If noble intentions were everything, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement would be one of the great movies. As it is, it’s a seriously flawed, groundbreaking work that’s more important for what it tries to do than for what it actually does. That, however, is from a modern perspective. In 1947 it was something of a wake-up call, since no film up to that time had addressed anti-Semitism in this manner—certainly no film had addressed its existence in America. The movie’s concept is to have a magazine reporter (played with stiff righteousness by Gregory Peck) pretend to be Jewish and suffer firsthand the racism that lies beneath the surface of American daily life.
As a concept, it’s a pretty heady one. But the film doesn’t always work, because it loads itself with too much baggage in the plot department. Particularly troubling is the character of the unenlightened (to put it mildly) fiancee (Dorothy McGuire), who exhibits a streak of anti-Semitism herself. The worst instance comes when Peck’s son (Dean Stockwell) is taunted for being a Jew and she comforts him by telling him that it’s not true, that he’s not a Jew. Her “conversion” at the film’s end is unpersuasive, too, coming across more as everything will be fine now that Peck isn’t passing for Jewish than as her having learned anything. (It doesn’t help that the more appealing Celeste Holm is on the sidelines as a truly unprejudiced character hopelessly in love with Peck.) It’s never a great movie, but it’s an important one—especially in consideration of the fact that the other (predominately Jewish) studio heads tried to talk 20th Century Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck out of making the film out of a desire not to rock the boat. False steps aside, its very existence makes Gentleman’s Agreement worth our attention.