In Gentleman’s Agreement, Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is a journalist who signs his articles “Schuyler Green,” figuring it gives him class to use his middle name as his first name, “Like Somerset Maugham instead of William; Sinclair Lewis instead of Harry.” He is a widower, who has been living with his mother (Anne Revere) and his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell). His mother compares him to Atlas, saying she wished he’d quit carrying the world around on his shoulders. The three of them have moved to New York, where he has been hired by John Minify (Albert Dekker), editor of a magazine, Smith’s Weekly, to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism.
Minify is pushy. He invites Phil to come to a social gathering at his place, and when Phil tries to beg off, Minify insists. We also find that Minify is the kind of man that finishes people’s sentences for them. He not only knows what he wants, he knows what he wants people to say, and he is in too much of a hurry to let them say it.
At the party, Phil meets Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), who is divorced. Her ex-husband is also at the party, and they are on friendly terms. As Minify says, with a bit of contempt, their relationship is civilized. Now, I’ve always made an effort to remain on good terms with an ex-girlfriend, but I never wanted to be at a party where I knew she would be, where I would doubtless have to watch her put on a show about how happy she is with another man, while I would have to pretend that I’m completely indifferent to it all. However, the point of their relationship is to show how polite these people are. They are even polite in their prejudice against Jews. This is kind of anti-Semitism this movie focuses on, as opposed to the vulgar sort.
Kathy also is Minify’s niece. She has to remind Minify that she is the one who has been after him to publish a series of articles on anti-Semitism for almost a year, after a Jewish school teacher was forced to resign. Phil says it is “funny” that she was the one that first suggested that article. The next morning, at breakfast, Phil mentions to his mother that he will be writing a series of articles on anti-Semitism, and again he says it’s funny that Minify’s niece suggested it originally. His mother responds, “You don’t say. Why women will be thinking next.” Just as Kathy’s reaction to his saying it was “funny” that she was the one who came up with the idea did not inspire any reflection on Phil’s part about any prejudices against women he might be harboring, neither does his mother’s remark inspire such. Maybe Phil should pretend to be a woman to find out what that is like.
Tommy asks what anti-Semitism is, and Phil explains that some people don’t like Jews. When Tommy asks what Jew is, Phil responds that Jews are people that go to churches called “synagogues.” That has to be the most superficial definition of a Jew I have ever heard. That’s like defining a woman as someone that uses the ladies’ room. But now that I think of it, maybe that is the definition of a woman nowadays. Anyway, I was waiting for Phil to say something to the effect that Jews are descendants of the people written about in the Old Testament, who believe there is just one God, whom they call Yahweh, but they don’t accept the idea that Jesus is Yahweh’s son, and thus they are not Christians. But we get nothing of the sort. A lot of Christians in the audience of 1947 would have been offended to hear such a definition, which consists, in part, of a denial that Jesus is the son of God, thereby stirring up the very feelings of prejudice against Jews that this movie is hoping to combat. So, it’s safer to be superficial.
Phil is having a difficult time figuring out how to approach the subject. He tells his mother that he is getting nowhere: “When I think I’m getting onto something good, I go a little deeper, and it turns into the same old drool of statistics and protests.” Then he thinks about his friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield), wishing he were here with him, realizing he’d be the guy to talk to. This leads to him to a new line of thought:
Hey, maybe that’s a new tack. So far, I’ve been digging into facts and evidence. I’ve sort of ignored feelings. How must a fellow like Dave feel about this thing? …Over and above what we feel about it, what must a Jew feel about this thing? Dave. Can I think my way into Dave’s mind? He’s the fellow I’d be, if I were a Jew. We grew up together. We were the gang. We did everything together. Whatever Dave feels now, indifference, outrage, contempt, would be the feelings of Dave, not only as a Jew, but the way I feel as a man, as an American, as a citizen.
His mother suggests he write Dave a letter. He sits down at the typewriter. But then he sees the futility of it all, imagining himself writing a letter, expressing his frustration in doing so to his mother:
What do I say? “Dear Dave, give me the lowdown on your guts when you hear about Rankin [a racist member of the House of Representatives] calling people kikes. How do you feel when Jewish kids get their teeth knocked out by Jew-haters?” Could you write that kind of letter, Ma? That’s no good, all of it. It wouldn’t be any good if I could write it. There’s no way to tear open the heart of another.
