The Best Picture Project – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Gentleman's Agreement (1947 movie poster).jpgDirected by Elia Kazan

Screenplay by Moss Hart, from the novel by Laura Z. Hobson

Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Anne Revere and Celeste Holm

Throughout the long and winding road I’ve traveled for the Best Picture Project, I’ve learned more than a few things.  Most prominent amongst those lessons, oh my brothers and only friends, is there is no predictability about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  At least not in the traditional sense of predictability.

After all, consider the following duos and trios of Best Picture Winners:

Can you guess what these all have in common?  It shouldn’t be too difficult if you give it some thought.  All right, give up?  Well, the one thing the groups of films have in common is they all won Best Picture in successive years.

Some folks might look at some of those back-to-back-to-back choices and rejoice, seeing proof that instead of being erratic, the Academy is eclectic and shows a decided lack of bias.  I don’t see it that way, though, preferring to think it’s more a matter that the Academy has no solid standard of what makes a Best Picture.  Is it big box office or lesser-performing films?  Is it grit or fluff?  Is it massive epics or silly extravaganzas?  Or is there something else?

Whatever it is, it’s nothing if not disorienting.

Hoop dreamsposter.jpgBut if there is one way the Academy has been consistent, it’s the love of issue movies.  No, not documentaries — although, given that documentary features has its own category, much the same way animated films and short subjects do, in addition to its eligibility in all the other categories  — you might argue that documentaries are actually favored by the Academy.  After all, they have one more category in which they have a chance to win an award than your average fiction, or fictionalized film does.  And yes, while logically you might think there is no chance a film like Hoop Dreams would ever win an award for sound design or special effects,  it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Consider this: the short subject, The Red Balloon, won an Oscar for its screenplay and last year the documentary Chasing Ice found itself a Best Song nominee.  Sure, it’s fair to say that these events are anomalies, but it also points out that it’s still possible.  Anyway, I digress…

So, when I say issue movies, I mean narrative, non-documentary films whose sole existence can be boiled down to these priorities, and in this order:

The need/desire to highlight some injustice the filmmaker thinks needs correcting; and,

Be entertaining, if possible

Usually you can recognize issue movies pretty quickly.  They are known for their stridency, their demonization, their lack of alternative viewpoints or explanation of the complexity of the subject.  Sometimes you also know you’re watching one when you’re pounded over the head with the message until you can’t take it anymore and storm out.

Think the love for issue movies is just a figment of my imagination?  Consider these winners:

Robert De Niro, in character, points a pistol to his head. It is a black-and-white image with red highlighting his bandanna and the film credits below.You might argue that some of these are not truly issue movies — The Deer Hunter is a bit of a stretch — but just using a little bit of free hand and inclusion about what counts as an issue movie, we see 14 issue movies won Best Picture.  Of course, to be fair, the Academy has honored 10 musicals — 11, if you count The Artist., which I clearly do — which means the Academy clearly has a thing for musicals as much as it does for issue movie.

Anyway, look at that list of movies and ask yourself this: was the entertainment value of the movie itself the foremost intention of the filmmaker, or was it the issue?  In a few instances you can say entertainment and engagement was the primary purpose, but in others?  Not a chance.

An American in Paris poster.jpgStill, one of the more interesting things you can glean from the list above is the clear effect World War II and the Korean War had on the Academy’s thinking.  After all, of the 14 message movies, 6 of them came in 12 year span, from 1942 to 1954.  And of the other eight movies that won during that stretch, all but two were serious pictures — the two non-serious pictures being  An American in Paris and The Greatest Show On Earth.  My point?  Obviously when you’re off to war or trying to recover from it, you get serious-minded and forgive movies for being dull, or inelegantly directed, or unimaginative, or full of wooden performances simply because they’re about something.

So, what’s the overall point I’m trying to make?

