Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
I was very surprised when I read Bradshaw’s article a few months ago.
This film about anti-semitism is not considered as one of Kazan’s best work and Bradshaw’s choice has been criticised. This is not about antisemitism or Kazan as a director. It is Bradshaw’s sentence below that interests me here and led me to view the film again.
Finally, after much discussion with his elderly concerned mother (a typecast Anne Revere), Phil has a eureka moment.
Bradshaw’s ageist language offended me. What is an ‘elderly concerned mother’ and in what way is Anne Revere typecast? She is not the caricature of the overbearing, emasculating, long suffering Hollywood Jewish mother (see this blog on Mamadrama (2001). Neither is she Bette Davis’ controlling and repressive mother of Now Voyager (1942) or more recently Michell/Kureshi’s The Mother (2003) dependent, egoistic, masochistic who discovers sexual satisfaction and seeks it at any price. Of course he cannot possibly refers to the many Mother in Hollywood horror films.
What type is Anne Revere portraying in Gentleman’s Agreement? Far from being or acting ‘elderly’ or ‘concerned’ Revere – 44 years old – offers us a dignified, intelligent, socially aware, strong, assertive, warm, young mother/ grandmother with a sense of humour.
I read that she was nominated three times for an Oscar for her strong, matriarchal figure roles in The Song of Bernadette (1943) National Velvet (1944) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
I do not know these films and cannot comment but her role as Mrs. Green in GA is unusual and interesting in its representation of a healthy relationship between mother and adult son.
We see her in the opening sequences. She is tall, elegantly impressive in a flowery dress, a hat and gloves. Her dark hair is swept back and her allure confident. She has been waiting at the entrance of a department store to meet her son Phil and grandson Tommy.
In the previous scenes we have learnt through Tommy’s disclosures to his father that she knows her son very well.“Grandma says you’re getting tougher and tougher to have around the house… she says you’re too picky and choosy …grand ma says you are carrying the world on your shoulders… she wishes you’d leave it alone…..
Her first assertive words to Phil: I just love waiting for people. There’s nothing more fun than waiting for people who are always late. Critical? sure but this is a lighthearted remonstration.
The next appearance of Mrs.Green is at breakfast. Phil is reading the paper and so is Tommy mimicking his father. Mother is preparing and serving the food but not for long. She grabs the papers away from the ‘men’ and sits down to eat and talk with Phil. When Phil is explaining ‘antisemitism’ to his son she remains attentive but does not interfere with father/son relationship until it is time for the child to go to school.
The dialogue between mother and son about the assignment that Phil was given is mutual understanding; Phil is not happy about writing about antisemitism but his mother encourages him and stresses the importance of the issue.
The scene closes with Phil: Wish me luck Mum, I am going to the magazine now. Mother: Good luck I hope its something you want and not far away.
At the door: Phil kisses his mother : You are quite a girl mum.
When discussing the project together Phil uses his mother to express his difficulty of finding an angle to the series. She is encouraging and a good sounding board. At no time does she seem ‘concerned’ .
When she has her angina episode in the middle of the night she needs his comfort and asks him to hold her hand. ( Here we have a very subtle detail: Ma’s hair shows now a big patch of white). Phil expresses his care for her and reassures Tommy that they will look after her and that she will be fine until you are married and have kids
The next mother and son scene is a pivotal one. Phil expresses his fear of his mother dying and his desire to refuse his assignment:
I was scared Ma – Like I used to be when i’d get to wondering what I’d do if anything ever happened to you. It all came back. I was a kid again and my Ma was sick …I wanted to ask was it awful, are you afraid. But there are some questions nobody can ask, and they cannot be answered. I‘ll know the answers to those two when I feel it myself,
I‘ll know the answer to those two when I am lying there and that the way it is with the series. Ma: but you got the answers before. Every article you wrote, the right answers got in somehow,
In a very long speech Phil exposes his approach as an investigating journalist. He became a participant in the settings he was researching. It is then that the idea of being ‘Jewish for six weeks’ occurs to him.
Ma: its a cinch. this is the best medicine I could have had.
This long scene has the psychological depth of two friends who know each other well discussing a problem and coming to a solution.
Finally I would point out that the end result: Phil’s published hard hitting article about antisemitism, injustice, inequality is read aloud by Mrs.Green. She also makes this militant declaration her own as she says: I suddenly want to live to be very old. I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it, and that’s why it’s so troubled.…. Wouldn’t be wonderful if it was everybody’s century when people all over the world- free people – found a way to live together. I’d like to be around to see some of that, even the beginning. I may stick around for quite a while.
Some random thoughts
It is ironical to hear these pronouncements in 2017 when we know that in 1952, at the time of the Hollywood blacklist Kazan gave names to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.
It is ironical that 7 decades after the release of the film we still live in trouble times,
It is a coincidence that as I am writing this I see in the 16-22 September guide issue of the Guardian an article by Anne Bilson on Hollywoo’s Most Horrific Mothers.
Personally the sentence that resonated with me is: I wanted to ask was it awful, are you afraid. But there are some questions nobody can ask, and they cannot be answered. And yet after each civilian casualties and deaths, on our TV screens, insensitive reporters go around with microphone at the ready and assault the berieved and frightened with these questions.
There is in Phil’s speech a reference to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath