muccamukk: Milady with her chin on her hand, looking pensive. (Musketeers: Thinking)
[personal profile] muccamukk
I'd been avoiding this one because the plot (Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish in order to write a magazine series on anti-Semitism) sounded unbelievably cheesy and liable to trigger my embarrassment squick so hard that I would be forced to fling myself into the bay. Having been assured that it's "Not totally cringeworthy" and also been lured in by Dean Stockwell (who also played Peck's son in Valley of Decision for 2.5 scenes, but wasn't credited, and I didn't recognise him), plus it being in the middle of Peck's wounded gazelle phase, Nenya and I decided to give it a go.

It wasn't totally cringeworthy. Though I did watch the first part while slightly high, which may have helped. (Peck: I even know the title, "I was Jewish for six months!" Me: I am not NEARLY high enough for this.)

I've been thinking a lot about what it was trying to do, what it managed to do, and what all that looked like seventy years later.

What it was trying to do: Show that microaggressions and polite blacklisting is in its own way as harmful as outright bigotry of the style of the KKK. And further more that unless you actively stand up against those things, that it's more or less irrelevant what you personally think of Jews. If you're not actively opposing anti-Semitism, then you're supporting it, regardless of your own beliefs. It was targetted at an upper-middleclass/upperclass audience, and it mostly did what it said on the tin. There was certainly a flavour of "Oh wow, it sucks to be in an oppressed group! Who knew!?" but it wasn't as bad as it could have been, and was blunted by having an actual Jewish character talk about his experiences. It also manages to be classist as hell, but that's no surprise.

Unfortunately, the love interest who was a sweet but somewhat vapid school teacher got to be the exemplar of "Good intentioned but will throw friends under bus to avoid making waves," which made me really want Peck to dump her and go off with his brassy co-worker. (Nenya: It's supposed to be motivational, stop being anti-Semitic, and you'll get to sleep with Gregory Peck!) Plus it was one of those 15 seconds to engagement plots, and we couldn't really see why they were into each other (other than the obvious) so it was pretty hard to root for the canon romance. However, Peck and the Jewish friend where slashier than I've ever seen him in a movie that also has women in it. Their life goal was to live together and raise their families together. There was a lot of manly shoulder clapping and exclamations of joy on seeing each other (fair as friend had been overseas, but STILL).

The Jewish friend treats Peck's project with the gentle bemusement of someone who's seen his BFF head off on any number of Quests for Truth and Justice, and is at most mildly charmed that this one is on his behalf. He's more worried about finding a house in post-war NYC, with a side order of worrying that his friend is going to hurt himself. Anti-Semitism in America is not really what he's focusing his energy on in the moment, because frankly if he lets himself get wound up about it, he's going to burn out, and he has a family to feed. (Though we do see him willing to punch someone who calls him a slur to his face. This movie is not afraid to use brutal bigoted language, that's for sure.)

There are three other Jewish characters, no mentions of Jewish culture or history. No mention of the Holocaust whatsoever, though it may be implied to have happened in one scene. Jewish character #1 works on the same magazine, and doesn't want to do this essay because it will "Stir up trouble." (He's almost certainly a stand in for the Jewish studio bosses in Hollywood who told Zanuk the exact same thing when he wanted to make this movie.) He later teases Peck when he finds out he is Christian, in the fine school of making fun of him for over-earnestness. Character#2 is Peck's secretary, who has changed her name to get the job, and doesn't want to have an open hire policy because then the company might hire more "[slur]y Jews" and cause trouble for the ones that are passing. She's pretty much the definition of self-hating minority, and is treated to a lecture and a good deal of disdain, which was pretty hard to take. Character #3 is an Einstein stand in, who gets a monologue about how as an atheist he doesn't really see the point in calling himself Jewish, since atheist Christians don't identify as Christian, but upon reflection if everyone's going to continue to be a dick to the Jews, then he supposes he'll have to stick it out out of pride. (Then he hits on Peck's love interest.) It's the closest to a Holocaust reference we get. Which is an interesting choice for a move made in 1946/47. ("Some people hate Catholics. Some people hate Jews," Peck explains to Dean Stockwell. He does not add, "And a few years ago some people tried to wipe every single Jew off the face of the Earth, and our government did fuck all about it when it started, so it's probably time to reconsider society's choices in this regard." But he is talking to an eleven year old. To his mother, he talks about how she had to explain this to him, and he doesn't want his son have to explain it.)

What it ends up being, though possibly not intentionally, it an indictment of the idea of respectability politics. All the characters who identify as Jewish (except maybe the Einstein stand in) are young, attractive and white, who could (and sometimes do) pass as Christian. The best friend has a Jewish last name, but is also armoured in a US Army captain's uniform. Peck's character is of course literally a Christian who calls himself Jewish and changes nothing else about himself (for which I am grateful, as that's probably what saved me from having to throw myself in the bay). They all still get shit. There's literally no way to win the game of "But if I'm one of the good ones." And the societal pressure for ethnic minorities to integrate is completely pointless because they will never be "good enough" to not get shit for it. Society is what's fucked up, not the members of the out group. And I wonder if that was the point of making such a culturally stripped version of Judaism, or if it was squeamishness on the part of the censors. It certainly makes a movie that's supposed to be about prejudice against a culture a little hollow to... not really have that culture. ("The moral is," an industry insider said at the time, "be nice to Jews because they might turn out to be Christians in disguise.")

On a shallow level, Peck is in full pillow lip sulky mode, ala The Great Sinner, and Dean Stockwell is very cute.

I think Nenya had a whole other set of thoughts. In the end, for me, it was not a movie that hadn't aged well, so much as a movie that had been a bit of an oddball from the start.
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