THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947)

In 1948, the 20th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1947 and December 31, 1947 the awards were held on March 20. This particular year remains one of the few ceremonies to “spread the wealth,” with no film taking home more than three Oscars. This would not occur again until 2006.

At the age of 71, Edmund Gwenn would become the oldest Oscar-winner for his beloved role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. This record would remain in place until 1976. James Baskett received a special honorary Academy Award for his equally-beloved portrayal of Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s Song of the South – a film now marred by racial controversy and removed from Disney’s back catalogue of releases. While not a competitive win, this still made Baskett the first African-American male to receive an Academy Award, and the first actor from a Walt Disney film to be presented an Oscar.

The ceremony also marked one of the first major upsets in the acting categories. Many had assumed Rosalind Russell would take home Best Actress for her critically-acclaimed performance in Mourning Becomes Electra. The Daily Variety even ran an article declaring her a “sure thing,” after taking a poll of selected Academy members and asking how they were voting. But it was newcomer Loretta Young who stole the prize for The Farmer’s Daughter, and it was the last time such a poll would be taken. Academy members were strictly instructed to keep their voting preferences a secret from now on.

The nominees:
The Bishop’s Wife
Gentleman’s Agreement
Great Expectations
Miracle on 34th Street

The winner:
Gentleman’s Agreement

Based on the 1947 novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement explores racial bigotry and prejudice against Jewish people in America following the end of World War II. Investigative journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) moves to New York City with his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and ageing mother (Anne Revere) to pursue a new job position with a liberal magazine, published by John Minify (Albert Dekker). Minify assigns him the task of writing a series of articles on anti-Semitism, and, after struggling to find an engaging and interesting angle, Green decides to pretend to be Jewish, so as to experience racial prejudice first-hand. It’s not long before anti-Semitic racism rears its ugly head, and Green will be confronted by it in the most unlikely of places, including from his new fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), and her snobbish family.

Why did it win?
Representing the third Best Picture winner in-a-row to tackle serious social themes, Gentleman’s Agreement was Hollywood’s first example of a piece of cinema exploring racial prejudice facing Jewish Americans in the 1940s. After the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the Jewish people were still to suffer, with many in Europe deeming them second-class citizens. In America, there was still a degree of wariness around Jews from many people, particularly in upper-class areas of New York City. Many hotels would not take bookings from Jewish guests, and some restaurants refused to serve them. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck actually decided to make the film after being refused membership at the exclusive Los Angeles Country Club, after it was incorrectly assumed he was Jewish.

For a film to tackle this subject head-on was groundbreaking and bold, and the film was subsequently labelled as “controversial.” Before production began, several Jewish film executives, including MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn, begged Zanuck to abandon the film, fearing it would stir up too much trouble. But he persevered, and the controversy ultimately didn’t keep audiences away. It actually seemed to drive them into cinemas to see what all the fuss was about. The film became an unexpected box-office hit, taking in almost $4 million in the US.

The film also received rave reviews from critics, with Variety calling it “one of the most vital and stirring and impressive in Hollywood history” and TIME Magazine hailing it as “an important experiment, honestly approached and successfully brought off.” Zanuck’s determination to bring this film to life has to be admired and applauded. Despite being an industry filled with Jewish people, Hollywood was still turning its back on the issue of anti-Semitism. Zanuck brought it to the forefront, and the Academy took notice.

It hit a nerve with Academy members, either by being Jewish themselves or having a deep connection to the racial issues the narrative of Gentleman’s Agreement highlights, and it’s no surprise they rewarded the film with Best Picture. The Academy were still firmly ensconced with awarding socially-relevant films, and this one fit the bill perfectly.

Did it deserve to win?
While its easy to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement as another example of the Academy patting themselves on the back by choosing an “issues film” as their Best Picture winner, the film is still powerful and gripping, and seeks to tackle a deeply important problem in 1940s America. But in a 2017 context, it’s hard to say the film handles the treatment of that problem particularly well.

The one glaring problem with the film is its bizarre absence of any mention of Hitler, Germany, Nazism, World War II or the Holocaust. Not a single word is uttered about any of these historical events, despite them taking place only a few years earlier. For a film to be so concerned with the treatment of Jewish people in a post-war America, it’s baffling to see it seemingly ignore the tragedy that was spurned by anti-Semetic rhetoric in the first place. Perhaps this was on purpose. Perhaps too much had already been said about these events, and it didn’t need repeating. Still, it makes the film rather bizarre to view today.

What the film does get right is how one deals with bigotry can often make them just as complicit by remaining silent. Kathy, a character who spends the entire film insisting she has no anti-Semitic tendencies, recounts a time at a dinner party where one of her guests was making terribly anti-Semitic jokes and derogatory comments, and how it burned her inside, but she still she said nothing. She foolishly thinks this is an acceptable response, and almost expects to be praised because of how it made her feel. She’s soon made to see how silence can be just as damaging as the offensive words themselves. Every time bigotry is allowed to remain unchallenged, it normalises the behaviour, and allows racism to flourish further. It’s a tough message to its audience that would have been quite eye-opening at the time. And still rings absolutely true today.

The film is ultimately cemented by Gregory Peck’s finest performance yet. As Philip, he can be quiet and gentle, but at the same time fiercely unwavering in his determination to fight for what is right. But there’s an inner battle to the character, particularly in his interactions with Kathy, that is vulnerable and conflicted, and Peck plays it with such strength. He’s surrounded by a terrific cast of supporting players, particularly Celeste Holm as fashion editor Anne Dettrey, a gutsy and brash feminist, determined to back Philip’s plan to highlight behaviour she finds truly abhorrent. Holm rightfully walked away with Best Supporting Actress, and her performance is glorious to behold.

While the film is far from perfect, it bravely portrayed a serious and shameful problem in America many were willing to turn their back to. It also was of the earliest examples of a film highlighting the power and importance of journalism – something that would become a Hollywood staple in decades to come. Its approach may be a little silly (when Philip declares the title of his piece will be “I Was Jewish For Six Months,” you can’t help but giggle), but its intention and its heart are hard to fault. It stood as another shining example of the changing tone of Hollywood cinema, and rightfully deserved to be awarded with Best Picture.