Monday, March 18, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.4: Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 44/C

Social problem films are usually painfully earnest, borderline useless affairs. I’m always reminded of the scene in Preston Sturges’ masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels where Joel McCrea, an director of escapist farces like Ants in Your Pants ‘38, decides that he wants to make more serious films about things that really matter. That’s almost always a mistake. But what if it’s a social problem film directed by Elia Kazan? Is it any different?

In a word, no. Gentleman’s Agreement was not the brainchild of Kazan, but rather of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, an ambitious producer of several social problem films, most notably John Ford’s excellent adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Zanuck was refused membership from a country club under the incorrect assumption that he was Jewish, and he decided to adapt Laura Z. Hobson’s novel about Anti-Semitism. Many Jewish film producers urged Zanuck not to go forward with the project, thinking it would stir up trouble, but that only further motivated the man.

Zanuck soon contacted Elia Kazan to direct the film, as Kazan had shown previous interest in films about social problems. Kazan agreed and would go on to win an Oscar for Best Director alongside the film’s wins for Best Picture for Zanuck and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm, but the director would later go on the record saying that he wasn’t fond of the film. He was right. The film’s good intentions notwithstanding, Gentleman’s Agreement is a leaden, didactic, toothless film.

Philip Schuylar Green (Gregory Peck) is a journalist who has just moved to New York with his young son Tommy (a young Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). Green’s boss (Albert Dekker) wishes to do an article investigating Anti-Semitism and charges Green with figuring it out. Green eventually comes up with the idea to pretend to be Jewish so that he can experience Anti-Semitism himself. He finds Anti-Semitism in unexpected places, including his Jewish secretary (June Havoc) and his fiancĂ©e Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) while finding support from fashion editor Anne (Celeste Holm) and his Jewish boyhood pal Dave (John Garfield).

This isn’t necessarily a bad premise for a film, but Zanuck and screenwriter Moss Hart seem to believe that the worst part of experience Anti-Semitism is being taunted and kept out of certain clubs. This is only two years after the horrors of the Holocaust, but the film never mentions this event, nor does it get much into the issue of violence against Jews. Mostly it’s just hushed comments, a few barbed remarks, Peck getting turned away from a nice resort, and Peck’s son being taunted for being a “dirty Jew” after Peck goes undercover. It’s all rather tame stuff. Worse, the film takes forever to get going, spending way too long on Peck trying to figure out what to do even though he claims to have gone undercover before. At least 40 minutes are expended on Peck thinking about how he’s going to approach this and building up the romance between him and McGuire, which Kazan rightly thought diluted the power of the film even as the two have to deal with McGuire’s quiet prejudice.

Kazan, for his part, directs the film efficiently and professionally, but not much more. He keeps the eye engaged with deep focus and strong staging, and he gets a number of fine performances from the cast, which often only go so far. By far the best work comes from Holm, who’s a blast as an unpretentious New York girl. Most of the dialogue is too on the nose for anything to really have punch, but it’s more bearable when delivered with gravitas by Peck. June Havoc’s scenes as a subtly Anti-Semitic Jew are a bit stronger, but she goes away too soon. Stockwell gives a strong child performance, but he’s mostly a prop for Peck. McGuire does her best to play the well-intentioned but spineless Kathy, but she too often serves as a central metaphor with what’s so gutless about the film itself. She fares better than Anne Revere, who’s stuck dictating moral platitudes with almost punishing earnestness.

Garfield, meanwhile, has the film’s one true emotional outburst after he nearly slugs a guy for using a slur, but he’s otherwise too neutered by the film. It’s a damn shame, considering how powerful a performer the man could be. But that’s indicative of what’s wrong with Gentleman’s Agreement. It’s too safe, and while all of the actors are perfectly solid, none of them come to the emotional heights Kazan so often reached. It’s particularly distressing considering that in the same year Kazan had directed the much better film Boomerang!, had founded the Actors Studio that would help foster the careers of early method actors, and directed influential shows like All My Sons and the original run of A Streetcar Named Desire. By comparison, this feels too much like a well-meaning but decidedly middlebrow film and not enough like the powerful, more visceral work of the great director.

Instead, we’re treated to long speeches where Peck explains to his son what Jews are and how prejudice works (which Stockwell notably doesn’t understand), characters berate each other for keeping silent in the face of prejudice, and people explain that talking about prejudice is the only way to end it. Noted, but a film like Gentleman’s Agreement joins the likes of (admittedly much worse) films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Driving Miss Daisy as the social problem films where everyone changes without really changing much of anything. Maybe Kazan and Zanuck should have made Ants in Your Pants ’47.

ADDENDUM: I’m going to relate a personal conversation between my roommate and I had shortly after I watched and communicated my frustration with Gentleman’s Agreement. It doesn’t have much to do with the actual film, but it made me laugh and helped highlight how ridiculous this film is.

Me: I hate spiders.
Craig: But there’s nothing wrong with them, they don’t do anything.
Me: It’s not what they do, it’s just them.
Craig: Well I’ll prove you wrong. I’ve got it! I’ll pretend to be a spider! I’ll show you the injustices and indignities of a spider’s life. I’ll dress as a spider, act as a spider, and soon you’ll change!
Me: So you’ll be squished? Smacked with paper? Sprayed with something?
Craig: No, but you’ll be all like, “You can’t be in my bathtub!”

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