1947 Message Movies: When Hollywood got holy – and got it right

1947 Message Movies: When Hollywood got holy – and got it right
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“Tonight at a dinner party, a man told a vicious story. It made me ill – sick with rage and shame.”

“What kind of story?”

“It was a vulgar joke.”

“What kind of joke?”

“He tried to get laughs with words like ‘kike’ and ‘coon.’ I despise him.”

“But what did you do when he told the joke? What did you say when he finished?”

“I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to get up and leave. I wanted to say to everyone at that table, why do we sit here and take it, when he’s attacking everything we’re supposed to believe in. Why don’t we call him on it?”

“And what did you do?”

“I just sat there. I felt ashamed. We all just sat there.”

The exchange is from Gentleman’s Agreement, which won three Oscars, including best picture of 1947. It also won the Golden Globe for best picture of the year.

On viewing the film seventy years after its initial release, the romance between a prominent-weekly-magazine’s star writer and widower (played by Gregory Peck) and the beautiful upper-class divorcee (played by Dorothy McGuire) initially derails what will be the movie’s message and import.

The romance may have been a requisite for a studio film back then. In time, though, the romance plays a key role in fleshing out the covenant (the “agreement” among gentlemen and ladies) to tolerate particular expressions of intolerance, prejudice, and hate. The names of actual 1930s and 1940s haters (proselytizers of Jew-hatred, among other hatreds) are referenced, with accuracy and disgust.

Moss Hart’s screenplay and Elia Kazan’s direction take the rapture-at-first-sight romance into a more believable realm, where the relationship and marital hopes are tested, strained, taxed, and derailed.

The movie’s message is delivered with dialogue that might seem a bit preachy and pious, and even a bit melodramatic, given all the civil rights and equal rights struggles since the film’s release. But for a 1947 film, the subject matter – discrimination, and antisemitism, in particular – was brave and thought-provoking.

A review published in the November 12, 1947 edition of The New York Herald Tribune found favor in Gentleman’s Agreement’s mix of romance with social consciousness: “To the great credit of this audacious screen work is the fact that it parallels a tract against bigotry with a moving and recognizable human conflict.”

A future together can mean getting past one’s past

In addition to the film’s high-minded dialogue pronouncements regarding prejudice and intolerance on the cultural and societal scale, there are scenes in which the scale and discord become personal; the courted and the courter become anxious and distraught. Overtly, her well-bred realm doesn’t take to having to take sides, when awkwardness is in prospect; when one’s true sentiments, discomforts and dislikes, might be exposed.

Will she chance the “clucking sounds of disapproval” — and the prospect of “getting the gate” from those who were friends and neighbors?

There are, to my mind, “instructive” scenes in which the starring couple tries to sort out their own “heritage” biases, community comforts, and personal principles – which put them in conflict with the person who would be a loved one, The Significant Other, the would-be betrothed.

The articulation of the struggles that impede a romance may well register as forthright and even familiar for viewers in 2017 – especially those who are in or have been in, or have contemplated, a serious inter-faith or inter-racial intimacy.

Such conflicts and agonies have surely been well depicted and played out in a number of movies since, but, even at its remove, this 1947 depiction can be provoking (in a good sense): Viewers can imagine what they would have said, how they would have acted. And viewers might set their own allegiances and their own preferences (and prejudices) alongside those of the film’s characters. Not bad for a romance embedded in a message movie.

A message movie, resolutely

At first, the ambitious and high-minded writer is disappointed that he has not been assigned a major political story such as the vyings in the lead-up to the 1948 presidential campaign. To his wise and caring mother he shares his disappointment: “What can I possibly say about antisemitism that hasn’t been said before.” She replies, “Maybe it hasn’t been said well enough.”

After a series of facts-and-figures false-starts, Schuyler Green has an angle that will make his article about antisemitism different from all the others. As Phil Green, he will pass himself off as a Jew, and record all the slights and disfavors – the range of employment, residential, and social rejections and humiliations: some pronounced, some with undercurrent, and some silent.

There are those who tell him that nobody wants to hear about antisemitism; and that it’s best not to make a public case or controversy about it. Don’t stir things up, they advise. And there are those who are quite certain that he can’t write hate out of existence.

But following his breakfast-table effort to explain hatred to his eleven-year-old son, he drops the Schuyler, and, as Phil Green, he commits to what will be an upsetting crusade. His journalistic resolve is tested after his eleven-year-old son comes home in tears after being taunted with slurs that his schoolmates surely picked up from their parents. Rather than abandon his claims to being Jewish, Phil Green re-ups his pose to get a very personal sense of how indignities get to, and weigh on, those who suffer discrimination.

A defiance, of a sort, is related by a world-renowned physics professor (an Albert Einstein replica), whose appearance and surname mark him Jewish, even though he is not religiously observant: “The world still makes it an advantage not to be a Jew. Thus, for some of us, it is a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves one.”

In a non-religious way, Green carries out his experiment steadfastly and religiously – but with mounting ire. To walk in a Jew’s shoes, for the sake of a journalistic exposé, Green will continue to have his “nose rubbed in it.” He tells his childhood and long-time friend (who is Jewish, and a captain in the U.S. Army Engineers Corps) that his investigatory passing-off has worked well – “all too well.”

He asks his close friend if he has ever become inured to the social slights and slurs, in addition to the turn-downs in employment and in his applications for a house for his wife and kids.

The old friend replies, “You’re not insulated yet. For you, it’s new every time. For you, the impact must be quite a business. You’re concentrating a lifetime into a few weeks. You’re making things happen every day, going out to meet it – looking for it. You’re telescoping the experience, making it all the more hurtful.”

Green then asks, “You mean you get indifferent to it after a while?”

The reply is resignation, not capitulation; a recollection of how it hurts and angers to have one’s kids denied acceptance and opportunities. In a later scene, the captain is not shy about confronting a drunk’s aspersions.

Muteness, when there should be a kind of mutiny

In a scene that may strike many as a bit too histrionic, the super-solemn Green announces his discovery that silence is a kind of petri dish in which a virus is allowed to feed and grow.

“I’ve come to see that there are lots of nice people who will say they despise antisemitism, detest it, deplore it, or protest their own innocence about it. They’re the ones who help it along and wonder why it grows.”

Green goes on to describe those who find ways to ignore the hate and protect their innocence. He notes that they would never beat up a Jew or allow their kids to hurl slurs. When they think of antisemitism at all, they just allow themselves to believe that it’s harbored “far away in some dark crackpot place where there are only low-class morons.”

Green discovers what may still need to be explored these days: It’s not the people who openly spout hate or go to meetings where hate is vented. It’s the people who don’t say anything to arouse disdain for those whose spewings are so full of hate. He is determined to beat complacency, even if his only weapon is an upright typewriter.

His hold-the-presses manuscript is “I was Jewish for Eight Weeks.”

Hatred that infects, consumes, and kills

In the 1947 Crossfire, detective work and family history are the weapons employed by a homicide captain in a post-WW II Washington, D.C. police precinct.

“The motive had to be inside the killer himself. Something he brought with him. Something he’d been nursing for a long time. Something that had been waiting. The killer had to be someone who could hate Samuels without knowing him.”

Calmly, to enlist the cooperation of a much-derided member of the same Army unit as the suspected killer (Montgomery, played by Robert Ryan), police captain Finlay (played by Robert Young) describes the forms that hate has taken:

“This business of hating Jews comes in a lot of different sizes. There’s the ‘you can’t join our country club’ kind, and the ‘you can’t live around here’ kind. Yes, and the ‘you can’t work here’ kind. And because we stand for all of these, we get Montgomery’s kind. He’s just one guy. We don’t get him very often, but he grows out of all the rest.”

Hate is a weapon

Following that sociological, psychological, and criminologist’s analysis, Finlay, who has sized up Montgomery as a psychopath, delivers the film’s signature line with a rueful, but emphatic, poignancy:

“Hate, Monty’s kind of hate, is like a gun. If you carry it around with you, it can go off and kill somebody.”

Monty’s prejudices are so base – and ignorant – that his hatred makes him a caricature. Unequivocally, he declares, “I don’t like Jews, and I don’t like nobody who likes Jews.”

Monty is an equal-opportunity hater, but Samuels is his immediate object of disdain and denigration. He refers to Samuels as “Jew boy” and just assumes that Samuels was a draft-dodger (“You know the kind”) and goes on to mock typical Jewish names.

After Montgomery finally finishes his anti-Semitic denigrations, laconic Sgt. Keeley (played by yet another Robert: Robert Mitchum) provides a sardonic counter: “He ought to look at the casualty list. There are a lot of funny names there, too.”

Finlay satisfies his curiosity (and the moviegoers’ curiosity) by getting a War Department file that makes Monty’s hateful prejudice all the more despicable: On 28 August 1945, upon the recommendation of a military medical board, Joseph Samuels was honorably discharged due to wounds suffered at Okinawa.

Curiously, this shadowy film noir does not reference the massive war effort to combat Nazi racial hatred.

The past has a presence

To make his point about the ignorance and venality of those whose hatred becomes consuming, Finlay speaks of personal family history and the hatred of Irish Catholic immigrants that “spread like a disease”:

“A couple of guys with empty liquor bottles went after my grandfather, just to rough him up a bit because he had come to the aid of a set-upon priest that afternoon. They didn’t start out to kill, they just started out hating. The way Monty started out. But twenty minutes later, my grandfather was dead.

“Thomas Finlay was killed in 1848 just because he was an Irishman and a Catholic. Last night, Joseph Samuels was killed just because he was a Jew.”

Affirmative Action

In Crossfire (based on Richard Brooks’ 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole, about a murder that results from homophobia), police captain Finlay arranges for a psychological trap that trips up and reveals the real murderer, whose flight is halted by Finlay’s long-range pistol shots.

In Gentleman’s Agreement (based on Laura Hobson’s best-seller, of the same title), the magazine-writer’s “girl” (his unofficial fiancé) proves that she is not anti-Semitic by … well, let’s just say that it has to do with a pretty swell house and grounds in an unofficially-restricted Connecticut enclave (of well-off and genteel Gentiles).

A portion of the sermon delivered at the close of another 1947 film – The Bishop’s Wife – offers a Christmas gift wish-list that would seem to hearken the plots of the two films about hatred. From the pulpit there’s a championing of the message films’ gospels.

Didactic as all three films are, each in their own way, all three deliver what could be a comfort; even if there is only semi-joyful noise at the very end of Gentleman’s Agreement and, eventually, in Crossfire, a silent night.

As befits the season’s celebrations, the sermon in The Bishop’s Wife (which was ghostwritten by an angel) echoes uncomplicated nonsectarian tidings –

“… let each put in his share, loving kindness, warm hearts, and the stretched out hand of tolerance.”

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