Wednesday, March 9, 2011



The Academy's pick for best picture of 1947 was a bold choice; although the film was an enormous success, it is that rare best picture winner that looked squarely at a serious problem in a modern setting.  Although today the film seems dated and heavy handed, it's message was powerful then, and it was one of the first films to take on anti-Semitism.
The film began life as a serialized novel for Cosmopolitan magazine by Laura Z Hobson, a Jewish woman who wrote it after being disgusted by the public ant-Semitic comments made by Congressman John Rankin.  An extremely popular book, 20th. Century Fox's studio head Darryl F. Zanuck paid $75,000 dollars for the rights.  Not surprisingly, the same Hollywood that avoided the subject of anti-Semitism in 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, even though it played a role in the true story that the film was based on, was worried about the idea of tackling the subject head on. Other studio heads (who were mostly Jewish) tried to dissuade Zanuck (who wasn't Jewish) from making it, fearing that the film would stir up trouble, but he forged ahead.  For the film's director, he chose Elia Kazan(who wasn't Jewish, but who had a history of directing plays that had social commentary in his early theater days), who had made three feature films already (the most notable being 1945's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN), and to adapt the novel he picked playwright Moss Hart.  This was a bit of a surprise, since before this Hart was mostly known for writing comedic plays like YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (Which was turned into a best picture winning film by Frank Capra in 1938) and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.  But the Jewish Hart felt so strongly about the film that he was willing to work for minimum pay just to be involved, and he delivered a mostly effective script that does contain a few welcome moments of wit.  Upon the film's release, Zanuck would be vindicated when the film became a big hit and won critical acclaim, and, of course, the Oscar for best picture.

The film begins with Philip Green (Gregory Peck), a widower and single father, arriving in New York City with his son (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere)  to begin writing for a successful magazine.  At a party he meets his boss's niece, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), and there is an immediate attraction between them.    When assigned to do an article about anti-Semitism, Philip can't seem to come up with any new ideas.  Then, it hits him, why doesn't he pretend to be Jewish for six months, so that he can write an inside story about the subject.  And, since he's new in town, few people will know that he's just pretending.  His boss, (Albert Dekker) loves the idea, but some of his Jewish colleagues are afraid that it will make trouble (this scene is believed to be based on the Jewish film producers trying to talk Zanuck out of making the film).  Philip goes ahead with the idea anyway and,
inevitably, he discovers more than he originally bargained for, especially when he finds anti-Semitic hiring practices in the very magazine that he's writing for.  Also, it begins to affect his relationship with Kathy; although she is initially supportive of him, when she realizes that she will have to tell her friends and family that her new love is Jewish, (he demands that she not tell her loved ones about the article) she begins to waiver.

Alan Garfield, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Celeste Holm

In the lead role, Gregory Peck is just fine, and he has good romantic chemistry with McGuire( I love the way that she looks overwhelmed after their first kiss); unfortunately, as his character delves deeper and deeper into his experiment, he often comes across as too rigid and self righteous, although to be fair, this is  really more of a script problem than anything to do with his acting.  McGuire is also good in the role of Kathy, which is a far trickier character to portray than Peck's; unlike his, her character isn't always sympathetic, as her own prejudices begin to surface before she realizes that silent acceptance of prejudice in others is almost as bad as exhibiting it yourself.  The supporting performances by Celeste Holm (as Anne Dettry, the fashion editor at Philip's magazine) and Alan Garfield (as Dave Goldman, Philip's old army buddy), are actually better than the leads; Holm, who was awarded a best supporting actress award, is funny and likable as the lovely but lonely fashion editor.  In fact, she is so endearing that I found myself wishing that Philip would wind up with her at the end instead of reuniting with Kathy.  Garfield, on the other hand, normally played lead roles, but was willing to take a smaller role here because he felt strongly about the film.  He is excellent as the Jewish friend that advises Philip during the article; in one good scene he points out to Philip that his anger over all the bigotry he's seen since he began the article comes from not having experienced it for a lifetime ("You're not insulated yet, Phil. The impact must be quite a business on you.").  But even Garfield has his breaking point, as we see in a tense confrontation he has with an insulting drunk.

Alan Garfield reaches his breaking point

The film's attitude on anti-Semitism is harsh and unblinking; it is portrayed as a fact of life, with restricted hotels and hiring practices commonplace.  It even shows how it can effect Jews themselves, with Phil's Jewish secretary lying about her name to get hired, and then fearing that the hiring of openly Jewish people at the magazine might result in the "wrong kind" being hired.  It is admirable that the film take such a critical view of American society, especially given the country's postwar optimism.  Unfortunately, once the film's point has been made, it becomes repetitive and overly strident, with one too many well intentioned speeches given in the film's final half hour. And, although there is a nice scene where Philip explains to his young son about the differences in the way different religions choose to worship, I wish the film at least had the guts to mention Jesus as part of that difference.  It also becomes too hung up on its love story when I wish it focused more on Philip's article and the effect it has when its published.  Still, this is a strong, well made film (Kazan shoots it in a mostly realistic style that works well for the story) with noble intentions.
In a sad bit of irony, the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee would begin it's investigation of Communism in Hollywood shortly after this film's release, and the committee would display the same kind of anti-Semitism that the film criticizes.  Many of the people called to testify before the committee were chosen because of their surnames (for example:  Danny Kaye, who's real last name was Kaminski).  Garfield (real last name Garfinkle) was called, as was Kazan; many people believe that the resulting stress of the investigation greatly contributed to Garfield's fatal heart attack in 1952.  As for Kazan, I will discuss his behavior in front of the committee when we get his next best picture winner,  1954's ON THE WATERFRONT.


Despite the film's financial success, it was still daring to pick a film that took on a controversial subject for best picture, and for that, I applaud the Academy.  But I don't find it to be the best film of that year; the excellent Dicken's adaptation,  GREAT EXPECTATIONS by David Lean, the classic noir OUT OF THE PAST by Jaques Tourneur and Charlie Chaplin's pitch black comedy MONSIEUR VERDOUX (in which he really put his Tramp character to rest!) are all superior.  And many old movie fans would say that perennial holiday favorite MIRACLE ON 34TH. STREET should have won, although I'm not as big a fan of that film as some people are.