Let us call the problem, as Phil understands it, the inadequacy of words to communicate feelings. In some cases, people will insist on that inadequacy even when they are the ones using words to describe their situation. It is not uncommon for someone, listening with a sympathetic ear to his friend’s troubles, to say, “I know just how you feel,” only to have that friend respond, with exasperation, “You don’t know how I feel!”
We watch the movie, patiently waiting for Phil to come up with the idea of pretending to be a Jew, as the only way to find out how it feels. When he finally reveals that on a previous occasion, he pretended to be an Okie in order to write about the plight of the Okies, and that on another occasion he pretended to be a coal miner in order to write about coal mining, we are a little incredulous that it took him so long to think about pretending to be a Jew. Having done this sort of thing twice before, it should have occurred to him right off.
And yet, in the end, this really doesn’t make much sense. Phil knows how he feels about anti-Semitism. But he wants to know how Dave feels. And he knows the various feelings Dave might have, “indifference, outrage, contempt,” so talking to Dave would allow him to know which ones. And yet, somehow that is just not good enough. Why not?
Essentially, what Phil is getting at is that all Dave can do when asked to write back a letter telling how it feels to be a Jew is to give what we can call a speech, even though it would, of course, be a written speech. That is, he can write about his experiences, about all the discrimination he has encountered, about the hatred others have for him, about the humiliation he feels, but these will still be just words. The words will denote or describe feelings, but there can be no way to ensure that the feelings expressed by the words he uses will be effectively communicated to Phil when he reads those words. That is why Phil believes he must pretend to be a Jew, so that he can experience the feelings himself and know for sure what feelings those words are supposed to communicate, but which might not actually do so when those same words are written by Dave, and Phil merely reads them in a letter.
But in that case, we are getting nowhere. After Phil goes to all the trouble of pretending to be a Jew, when his sits down to write those articles, all he can do is give another speech, a speech not much different from the one Dave might have written. The people who read Phil’s articles will be in exactly the same situation that Phil would be in reading Dave’s letter. They will read the words, but they cannot be sure that what Phil felt when he pretended to be a Jew is being captured by the words he uses to express those feelings. Following Phil’s reasoning out to its logical conclusion, the only way the gentiles that read the articles he writes can know what Phil really felt is for them to pretend to be Jew themselves.
Anyway, when he finally does start pretending to be a Jew, he is shocked by all the prejudice he encounters, as when he tries to check into a high-class hotel and is refused service because it is “restricted.” Well, what did he think was going to happen? In fact, he seems to know less about anti-Semitism than anyone else in the movie. We get the impression that the person most ignorant about anti-Semitism has been picked to write an article about it.
Even though Phil has decided that the inadequacy of words to communicate feelings precludes the possibility of learning anything by talking to Jews, we nevertheless cannot help but suppose that he might actually get a little insight from such discussions, not only from Dave, who knows Phil is not a Jew, but also from his Jewish secretary Elaine Wales, who believes Phil is a Jew. Basically, she passes for a gentile, having changed her name from Estelle Walovsky. Had she not done so, she says, she would never have been hired at Smith’s Weekly. When Phil finds that out, he tells Minify about it, who is ashamed he didn’t know this was going on in his own magazine, a policy he immediately changes.
In any event, thinking Phil is a Jew like her, she says she worries that this change in policy will allow the “kikes” to be hired, the ones that are loud and use too much rouge. This is something most of us have encountered with other races, religions, or nationalities, where someone is embarrassed by his own people, so to speak, when they act crude and low class. It is to be noted, by the way, that there are no Jews in this movie that are loud or wear too much rouge. That sort is only described, not depicted.
Phil never knew there was a form of anti-Semitism among Jews themselves. In other words, he definitely had something to learn from Elaine. But instead of pretending to know what she is talking about, and agreeing with her somewhat in order to get some insight in the matter, he becomes angry and dresses her down:
Now, look, Miss Wales, we’ve got to be frank with each other. You have a right to know right now that words like “yid” and “kike” and “kikey” and “nigger” and “coon” make me sick, no matter who says them.
