The movie was controversial in its time, as was a similar film on the same subject, Crossfire, which was released the same year (though that film was originally a story about homophobia, later changed to antisemitism).
It was released on DVD as part of the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics collection.
Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is a widowed journalist who has just moved to New York City with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). Green meets with magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker), who asks Green, a gentile, to write an article on antisemitism ("some people don't like other people just because they're Jews"). He is not very enthusiastic at first, but after initially struggling with how to approach the topic in a fresh way, Green is inspired to adopt a Jewish identity ("Phil Greenberg") and writes about his first-hand experiences.
At a dinner party, Phil meets Minify's divorced niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a pre-school teacher, who turns out to be the person who originally suggested the story idea. The next day, Phil tries to explain anti-Jewish prejudice to his young, precocious son – directly after displaying some anti-female prejudice of his own. Green tells his mother that he's struck by the odd notion that the idea for the article came from "a girl" at the magazine. His mother replies, "Why, women will be thinking next". Phil and Kathy begin dating. Green and Minify agree to keep it secret that Phil is not Jewish.
Phil has considerable difficulty getting started on his assignment. He realizes he can never feel what another person feels unless he experiences it himself. He recalls having "lived as an Okie on Route 66" or as a coal miner for previous writing jobs, instead of tapping a man on the shoulder and making him talk. That's when he decides to write, "I Was Jewish for Six Months".
Though Kathy seems to have liberal views, when he reveals what he intends to do, she is taken aback and asks if he actually is Jewish. The strain on their relationship due to Kathy's subtle acquiescence to bigotry becomes a key theme in the film.
At the magazine, Phil is assigned a secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), who reveals that she, too, is Jewish. She changed her name in order to get the job (her application under her real, Jewish-sounding name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected). After Phil informs Minify about Wales' experience, Minify orders the magazine to adopt hiring policies that are open to Jews. Wales has reservations about the new policy, fearing that the "wrong Jews" will be hired and ruin things for the few Jews working there now. Phil meets fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), who becomes a good friend and potentially more, particularly as strains develop between Phil and Kathy.
Phil's childhood friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who is Jewish, moves to New York for a job and lives with the Greens while he looks for a home for his family. Dave also experiences antisemitism, when some person in the armed forces tells him that he hates Jews, and gets into a brief fight before the prejudiced soldier is taken away. Housing is scarce in the city, but it is particularly difficult for Goldman, since not all landlords will rent to a Jewish family. When Phil tells Dave about his project, Dave is supportive, but concerned.
As Phil researches his story, he experiences several incidents of bigotry. When his mother becomes ill with a heart condition, the doctor discourages him from consulting a specialist with an obviously Jewish name, suggesting he might be cheated. When Phil reveals that he is himself Jewish, the doctor becomes uncomfortable and leaves. In addition, the postman is shocked to see that a Jewish name is listed on the mail box, instead of his Christian name. Also, when Phil wants to celebrate his honeymoon at a swanky hotel for rich people in the country, the hotel manager refuses to register Phil, because Phil is Jewish, and tells him to register at a different hotel instead. Tommy becomes the target of bullies when his schoolmates discover he is Jewish. Phil is troubled by the way Kathy consoles Tommy, telling him their taunts of "dirty Jew" are wrong because he isn't Jewish, not that the epithet is wrong in and of itself.
Kathy's attitudes are revealed further when she and Phil announce their engagement. Her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) invites them to a celebration in her home in Darien, Connecticut, which is known to be a "restricted" community where Jews are not welcome. Fearing an awkward scene, Kathy wants to tell her family and friends that Phil is only pretending to be a Jew, but Phil prevails on Kathy to tell only Jane. At the party, everyone is very friendly to Phil, though many people are "unable" to attend at the last minute.
Dave announces that he will have to quit his job because he cannot find a residence for his family. Kathy owns a vacant cottage in Darien, but though Phil sees it as the obvious solution to Dave's problem, Kathy is unwilling to offend her neighbors by renting it to a Jewish family. She and Phil break their engagement. Phil announces that he will be moving away from New York when his article is published. When it comes out, it is very well received by the magazine staff.
Kathy meets with Dave and tells him how sick she felt when a party guest told a bigoted joke. However, she has no answer when Dave repeatedly asks her what she did about it. She comes to realize that remaining silent condones the prejudice.
The next day, Dave tells Phil that he and his family will be moving into the cottage in Darien, and Kathy will be moving in with her sister next door to make sure they are treated well by their neighbors. When Phil hears this, he reconciles with Kathy.
Zanuck decided to make a film version of Hobson's novel after being refused membership in the Los Angeles Country Club, because it was assumed incorrectly that he was Jewish. Before filming commenced, Samuel Goldwyn and other Jewish film executives approached Darryl Zanuck and asked him not to make the film, fearing it would "stir up trouble". They also warned that Hays Code enforcer, Joseph Breen, might not allow the film to pass the censors, as he had been known to make disparaging remarks about Jews. There was also concern that Dorothy McGuire's character's being divorced would offend the National Legion of Decency.
The role of Phillip Green was first offered to Cary Grant, but he turned it down. Peck decided to accept the role, although his agent advised him to refuse, believing Peck would be endangering his career. Jewish actor John Garfield agreed to play a lesser role in the film in order to be a part of it.
Portions of the film were shot on location in Darien, Connecticut.
Gentleman's Agreement received a generally favorable reception from influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Crowther said that "every point about prejudice which Miss Hobson had to make in her book has been made with superior illustration and more graphic demonstration in the film, so that the sweep of her moral indignation is not only widened but intensified thereby." However, Crowther also said that the movie shared the novel's failings in that "explorations are narrowly confined to the upper-class social and professional level to which he is immediately exposed." He also said the main character's shock at the extent of antisemitism was lacking in credibility: "it is, in a careful analysis, an extraordinarily naive role."
In addition to winning Academy Awards for best picture and best director, Gentleman's Agreement was one of Fox's highest grossing movies of 1947. The political nature of the film, however, upset the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Elia Kazan, Darryl Zanuck, John Garfield, and Anne Revere all being called to testify before the committee. Revere refused to testify and although Garfield appeared, he refused to "name names". Both were placed in the Red Channels of the Hollywood Blacklist. Garfield remained on the blacklist for a year, was called again to testify against his wife, and died of a heart attack at the age of 39 before his second hearing date.
In recognition for producing Gentleman's Agreement, the Hollywood chapter of B'nai B'rith International honored Darryl Zanuck as its "Man of the Year" for 1948. On Sunday, December 12, a gala commemoration evening was held in downtown Los Angeles, at the Biltmore Hotel, before a crowd of over a thousand. Among the tributes to Zanuck, New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson said, "He does not storm up and down the streets of a community, urging its citizens to do good. He does not fill the pages of books with words that string together into a sermon. He allows you to be seated comfortably in a theater, to be absorbed in a problem and to walk out into the night with your thoughts clarified and your lips say, 'This situation ought to be changed'." After the formal speeches there was a star-studded variety show, including the debut before the Hollywood film world of the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
The movie was an unexpected hit at the box office. According to Variety it earned $3.9 million in rentals in the US in 1948.
The film won three Oscars:Academy Award for Best Picture – 20th Century-Fox (Darryl F. Zanuck, producer)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – Celeste Holm
Academy Award for Directing – Elia Kazan
It was nominated for another five Oscars:Academy Award for Best Actor – Gregory Peck
Academy Award for Best Actress – Dorothy McGuire
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – Anne Revere
Academy Award for Film Editing – Harmon Jones
Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay – Moss Hart