Of course I knew about the Holocaust, but I never realized that that kind of bigotry existed in America until watching this film. Gregory Peck plays a writer who decides to "be Jewish" to learn firsthand what it's like for a story he's writing on antisemitism. In one scene, his son comes home terribly upset after being taunted by other kids at school. When I saw this scene, my heart completely dropped to my feet. This film was made only a few years before my dad was born. Did this kind of stuff happen to him??
I wasn't sure how to bring it up, but a few days after watching the film, I was in the car with my dad and I found the words slowly pouring out of my mouth. It was so hard for me to ask, and even harder to listen when he told me that, yes, kids had picked on him for being Jewish. I imagine it must have been even worse for my grandparents in the early part of the century when their families had just immigrated.
Since seeing Gentleman's Agreement, I've become more attuned to antisemitism. I was totally shocked when I heard our UPS driver telling my dad a story about "Jewish lightning" - a slur about Jewish people deliberately burning their houses to get the insurance money. Even my own grandmother (maternal) has made bigoted remarks in front of my dad. While it may not be as prevalent anymore, it seems like anti-Jewish remarks are still somewhat acceptable in mainstream America.
Like most of my interests, this took its natural course and ended up with classic film. While doing research on antisemitism and Hollywood, I noticed that quite a few Jewish actors anglicized their names to be more acceptable. While name-changes were commonplace in Hollywood (Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, Marion Morrison became John Wayne, etc.) it was even more important for Jews to change their names because of the possible stigma attached to an obviously ethnic name.
(Jacob Julius Garfinkle)
More on John Garfield in my upcoming post on Gentleman's Agreement.