We can be sure that is last time Phil will learn anything about what it is like to be a Jew from Elaine. You can’t find out what someone is truly thinking and feeling if you act shocked and disapproving at what he or she is saying. In fact, Kathy has commented on this trait of his, saying, “Your face takes sides, as if you were voting for or against.” A journalist like Phil would do far better cultivating a cosmopolitan manner, presenting a face that feigns a certain sympathy and understanding with whatever someone is saying, even if he despises it, as the best way to learn more about the way that person thinks and feels. Instead, we are treated to another of Phil’s displays of righteous indignation, which forecloses his gaining any further insight from her or any of the other people in this movie who dare to express prejudice in his presence.
Later, Phil meets Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffe), another Jew. He is an atheist who is philosophical about anti-Semitism, making jokes about it. And when Dave finally arrives in town, we see that he is not especially interested in anti-Semitism. In short, three very different Jews are depicted in this movie, each one of which has different feelings about anti-Semitism. In other words, Phil’s quest to find out what it feels like to be a Jew is compounded by the fact that it all depends on the Jew.
Dave has an opportunity to move up in the firm he works for as the eastern representative, but he will have to find a place for him, his wife Carol, and their children to live in the New York area. This may be a challenge, since there is still a housing shortage, owing to the war that has only recently ended. After much effort to find a place to live, however, Dave gives up, telling Phil he will have to turn down the promotion and stay in California.
By this time, Phil and Kathy have become engaged. She owns a house that she had built while she was married, though she and her husband got divorced before they actually lived in it. It would be perfect for Dave and his family, but since they are Jews, Kathy says she cannot rent it to them, explaining that people with houses in nice neighborhoods have a gentleman’s agreement not to sell or rent to Jews. She deplores the whole business, but she is not up to being ostracized by everyone for breaking that agreement. As a result, Kathy and Phil quarrel, and they break off their engagement. But this raises the question, why is it that Kathy knows about this sort of thing, but Phil has never heard of something called a gentlemen’s agreement? Maybe she should be the one to write the series of articles.
Better still, why not have a Jew write the articles? A Jew would have a lifetime of experience about anti-Semitism and not have to rely on just a few weeks of pretending to be a Jew. We get the feeling that the articles would not be meaningful unless the Jewish experience was filtered through the mind of a gentile. In other words, Christians reading the articles would not trust a Jew. They would suspect he was lying about the abuse he suffers to make them feel guilty, thereby gaining an advantage over gentiles.
In that case, instead of hiring a gentile to pretend to be a Jew, Minify should have hired a Jew to pretend to be a gentile, thereby eliminating Phil as a middleman. He could have hired someone like Dave to write the articles, who would then sign them under a name like Phil Green, claiming that he pretended to be a Jew so he could know how it feels to be one, thereby giving the articles the needed cachet of Christian authenticity.
Doing this would solve another problem, which is that there is no guarantee that by pretending to be a Jew, Phil would have the feelings that Dave has on account of his actually being a Jew. Since Phil is not a Jew, it is hard to believe that he would feel the effect of prejudice the same way a Jew would. Phil acts deeply offended when he encounters prejudice, but it is still from the secure position of someone who knows that this charade is only temporary, and he will soon return to his place in society as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. The inadequacy of words to express feelings is only made worse by the fact that after all is said and done, Phil is not likely to have the feelings that Dave does anyway. Or the feelings that Elaine has, or those of Professor Lieberman.
Furthermore, if I had pretended to be a Jew in order to be able to write about anti-Semitism, every time someone “offended” me, I would gleefully sneak off to the restroom to write down notes, thinking, “Boy, this is going to be good stuff for that series of articles I’m going to write.”
In the end, Kathy realizes she has been wrong to just go along with anti-Semitism, so she rents her house to Dave. Now Phil is willing to forgive her and marry her. The series of articles promises to be a great success. Phil’s mother suggests that as a result, the twentieth century may turn out to be “everybody’s century, when people all over the world, free people, found a way to live together.”
Or maybe not.