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Gentleman’s Agreement

February 4, 2010

Ah Gregory Peck, how you mesmerised us in To Kill a Mockingbird. A movie I haven’t seen if I’m to be honest, but it’s the first thing that came to mind when beginning this post. A movie of his that I did see, however, is Gentleman’s Agreement. I watched it over the Christmas Holiday and I made a mental note of it, actually I created a draft in WordPress with the title. I figured now is as good a time as any to bring it up again. 

I like old black & white movies, so I’m pre-disposed to like this type of movie. You too? Great. You should rent this one if you haven’t already seen it. It’s about a man named Philip Green (played by Peck), he’s a reported whose assignment is to write a series about antisemitism. At first he’s kind of underwhelmed by the idea since he believes, as does everyone else in the movie apparently except for the editor who gave him the assignment in the first place, that this story has already been written to death. Philip Green is no anti-Semite, but he just doesn’t see what HE could possibly bring to the table. 

Wait, there’s a twist. One night, after a conversation with his mother (what a great mom) he comes up with an idea. He goes undercover and pretends the be Jewish. After all, he just moved to the city and no one knows him there. What ensues, is his realization of how people’s attitude towards him change by simply telling them he’s Jewish. He doesn’t alter anything else about himself. There’s no stereotypical caricature. The only thing that changes is other people’s perception of him. 

It’s quite a movie. Really good. I find it incredible that it was released in 1947. I would have thought they were less vocal about antisemitism at the time, but I was wrong. So wrong. Gentleman’s Agreement is just as relevant today as it was half a century ago, which is a little sad mind you, except for the constant use of the word “Jew’, which you wouldn’t necessarily see today, the dialogue is amazing. Especially poignant is a scene between Peck and the boy who plays his son. 

The boy comes home from school in tears because the other boys heckled him about being Jewish. Peck’s girlfriend in the movie immediately tries to make the boy feel better by telling him that it’s not true, in her naïvety implying that not being Jewish is a good thing and the he should therefor not feel hurt. Peck’s character asks her to leave and immediately goes to his son. They have a chat in which Daddy asks son whether he defended himself by telling the other boys that he wasn’t really Jewish. The kid says no, which makes Daddy happy and then he explains to him why doing so would only reinforce their insults. They have a chat about why the world is so messed up and all is good.

Seriously though, try explaining to a little kid what antisemitism means. Not an easy task for most people, let alone a single dad in the late 1940’s, but Peck’s character somehow does an excellent job at it (with the help of some great script writers). I had a hard enough time trying to explain it to my mother when I was telling her about the movie. To be fair, I was on the toilet at the time and I was a little distracted. I couldn’t exactly look it up and give her a proper definition. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I suggest you recommend this movie in lieu of explaining it yourself. That’s what I did. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it in stock at my Mom’s video store. Maybe, I’ll be nice and send her a copy. 

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