|A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Run time: PG | 129 min | Drama
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn
A magnificent rendition of Betty Smith’s best seller, moving and dramatically authentic, though it never leaves the studio. Perfect in every detail.
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All one needs to view this 1945 near-masterpiece is an appreciation for brilliant film-making. I assure you, you will lose yourself completely in the story of the Nolan family, a humble, impoverished Irish-American family holding on by mere threads in 1900 New York. Director Elia Kazan’s first film experience is often overlooked by his magnificent cinematic efforts in years to come (`A Streetcar Named Desire’ and `East of Eden’), which is hardly fair. So much heart has gone into this emotional piece of Americana - notably its flawless attention to detail and its ultra-sensitive, Oscar-nominated screenplay — that it deserves equal attention. Superb in every aspect.
`A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ from Betty Smith’s poignant novel, is able to capture the essence of the author’s words not only because of its trenchant
writing, but because of three remarkable, beautifully-realized performances. Peggy Ann Garner offers one of the most astonishing child performances ever, finding the very spirit of this 12-year-old child going on 21. Blessed with one of the most expressive faces witnessed on camera, her eyes are sheer poetry and alone speak volumes as Francie, a young girl devoted to her ailing, debilitating father and brutally distant from an unnurturing mother she partially blames. It is such a complete performance. Her steadfast growth in this film is beautiful to observe as she begins to spread her branches and assume her rightful place in life sooner than expected. Garner is simply unforgettable.
James Dunn, as Jimmy Nolan, leaves an indelible impression as the amiably charming ne’er-do-well, a solitary dreamer who has frittered his life away, as well as his family’s money. Despite the cruelties of his actions, your heart aches for this man. His touching scenes with daughter Francie reveal his innate goodness and its heart-wrenching to watch him dissolve before your very eyes. Even a treasured bond with his idolizing daughter isn’t enough for him to fight hard enough to forego the liquor bottle and regain his place at the head of the table. It is an unbearably sad decline, one that haunts you long after the picture is over. Both Dunn and little Peggy Ann would never find movie roles like these again, and earned well-deserved Oscars (Peggy actually copped a ‘special juvenile’ award) for their work here.
In an exceptionally careful and astute performance, Dorothy McGuire plays the necessary heavy here, the taciturn, seemingly cold-hearted matriarch Katie Nolan, who is also this family’s hope and salvation. Unable to trust her husband or afford him the time and patience he desperately needs, she has ultimately abandoned her love for him out of necessity, what with two children and a third on the way, and no viable means to support them. Ms. McGuire, in a career best performance, serves up a somber, beautifully restrained portrait of a flawed, modest, uneducated, somewhat ignoble woman handling life the only way she knows how, and expecting little in return. McGuire, who was only 27 at the time this was filmed, easily nixes any comments that she is too young for the part by displaying a strong, careworn maturity well beyond her years.
Joan Blondell, as only Joan Blondell can, puts some oomph in the drab and dreary proceedings as Katie’s gregarious sister, Sissy, who juggles husbands in her ever search for the right man, and earns the scorn of the town in her reckless, law-breaking pursuit. Blondell manages to give the film a breath of fresh air everytime she appears, though her character’s development is choppy in its transition. Her story, unfortunately, gets lost midway and never truly kicks back in. Little Ted Donaldson as younger brother Neeley contributes fine work also, but is another victim of the primary focus the film decides to takes — Garner’s Francie is rightfully the heart and soul of the piece and she is quite up to the task.
Despite being robbed of a best picture that year (I mean, really, "Anchors Aweigh" and "Mildred Pierce" were nominated over it??) and the fact that Ms. McGuire was overlooked completely, it is slowly earning the attention it deserves. It should be in the top "20" of anybody’s movie lists. For me, this movie is most effective come the yuletide season. It is that touching and meaningful.
The 1974 TV-remake of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" starring Cliff Robertson and Diane Baker is a mere sapling compared to this giant oak of a film.
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (20th Century-Fox, 1945), directed by Elia Kazan, from the book by Betty Smith, is a nostalgic look back to the days when Hollywood used to produce moving family stories and true to life characters, at the same time recapturing the life and times of old New York, in this case, Brooklyn, as seen through the eyes of an adolescent Irish girl named Francie Nolan. While the screenplay doesn't reproduce the entire book from which it is based, it does capture the essence and mood, ranging from hardships and heartaches of a poor Brooklyn family and their struggles blending in with the good times during the early part of the Twentieth Century.