My overall point here is that, if not for the issue-movie bias by the Academy, it’s doubtful some of those films would have won Best Picture — or even rated a nomination at all.  Mrs. Miniver is just terrible but was so loved by the Academy that even Henry Travers got an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in the film — yes, Clarence the Angel is an Oscar nominee; The Best Years of Our Lives is dreary and seems to go on forever but not only did it win Best Picture, it won some acting Oscars as well; and The Lost Weekend is an okay movie saddled with a cop-out ending  and terrible leading performance by Ray Milland that  the director himself dislike and yet mystifyingly it and the film won Oscars.

Another film benefiting from the post-war bias towards issue films?  A little 1947 picture called A Gentleman’s Agreement, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that, in a very unsubtle way, my long preamble above makes it clear that A Gentleman’s Agreement is yet another undeserving film to win Best Picture — honestly, if there is one predictable thing about the Academy, it’s the propensity for singling out the wrong film for posterity.  It’s hardly the first, it’s hardly the last, it’s just more of the same.  And, like many of those issue movies surrounding it, has faded away with time, as it’s issues were ‘solved’.

Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement trailer closeup.jpgIf you need a plot summary of the film, here it is:  Gregory Peck basically decides to write a magazine story that could have been called Jewish Like Me — obviously, this would have been a nice bit of symmetry with the book Black Like Me, but since that came out later, it wasn’t going to work that way.  Anyway, throughout the film Peck endures racism from all quarters, even from his best girl, and becomes so fed up by what he see he…writes his article.  And publishes it.  And everybody thinks its swell.

Predictably, preachy and boring there is little to recommend the picture beyond saying the movie was less-than two hours long and features a Peck performance that seems like a rehearsal for his similar, later role as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Celeste Holm in Gentleman's Agreement trailer.jpgBeyond Peck’s standard performance and the friendly length, there are other acceptable performances.  Celeste Holm won an Oscar for her supporting turn and I can’t really argue with it, having not seen any of her co-nominees — that is beyond Anne  Revere, nominated here for her role as Peck’s sickly mother.  And John Garfield is good and friendly as the one honest-to-goodness Jewish person portrayed on screen who acts as something like Peck’s ‘tour guide through racism.’

Swiss family robinson322.jpgUnfortunately, while those  performances aren’t awful, the leading lady, Dorothy McGuire, is terrible, which is sad, because she’d given truly wonderful performances elsewhere, particularly as the mothers in Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson.  As warm and loving as she was in those films, she’s cloying and choke-worthy here.

But most disappointing was the downright dull direction of Elia Kazan.  If you hadn’t known going in that Kazan was a product of the theater you’d only need watch this film to figure it out.  Unlike later films, particularly East of Eden, where he’d learn how to bring energy and purpose to his use of the camera, here he seems to have no idea the camera can move, preferring to just plunk it down, point it in one direction, and tell the actors to wander around in front of it.  Blech.

Blacknar.jpgGenuinely heartbreaking, though, is that 1947 produce not one, but two other films with a longer lasting cultural impact — and therefore more deserving of the Oscar – than the faded star of A Gentleman’s Agreement, neither of which were nominated but should have fought it out for the prize: Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and The Archer’s Black Narcissus.

Trivia:

Darryl F. Zanuck in Grapes of Wrath trailer.jpgWith the Best Picture win, Darryl F. Zanuck picked up the second of his  three Oscars for producing.  In addition to A Gentleman’s Agreement he also triumphed for How Green Was My Valley and All About Eve.  Given that he won all three in a ten year span, you can’t help but be impressed, even if that films themselves aren’t all that impressive.

Anyway, those three Oscars put Zanuck in limited company, along with Saul Zaentz, Irving Thalberg and Sam Spiegel, as the only men to win three Best Picture Oscars.  However, of the four, Thalberg has to stand out, given that he has an award named for him, the Thalberg Award.  Of course, Zanuck is not too shabby either, having won three Thalberg Awards himself — in fairness, they used to give them out differently than they do today — and sired a Best Picture winning producer, Richard Zanuck, who scooped one up for Driving MIss Daisy.

For the other winners and films left to see in this little project, click here.

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