Upon hearing the initial accounts of the recent murder of three people at a Jewish community center and retirement home in a Kansas City suburb, I was shocked and saddened. But senselessly violent acts are such a constant part of our world these days, and so I really should not have been surprised.
What is of interest here is that the accused was reported to have long been an outspoken white supremacist, as well as the former Grand Dragon of the Carolina Ku Klux Klan. This got me to thinking about screen portrayals of anti-Semitism, and of two major Hollywood films that were released right after World War II: a time when Hitler's Final Solution was fresh in people's minds. Both films deal directly with the issue of racial and religious intolerance. They are CROSSFIRE and GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, and both were released in 1947.
GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT tells the story of Phil Green, a non-Jewish writer who is assigned to pen an article about anti-Semitism for a major national magazine. He does not want this to be any old article, one that will be read and quickly forgotten.
He wants to come up with a hook, an angle, something that really gets at the heart of the issue, and so one day he asks himself: Why not let the world know that he really is Jewish? Why not put out the word that his birth name is not Phil Green, but Phil Greenberg? How will he now be viewed by the people around him? Will they treat him any differently if they think he is Jewish?
CROSSFIRE, meanwhile, tells the story of a vicious, racist World War II veteran named Montgomery who meets a man named Samuels in a bar. Samuels is Jewish and, at the very beginning of the film, he is murdered. And it becomes clear that Montgomery has killed Samuels simply because he is Jewish.
I could spend the next hour citing dialogue from these films and noting how their plot dynamics serve to lambaste the small-mindedness that transforms individuals into racists and anti-Semites. Instead, I want to cite a film that was released just a few years later. It is titled STORM WARNING, and it dates from 1951.
The villains in STORM WARNING are a group of small-town Americans who are referred to as members of the "Klan." In the film, they murder an out-of-town journalist who is attempting to expose their activities and torment a man who is not one of their crowd simply because he is slightly built. But what is fascinating about STORM WARNING is that the words "Jew," "black," or "Negro" are not to be found anywhere in the script. Sure, the "Klan" is depicted as being littered with hate-mongers, but they are little more than brutes who beat their wives and bully men who are not the sort who guzzle beer and exude a brazen machismo.
Why do you suppose that, content-wise, STORM WARNING is so different from GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT and CROSSFIRE?
The answer, I think, is that the times had changed dramatically. By 1951, the Red Scare was enveloping America, Joseph McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee were making headlines, and so a film like STORM WARNING, despite its good intentions, had to be softened, had to tread lightly in its portrayals of anti-Semitic characters.
Comparing STORM WARNING to GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT and CROSSFIRE serves to mirror how the mood in America had changed so dramatically in so short a time.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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