Opening with an eye-view of early Brooklyn with horses pulling the food carts through cobblestone streets, trolleys passing by ringing the bell, clothes hanging out to dry over the back alley of apartment buildings on the line connected from one fire escape to another, the first half hour gives an insight look into the livelihood of the Nolan family: Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire), an embittered wife and mother who must scrub floors in order to support her family; Johnny (James Dunn), her happy-go-lucky husband who just can't seem to find time to earn a living but does take the time to cater to his children, particularly his "prima dona" adolescent daughter, Francie (Peggy Ann Garner); Francie finds the world a fabulous place to grow up in, and like President Abraham Lincoln, wants to learn everything about anything by reading books; Neely (Ted Donaldson), the youngest, would just rather enjoy himself playing in the streets with the other kids than going to school. While Francie and Neely are total opposites, they are typical brother and sister, having their differences but showing their devotion for one another. Their dad, Johnny, a singing waiter by profession, is a caring soul with a weakness for drinking and gambling. His wife, who feels him a failure, would discover, at his funeral the abundance of people in attendance, that anyone with as many friends as he had was not a total failure at all. Since Johnny was taken for granted by both his wife and son, Francie is one who looked up to him as someone special. Another member of their family looked upon with great fondness by the children is their beloved and fun- loving Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell), whose past reputation doesn't go well with sister, Katie.
At 128 minutes, there's bound to be slow spots, but with those slow spots comes some great highlights: The Nolan kids visits to the local meat market telling the butcher their order for what "Momma said"; Francie reading a book on the fire escape and observing everything going on around her; Johnny singing a traditional Irish song, "Annie Laurie"; The Nolan kids obtaining a Christmas tree from a street vendor (B.S. Pully) on Christmas Eve followed by the family togetherness on Christmas Day; Aunt Sissy taking Francie to a secluded place in the school building after the girl receives her graduation gift (flowers), arranged several months ago by her father, now deceased, so she can have herself a good cry; and Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan – excellent) nervously proposing to Widow Katie Nolan so he can provide for her and her new born baby; and one on the rooftop with Francie and Neely overseeing the city of Brooklyn, looking back with fondness to the times they had together, putting those memories behind them.
With Peggy Ann Garner being the main focus here, she deservingly won a special Academy Award for her natural performance. James Dunn (1904-1967), a veteran actor of Fox Films best known for his roles opposite Shirley Temple in the mid 1930s, makes a temporary comeback in a major motion picture that earned him a much deserved Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor of 1945. Along with Garner, Dunn was not only a natural, but born to play his role, that of Johnny Nolan. Let's not overlook Joan Blondell, another screen veteran, giving one of her best performances of her career that should have been honored an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Along with Dunn, Blondell's chemistry with the children is not only natural, but highly memorable.
In smaller but not entirely unimportant roles are Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane); James Gleason (Mr. McGarrity, the neighborhood barber); John Alexander (Steve Edwards, Sissy's latest husband); Ruth Nelson (Mrs. McDonough, Francie's teacher who inspires her to become a write); and J. Farrell MacDonald (Carney, the junk man). That distinctive voice of the Christmas tree vendor belongs to B.S. Pully. And who can forget boy actor Ted Donaldson's distinctive Brooklyn accent, adding the flavor to character.
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN might have been filmed at the back-lot of 20th Century- Fox, but it does have that Brooklyn flavor to it (particularly with the organ grinding score to "Rings on Her Fingers" and other popular tunes of the day. Author Betty Smith recaptures everything there is to the old New York and the characters she created, while Elia Kazan, making his directorial debut, successfully brings all this and the characters to life.
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (in reference to a tree in the back lot of the apartment) was distributed on video cassette in 1991. Other than becoming a late show favorite on commercial television from the 1960s to the 1980s, especially on Christmas Eve, it has later enjoyed frequent revivals on American Movie Classics cable channel for many years before turning up on the Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies where it premiered February 8, 2009. In spite of a 1974 television movie remake, the 1945 original remains an unsurpassed movie gem. Why? Because, "Momma said." (****)
If I ever go to that deserted island with a VCR and ten movies, this would be one of them. This is one of those rare cases when the movie is nearly as good as the book. Peggy Ann Garner perfectly embodies the role of Francie Nolan, and her brother Neely is around to provide the comedy, and he’s very funny. Of course, McGuire, Dunn and Blondell are great, but I enjoyed the children the most. Look for a very young Ruth Nelson, who plays a sympathetic teacher of Francie – the scene between them is very memorable. Overall I can’t say enough great things about this movie – it should be seen by anyone & everyone.
I watched this movie for the first time on TNT last night and was totally blown away. Peggy Ann Garner who plays Francie is a brilliant actress…and at such an early age. I remember we had to read the book in school in the 1960’s (!) but I never saw the movie until now. The characters were so convincing, I was transported to Brooklyn, circa early 1900’s and never left for 2 hours and 20 minutes. I went to bed thinking about this movie and woke up this morning with it’s after affect still lingering in my mind. A "must see" for everyone of all ages. This one’s a gem.