#428) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

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#428) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

OR “Oh! My Papa”

Directed by Elia Kazan

Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis. Based on the novel by Betty Smith.

Class of 2010

No trailer, but here’s your title

The Plot: 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) lives in an apartment in Williamsburg in the 1910s with her family: younger brother Neeley (Ted Donaldson), hardworking mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire), and alcoholic father Johnny (James Dunn). Despite his drinking problem and chronic unemployment, Johnny is a doting father, encouraging Francie to write down her stories and pursue her education. There are plenty of hardships in store for Francie and her family, but like the Tree of Heaven growing through the concrete outside her house, Francie will continue to grow despite the setbacks of her surroundings.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a sensitive film with strong performances”, and quotes from Bosley Crowther’s review of Kazan’s “easy naturalness” and “vastly affecting film.”

But Does It Really?: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is definitely a minor classic. The film is Kazan’s directorial debut, and we’ve got plenty of his later films on the list, but “Brooklyn” prevails thanks to its endlessly endearing presentation. Kazan’s naturalistic direction keeps the film from becoming saccharine, and the entire cast is giving warm, engaging performances. A pass for “Brooklyn”, which appropriately yielded its turn to the rest of the Kazan filmography before taking its rightful place in the Registry.

Everybody Gets One: Like his character in “Brooklyn”, James Dunn was by all accounts a charming, friendly man, who unfortunately struggled with alcoholism. “Brooklyn” was a bit of a comeback for Dunn, his career having stalled since his success playing Shirley Temple’s father in a string of ‘30s films. This is also the only NFR appearance for longtime character actor Lloyd Nolan.

Wow, That’s Dated: As with many films of the era, there’s a post-credits reminder to buy your war bonds at this theater.

Seriously, Oscars?: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was well received in its day and garnered two Oscar nominations. Slesinger and Davis lost Best Adapted Screenplay to “The Lost Weekend”, but James Dunn took home Best Supporting Actor. In addition, Peggy Ann Garner received a special Oscar for being the “outstanding child actress of 1945”.

Other notes

  • Just a reminder that “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is now a Disney movie. Any chance of making Brooklyn a mini-pavilion at World Showcase?
  • Betty Smith’s original novel is written in five parts, with the film focusing on Books One and Three. Book Two focuses on Johnny and Katie meeting and getting married, while Books Four and Five continue to follow Francie’s coming-of-age. Some of the events of Four and Five are condensed and shoehorned into the final scenes of the movie.
  • This was Elia Kazan’s feature film debut as a director, and it’s interesting watching the master of The Method direct a movie with zero method actors. No Marlon Brandos or Karl Maldens to help him out here. This all begs the question: how was Kazan with kids? I suspect he did well with Garner, given his preference for young unknowns over established personalities.
  • First off, I could give this entire cast a heap of praise. This is an ensemble of actors all on the same page. But I want to single out Peggy Ann Garner’s work. In an era filled with Margaret O’Brien “cute-as-a-button” types, Garner is not one of your conventional child actors, but she is giving a charming, totally believable performance. Rare is the child who can hold a whole movie together, but Garner does it, and it’s a shame her career never took off.
  • Also noteworthy is Joan Blondell, the former ‘30s sex symbol gracefully transitioning to less glamorous supporting turns, proving she’s had an impressive set of acting chops this whole time. Her Aunt Sissy gets to be the fun aunt, but also lays down the law in her more dramatic scenes.
  • Grandparents telling the story of how they emigrated to America? File that one away for later, Kazan.
  • There’s an interesting dynamic between James Dunn and Dorothy McGuire. There’s obviously some love left in this marriage, but Dunn and McGuire have this great uncertainty about their chemistry; you see flashes of that initial spark that brought them together weighed down by years of hardship. Side note: McGuire is a tad too young for the role of Katie, and Kazan chose to forgo any age makeup, believing that McGuire’s performance would dismiss any concerns. He was right.
  • Wow, Christmas at the Nolan house is quite depressing. I’m expecting Clarence to appear and show Johnny an alternate universe where he doesn’t exist.
  • You know what I hate about the Code era? All childbirth scenes depict the mother as quiet and stoic. How is that realistic at all? But then again, you can’t have Dorothy McGuire yell “You did this to me, you bastard!” in the middle of your ‘40s movie.
  • The film’s ending wraps things up in a bow, but it feels deserved. I actually teared up a bit at the ending; not because of its sweetness, but because I realized my time with Francie and the Nolans was coming to an end. Turns out I grew quite attached to this family over the last two hours. Not bad for a 75 year old movie.

Legacy

  • “Brooklyn” was the beginning of Elia Kazan’s 30-year run as a film director. Seven of Kazan’s later films have made the National Film Registry, starting with 1954’s “On the Waterfront”.
  • Sadly, screenwriter Tess Slesinger passed away one week before the film’s premiere. Her son Peter Davis is also a filmmaker, best known for the Vietnam documentary/fellow NFR entry “Hearts and Minds”.
  • There have been a handful of other “Brooklyn” adaptations over the years, including a Broadway musical that incorrectly emphasized Aunt Sissy, and a 1974 TV movie that served as a pilot for a potential series.
  • “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is one of those pieces of pop culture that’s remembered primarily for its title. While still considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century, most people probably couldn’t tell you what it’s about.
  • And in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was among the first films inducted into the Library of Congress when they started preserving films in 1945. It didn’t even have to wait 10 years!

2 thoughts on “#428) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)”

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