
Most of us, at some time during our lives, have felt like outsiders. Some people discard their identities and put on a mask that will be acceptable to the “in” crowd. Sadly, society embraces those who make themselves like everybody else. The film Gentleman’s Agreement faces the problem of conformity head on. The group in the film who try to conform are the Jewish people. Thousands of Jews living in America changed their names to fit in, and many even adopted Christianity and completely forgot their roots. Gentleman’s Agreement is a film about the pain of honesty, the pain of being true to one’s identity, and the importance of challenging entrenched societal beliefs. The film revolves around a Gentile reporter, Phil Green, (played by Gregory Peck with as much power as he put into his role of Atticus Finch), who decides to pretend he is Jewish to see how he is received by others. By the film’s end, the way he sees himself, the world, and those around him has changed. In the film, Phil Green’s mother (played by Anne Revere) expresses a universal hope that is the driving theme in the film: “Wouldn't it be wonderful... if it turned out to be everybody's century... when people all over the world - free people - found a way to live together? I'd like to be around to see some of that... even the beginning.”
Throughout the film, Phil runs into various forms of anti-Semitism. His first confrontation with prejudice comes from his editor’s niece, for whom he has feelings. Though Kathy (played by Dorothy McGuire) seems to have liberal views, when Phil reveals his plan, she is shocked and asks if he actually is Jewish. It is difficult not to notice her relief when he says he is not. At his magazine’s office, Phil discovers the disturbing truth that there are self-hating Jews. His secretary, Elaine Wales, reveals she changed her name in order to get the job; her application under her real, Jewish-sounding name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected. After Phil tells the editor, Minify, about Wales' experience, Minify orders the magazine to adopt hiring policies that are open to Jews. However, Wales is against the new policy, fearing that the "wrong Jews" will be hired and ruin things for the few Jews working there now.
Opposite from Elaine is Phil’s childhood buddy, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who is openly Jewish. Goldman moves to New York for work and lives with Phil’s family while he looks for a home for his own family. In New York after WWII, housing was difficult to find, and it is particularly difficult for Goldman, since not all landlords will rent to a Jewish family.
Phil writes about his experiences as a Jew, but he knows his article is just one man’s attempt to change the world. Kathy argues with his idealistic outlook, asking: “What can one person do?...Oh, you can't change the whole world!”
However, Phil, by writing his expose, and Kathy, by renting her parents’ cottage to the Goldman family, do change the world in a small way. Viewers finish the film believing that, yes, one person can change the world.
Gentleman’s Agreement was Fox’s top grossing film of 1948 and won a number of Oscars including two of the major categories, Best Picture and Best Director for Elia Kazan. Sadly, anti-Semitism still ran rampant after the film and it still is today in some regions. However, even if one man cannot change the world, it does not mean he should not try. Even changing one person’s viewpoint, like Phil changed Kathy’s, can make a ripple effect that changes hundreds of people’s lives. This film does not seem shocking today and it may seem naïve in its portrayal of Phil’s ignorance about the full scope of anti-Semitism, but its message and powerful human story are still relevant today and audiences can still learn from it.
In a conversation between Phil and a Jewish professor, the professor gives a poignant statement that offsets the sentiments of self-hating Jews like Elaine Wales:
Professor Fred Lieberman: Millions of people nowadays are religious only in the vaguest sense. I've often wondered why the Jews among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Do you know, Mr. Green?
Phil Green: No, but I'd like to.
Professor Fred Lieberman: Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one. Thus it becomes a matter of pride to go on.