The issue of antisemitism gets the Elia Kazan treatment in this tight drama sprung out of a personal experience: when producer Darryl F. Zanuck’ application to join the prestigious Los Angeles Country Club was denied because it was assumed (incorrectly) that he was Jewish. At the same time, humiliated and intrigued by the pervasive prejudice – especially in the post-war period, after so many lives were lost fighting, among many others, this very evil – Zanuck began researching the issue, coming across the best-selling novel Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson.
Zanuck optioned the book for 20th Century Fox and hired Jewish playwright Moss Hart to adapt it and up-coming filmmaker Elia Kazan to direct it. Principal photography began in New York in May of 1947, with hot star Gregory Peck in the main role as a journalist passing as Jewish to uncover antisemitism in New England’s upper social echelons – a task that will not only open his eyes but completely upend his life.
As production rolled, Zanuck began receiving calls from prominent Jewish producers, concerned that the movie would “stir things up” and possibly backfire on the very community it was trying to serve. Concerns with the Hays code – the standards and practices rules adopted by Hollywood in 1930– and the potential controversy around the subject (and the fact that the main female character, played by Dorothy McGuire, was a divorcée) also circled around the production.
Released in February of 1948, the film became an unexpected box office success and was well-received critically. And, as many feared, immediately caught the attention of the House on Anti-American Activities Committee, with Kazan, Zanuck and cast members John Garfield, and Anne Revere all being called to testify before the committee, with momentous consequences for all.