In 1947 the idea that a major Hollywood studio would make a film about anti-Semitism must have seemed almost inconceivable. The subject of racial prejudice wasn't considered mainstream like it is now and it was clear that addressing it on the big screen would be a risky proposition. Director Elia Kazan and producer Darryl Zanuck were willing to take that risk, though, and the result was a film that would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, Gentleman's Agreement tells the story of a maverick journalist who sets out to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism. In order to research the series, Philip Green (Peck) goes undercover as a Jew. This is a fairly standard Hollywood plot line these days (we've seen men pose as women, whites as blacks, etc.) but at the time it was unique.
As a Jewish man, Green encounters racism in many expected places including hotels and the workplace, but is surprised and dismayed to find it coming from his friends, the playmates of his young son and even from his fiancée. Religious intolerance in post-war America is much more pervasive than even the plucky Green had imagined.
Gentleman's Agreement is a gripping and relevant story that carries a great deal of weight to this day, especially in light of Kazan's history in Hollywood. Though Kazan is directly responsible for creating one of the most poignant and meaningful films on the subject of racial and religious intolerance, he himself later became a key figure in the McCarthy era communist witch hunt. His testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee helped finger the men who subsequently became known as the Hollywood Ten. These men, including Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Ornitz and Ring Lardner, Jr. were immediately blacklisted and their careers ruined. It is ironic indeed that Kazan was the man who sealed their fates.
About the DVD
Part of 20th Century FOX's Studio Classics series, Gentleman's Agreement sports a serviceable, workman like transfer. It's not a restoration in the vein of Criterion but rather a preservation of a fairly clean print of the film. The image is very stable and free from major physical flaws like jump cuts and pinholes. It does suffer from a little bit of dirt, some scratches and a hint of contrast flutter in some scenes but none of these problems should be considered fatal. You'll see the original cigarette burns too. The image contrast is quite good, showing nice pure whites and very deep blacks. Shadow detail is quite fine and though there is a good deal of grain to be seen, it isn't a major distraction.
The original monaural sound track is in very good shape. There's very little hiss and no appreciable pops or other flaws. The dynamic range is fairly limited, as is to be expected from a film of this age. Audio tracks dubbed in French and Spanish are also available.
Audio Commentary by Celeste Holm, June Havoc and film critic Richard Schickel - I've listened to a lot of audio commentaries in my time and I've found that for the most part the participants glow about the film, whether it's good or not. This is one of the only commentaries I know of wherein a great film gets more or less panned. June Havoc and Celeste Holm are quite complimentary of the movie, but Richard Schickel is much less than positive. He spends a great deal of time picking apart the script, the direction, the camera work and the acting. I'm not sure why Schickel was chosen for this commentary when it seems clear that he has a low opinion of the film.
AMC Backstory - This is a very interesting presentation on the making of the film. It follows the production from its initial stages through shooting, cutting, premiere and finally the 1948 Academy Awards presentation. It also spends a good deal of time on Kazan's involvement with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Ten. It's a substantial extra that really puts the film in historical context.
2 Fox Movietone Newsreels - As the name implies, these are a couple of short newsreels showing the film's premiere and the Academy Awards ceremony. All of the footage in these reels is duplicated in the Backstory segment.
Still Gallery - A brief collection of production and publicity images.
Theatrical Trailer - A fairly battered version of the re-release trailer hyping the film as Best Picture of 1947.
I'm always happy when studios make the effort to release their back catalogue titles on DVD. I'm delighted when they take the time to add in good ancillary content. Though the audio commentary was a bit of a disappointment, FOX should be commended for giving Gentleman's Agreement such good treatment on this disc. I rate it: Recommended.