So the goal here was to watch Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947’s Oscar winner starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire – and, like all my other posts, comment on why it fits the Academy’s modus operandi of picking not the best movie of the year (too subjective, too many), but the movie that best represented its year’s gestalt. In 1947 anti-Semitism either had begun to run rampant or a series of filmmakers and studio executives decided that this was the year to tackle this off-center issue. In the span of a year, then, two movies decidedly different – one an overwrought, but ultimately thought-provoking exposé on Judaism and the tenets of pluralism in society and the other a dark-noir that opens and ends with a deus ex machina of “Jewishness” as the lock-and-key.
Usually, when two films operate in the same arena during a year they offset one another. When two films discuss World War II slightly differently, or deal with race and religion, or fall in the same thematic element, the Academy usually will decide that the theme itself is enough and look elsewhere to appropriate its crown for film of the year. In 1947, they deemed that one film about Jewishness was the best representation of the year in film and in theme and not the other. Why?
It goes without saying that the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, brought with it a bigger tag. Acting, directing, budget, revenues drove Gentleman’s Agreement above its rival-cum-Judaism, Crossfire; Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan command more attention than does Crossfire‘s relatively unknown cast of characters (save Robert Mitchum) and director, Edward Dmytryk. Yet, noir seems to work best when the characters play second to the mood, so compromise would not have done Crossfire favors toward relevance in the eyes of the Academy voters. Is the tag itself enough to leap Gentleman’s Agreement over Crossfire? The distinction seems arbitrary, even to the sometimes wanton Academy voters.
There is also something to be said for the relative quality of the films compared, not only to one another, but to the rest of the competition. I find it hard to believe that among the nostalgia (Miracle on 34th St, Great Expectations) and the light-fare The Bishop’s Wife, that either Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire were that much “better” than the other films, or that much better than each other. Instead, I would contend that the quality of the film rather arbitrarily was ignored this year in favor of a more noble notion – bringing to light the sore subject of religious pluralism after the horror of the Holocaust that most Americans did not witness firsthand. Jews, according to Kazan, were unfairly second-rate citizens and Gregory Peck, perhaps the most Gentile human alive at the time, was to tell us all so through some deliberate method acting and overemphasizing the word “JEW” at every instance. This notion over-scored any nostalgia wrought in 1947.
Crossfire, in its infinite wisdom, tracks a murder mystery, seemingly without motive, through the eyes of several furloughed American soldiers looking for activity during a period of lull during World War II. Naturally, these soldiers go for a drink at a bar where they “befriend” a man, Joseph Samuels, and follow him back to his place for a nightcap; fast-forward a few hours later and the man is dead..and he is also Jewish! Sixty-five minutes later and the police and this wily cast of Gentiles figure out the motive behind the killing. It’s not jealousy or robbery…it’s anti-Semitism, so convenient and so heavy-handed. Crossfire‘s message is similar to that of Gentleman’s Agreement – anti-semitism bad – but oh so dark and dreary, so noir.
The decision to award Gentleman’s Agreement Best Picture for 1947 comes down to the fact that the Academy often will ignore a pair of films that deals with the same subject. Although we will remember them as Jewish films – films regarding Judaism and its followers – we must remember that they were conceived as films first, and on that basis Gentleman’s Agreement deserved Best Picture as the best film of the year, and by logic, then, Best Jewish Picture.