A Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947): Caleigh Deane

The movie A Gentleman’s Agreement tells the story of Phil Schuyler Green, a white Christian man from California who comes to New York City with his young son, Tommy Green. Tommy’s mother and Phil’s wife passed away when Tommy was small, and the two have learned to survive rather sufficiently on their own. The movie opens with Phil and Tommy standing in New York City, a day or so after their initial arrival, discussing the deceased mother and wife. The two then meet up with Tommy’s grandmother and Phil’s mother, Mrs. Green, with whom the two are living during their stay in New York. Phil is a journalist and works for a man named Mr. Minify. Mr. Minify comes to Phil with an article idea: write about the concept of antisemitism in a realistic manner. Phil does not want to write the piece at first, but discovers it’s importance after having to explain what antisemitism was and why such a thing could exist to Tommy, a sweet, naïve boy. Mrs. Green suggests to Phil that, even if such a narrative has been told before, it must have been done poorly if youth do not understand or are still accustomed to an antisemitic world so much that it is difficult to distinguish from right and wrong. Kathy, Mr. Minify’s niece and Phil’s future fiancé, came up with the idea for the piece herself. Phil meets Kathy at a party hosted by Minify, and the two go on a date the next day. At first Phil is stumped after hearing Mr. Minify’s proposal. He does not know how to tackle such a complex issue, as he is not Jewish himself. After a week of hard work and dedication, Phil decides to pretend, or present himself, as a Jewish man for the next eight weeks, writing about the ensuing prejudice.

This movie takes place during the forties, therefore, antisemitism ran rampant throughout America during Phil’s experiment. After explaining to Kathy his idea, she is initially stunned and taken aback, asking Phil if he truly is Jewish of not. Phil does not like this reaction and of course becomes rather hostile until the two superficially make up. They continue dating until Phil proposes the concept of marriage, to which Kathy agrees. Kathy wants Phil to meet her sister and husband who are throwing a party. Her sister has many antisemitic friends, therefore, she does not want Phil to advertise his supposed religion; this also angers Phil because of embedded anti-Semitism. Upon arrival at the party,  Kathy notices that her sister did not invite her prejudiced friends, but rather “safe” partygoers. A sense of resentment builds between Kathy and Phil, as he subconsciously views her as antisemitic as well. After Tommy, Phil’s child, is yelled at by other kids for being a Jewish person because of Phil’s experiment, Kathy reassures him that he is indeed not Jewish, but rather just as Christian as she is. This again upsets Phil who believes she is only enforcing a sense of superiority for being a White Christian American. Dave, Phil’s Jewish friend who serves in the military, takes leave and stays with Mrs. Green and Phil at her house. When Phil, Anne, who is Phil’s friend from work, and Dave all go out to dinner together, a slightly drunk man harasses Dave for being a Jewish person and in the military; everyone immediately apologizes and escorts the man out of the building.

Another example of antisemitism in the movie is when Phil confronts the owners of Flume Inn, a “restricted” hotel where Phil and Kathy were going to have their honeymoon. The bellboy and owner do not exactly say their hotel is not available for Jewish people, but rather pretend they do not have a room open and publicly belittle Phil for his supposedly loud and obnoxious behavior. As the movie concludes, Kathy and Phil decide to break up for good, as Kathy cannot stand Phil’s righteousness over such an issue he himself is not affected by. She then meets up with Dave, who gently explains to Kathy how her passiveness in the face of Jewish slander only encourages such trends to continue; while she is not actively antisemitic, her lack of action lends itself to an antisemitic narrative. Kathy sees the error in her ways, and the two make up yet again, deciding they will still get married. 

Personally, I thought the section of the movie with Phil’s secretary Mrs. Wales was extremely fascinating. The fact that she changed her name and received more job offers because of such a minor change reflects the antisemitic nature of America in the forties. At the same time, Mrs. Wales was upset that the paper for which they both worked was now hiring without religious selectivity, which was advertised across the city. She did not want to encounter “lesser than” Jews or “loud” and “annoying” Jewish girls at work. She believed she was classy because of the way she looked and her mannerisms; this explicated to me that antisemitism was possible even within the Jewish community itself. Phil of course was angered by Mrs. Wale’s perception of Jewish people, and tried to enforce that all people, regardless of their religion, were the same, even though he himself was not a Jewish person. He took on a valiant cause, and I believe the way this movie portrayed anti-Semitism was far more progressive than I had expected when beginning to watch.

2 thoughts on “A Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947): Caleigh Deane

  1. Caleigh, I thought your point about Mrs. Wales’s apparent reverse-racism was really important. As surprising as it may be for a Jewish woman to be making these marginalizations, it is something that I myself have seen all the time. While being ethnically Jewish, I have had little personal experience in terms of the Jewish faith. That being said, I have seen firsthand from other Jewish family-friends that often no one is harsher on the Jewish community than itself. It can often be difficult to discern whether this is inherently pernicious or not and whether this sort of self-criticism should be allowed to continue. I myself certainly don’t claim to have the answers here, but I think it’s something we as a community need to decide for ourselves.

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