Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox

Director Elia Kazan and producer Darryl F. Zanuck caused a sensation with “the most spellbinding story ever put on celluloid” (Hollywood Reporter), recipient of three Academy Awards including Best Picture. One of the first films to directly tackle racial prejudice, this acclaimed adaptation of Laura Z. Hobson’s bestseller stars Gregory Peck as a journalist assigned to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. Searching for an angle, he finally decides to pose as a Jew – and soon discovers what it is like to be a victim of religious intolerance. Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell and June Havoc also star in this post-World War II classic

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Ann Revere, June Havoc, Albert Dekker, Jane Wyatt, Dean Stockwell
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress-Celeste Holm. Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Actor-Gregory Peck; Best Actress-Dorothy McGuire; Best Supporting Actress-Anne Revere; Best Film Editing, 1948.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo, French Digital Stereo; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 13 chapters; rated NR; 118 min.; $24.98; street date 10/5/99.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C/D-

Growing up I was subjected to many of those awful "Afterschool Specials". Actually, some of them were entertaining, but there was something genuinely annoying about the simplistic way in which these shows would neatly and lamely educate us kiddies about a variety of issues. Yeah, I suppose they were a positive force, but the execution seemed lacking; the programs tended to beat the viewers over the head with the intended messages.

Perhaps the prototype for those shows was 1947's Gentleman's Agreement, possibly the only winner of the Best Picture Oscar that could easily fit into that 4 PM weekday timeslot and tell all the youngsters that "anti-semitism is bad". On that subject, you'll get no disagreement from me, but the way in which GA makes its points is less than subtle. It takes the battle against prejudice to an almost ludicrous and Orwellian level.

The plot finds writer Phil Green (Gregory Peck) in search of a new topic on which he can write a magazine article. He's been assigned anti-semitism but he can't figure out a good angle through which to cover the story. Eventually, he decides to go undercover and pretend he's Jewish so he can discover the truth from the inside.

This kind of plot has popped up in many movies since 1947, though I can only think of instances in which the characters experienced what it was like to be black (Watermelon Man, Black Like Me, and even an episode of M*A*S*H). I don't know if GA was the pioneer in this field, but I can't think of anything older. I also don't know if the other similar projects are as heavy-handed, but I doubt they could be more overbearing, since GA so heavily bombards us with its message.

I can't deny there's value in the movie's theme, since it may enlighten some people to the insidious nature of prejudice. I also expect this is a film that had a much more substantial impact when it first appeared than it does today. After all, in 1947, there were no "Afterschool Specials" and I suppose these topics were kept hidden more than in modern times. GA also does a nice job of exposing elitist hypocrisy and some double standards used.

However, the whole project seems so self-righteous and stiff that it's a drag. The acting seems reasonably good, and the script remains fairly intelligent, but the overwhelmingly suffocating tone of the piece makes it hard to watch. Plus, I really hated the end of the movie. (Potential spoilers ahead! Skip to next paragraph to avoid!) Phil falls for Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) and they plan to marry. However, friction enters the relationship because she appears to be a tea-party liberal who'll talk the talk about eradicating prejudice but does nothing about it. Eventually the two go splitsville and it looks like Phil will connect with co-worker Anne (Celeste Holm), someone who seems much more compatible with him. However, by the end of the movie, he gets back with Kathy and poor Anne is apparently left out in the cold; honestly, the film fails to explain what happens between her and Phil. This really irked me. Kathy was such a simp, and Anne was the only genuinely interesting and sympathetic character in the piece. Holm plays her with such a nice air of sad vulnerability that I felt bad for her; Phil leaves her behind without any apparent explanation.

Well, even without that unsatisfying conclusion, I'd still regard the movie as a downer. I admired the intentions of Gentleman's Agreement but thought it tried too hard to make its points. The same themes are hammered home a thousand times; if I want to encounter mind-numbing, bone-crushing repetition, I'll just read one of my reviews! Gentleman's Agreement was politically correct before such a thing existed, and that doesn't make for a stimulating film experience.

The DVD:

Gentleman's Agreement appears an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it starts out well, the picture slowly degrades as the film continues and it ultimately looks pretty average.

Sharpness remains fairly consistent throughout the movie. Although some softness intrudes at times - particularly with the soft-focus frequently used on McGuire - for the most part the film seems fairly crisp and well-defined. I saw no problems related to jagged edges or moiré effects, but print flaws were a different issue. Early in the movie, things seem remarkably clean and fresh, with almost no examples of any kind of problems; not even light grain was apparent. However, faults gradually become more and more common; though they never get overwhelming, I still saw quite a lot of speckling and grit, and scratches, hairs, and streaks pop up periodically. Also, at least four times during the movie I noticed an odd "frame jump" where the image jitters briefly.

Black levels seemed very deep but are probably slightly too heavy; there appeared to be little detail in dark hair or clothes, so while the depth of the shades looked impressive, it was at the expense of some clarity. Shadow detail suffered slightly from the same phenomenon but actually was fairly clear and appropriately opaque.

The increasing prevalence of the print flaws was unfortunate, because it gradually caused me to lower my grade for the picture. When I first started to watch GA, I was very impressed with the clarity and freshness of the image and stuck with a "B+" rating for at least the first 30 minutes. However, the image became more and more problematic as the film progressed, and my grade got lower and lower. It's still a very watchable movie, but the slow deterioration of the picture disappointed me.

I also found quite a few concerns with the film's monaural audio, and most of them appear in the second half of the movie as well. Most problematic is dialogue, which sometimes sounds relatively crisp and accurate but which also displays some serious edginess much of the time. This issue seemed to get worse around the start of chapter nine; at that time, the speech became very sibilant and harsh, and it stayed that way for significant parts of the rest of the movie. It fluctuated and sometimes resembled the fairly clear dialogue I heard in the first half of the film, but it mainly seemed rough.

Effects and music hold up better than speech; they appeared a bit thin and hollow, but not problematically so. In general, those aspects of the mix offered fairly typical quality for the era, and often seem a bit above average, as does a lot of the speech. I noticed a light but consistent layer of background noise during the track as well. Much of the soundtrack to GA sounds relatively good for the period, but a lot of it comes across poorly. Overall, it ended up with a mediocre "C" for audio.

Less compelling are the DVD's sparse supplemental features. The disc includes a "photo gallery" which simply presents small portraits of nine of the film's actors. We also find trailers for GA and All About Eve (which also starred Celeste Holm); both of these ads are re-release clips, as they note the Oscar success of the movies. (Actually, I'm not completely clear on the concept of "re-issues" with these films. The mention of the awards they won makes it obvious the pictures had already been on screens, but I don't think the trailers tout releases that occurred long after the original appearances; I'd guess these took place probably soon after the Academy Awards, just the way current winners get April re-issues to tout their successes.)

The Academy like to grant their Best Picture prizes to movies that present positive, socially-acceptable messages, and no film exemplifies that trend more than 1947's victor, Gentleman's Agreement. No other winner may have approached the excesses of this movie, either, as it drives home its point with solemn regularity. The DVD offers fairly mediocre though erratic picture and sound plus few extras. As a historical footnote, Gentleman's Agreement may merit a rental; not only does it have a place in the Oscar list but it shows a side of the mid-Twentieth century we don't often see. However, that's the most I can recommend, as I doubt this is a movie you'd want to experience more than once; even a single showing may end up a chore.

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