A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Toronto Film Society presented A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) on Monday, August 10, 2015 in a double bill with Charlie Chan on Broadway as part of the Season 68 Monday Summer Series, Programme 5.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Director: Elia Kazan. Screenplay: Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, with contributions to dialogue by Anita Loos, adapted from the novel by Betty Smith. Cinematography: Leon Shamroy. Music: Alfred Newman. Editing: Dorothy Spencer. Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler. Set Decorations: Thomas Little. Costumes: Bonnie Cashin. Makeup: Guy Pearce. Visual Effects: Fred Sersen.

Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), James Gleason (McGarrity), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Peggy Ann Garner (Francie), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), John Alexander (Steve Edwards), B.S. Pully (Christmas Tree Vendor), J. Farrell MacDonald (Carney the Junkman), Mae Marsh (Tynmore Sister), Nicholas Ray (Bakery Clerk).

I recently watched A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN because, after reading John Blondell’s biography, I was interested in seeing her play the role of Aunt Sissy. There was quite a bit written about her portrayal and the film in the book (which I have included below) and, because Blondell is a favourite actress of mine, I would never hesitate to see one of her films. I read the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for school as a teenager and didn’t really enjoy it all that much, then saw the film which I only liked a wee bit better. But with time and film experience, things change, and with a more understanding and knowledgeable eye, it was much more of a treat to watch this film a second time ‘round. In my memory of this movie, I was not keen on Peggy Ann Garner’s acting but couldn’t put my finger on why. However, for me, I have learned that it’s not necessarily always because of the actors, but rather when a film appears to look more like a stage play, that I usually have a difficult time viewing it. I’ve always liked the flow of film acting better than stage acting. With this in mind, I have come to appreciate the talents of the director, Elia Kazan, who, as it turns out, came straight from Broadway to direct this, his first film. As the film went on, I found I was enjoying Garner’s portrayal of Francie Nolan, and she ended up bringing a tear to my eye in the final scene. Recently I saw her in the wonderful 1947 Thunder in the Valley where she ages from a young girl into a young woman. Not a bad feat for a 15-year-old!

Besides Joan Blondell, I am also a fan of Lloyd Nolan who, as most of you know, usually plays gangsters or detectives. Here he plays an ordinary police officer, looking out for the people in his neighbourhood, particularly Katie Nolan. No “smooth-talker” here.

So whether you are a fan or not of the novel, or read it so long ago you don’t have much of a memory of it, I’m sure you will enjoy this film of a poor Irish-Austrian family living in Brooklyn, USA.

Caren Feldman
www.carensclassiccinema.wordpress.com

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (7)

…In the spring of 1944, Twentieth Century-Fox offered Joan a choice role in a prestige movie. When Betty Smith’s warm family memoir A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became a giant bestseller, Fox grabbed the rights and immediately began fashioning a top-flight movie. The studio sent Joan a first-draft script while she was on tour with Something for the Boys, and the fine aroma of a great script was overwhelming. Aunt Sissy, the oft-married glad heart of the tale, was a dream. “I actually lost my breath when Fox offered me a long-term contract—and Aunt Sissy on a golden platter,” she said. The terms were not overly generous. Joan was to start with $1,500 per week for the first year, with a $500 per week raise as an option thereafter.

…In the fall of 1944, the career front was brightening for both Joan and her newly minted ex-husband. Dick (Powell) was signed for the tough RKO crime drama Murder, My Sweet, permanently smashing his nice guy image by playing the hardened Raymond Chandler detective Philip Marlowe. Joan was immersed in the making of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Her costars, including screen newcomer Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, and thirteen-year-old Peggy Ann Garner, were as well cast and enthusiastic about the project as Joan. The setting, a poor Irish immigrant neighborhood of 1910 Brooklyn, resembled the environs of Katie’s {McGuire} youth.

Despite its respectability as a novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had difficulty getting past Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration. The PCA was still censoring words like “lousy” and telling the makers of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that the birthing pains and ladies room stalls would not be tolerated. The first script draft’s primary transgression was “the bigamous characterization of Sissy.” A second script draft was rejected, again because of Sissy. The Code read: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” Breen noted that “Aunt Sissy is sympathetically portrayed, and her several marital—or extramarital—undertakings are used as a springboard for considerable comedy. All this, in our judgment, constitutes a violation of the Code…[inferring] that such low forms of sex relationship are the accepted and common thing.” Only after more doctoring by Anita Loos did the script get approval.

First-time film director Elia Kazan, fresh from Broadway hits The Skin of Our Teeth and One Touch of Venus, adapted well to a sound stage. When the prying eyes of the PCA were elsewhere, Joan loved the working atmosphere Kazan engendered. “There were no big meetings, or going into closets to figure out what your mood was,” she said. “You just did it. {Kazan} chose you because you were the right one for that role and then let you go.”

As one of the screen veterans on the set, Joan was accorded star status and was given her own dressing room. But she preferred to socialize in the makeup department with her good friend Dorothy (“Dottie”) Ponedel, who was also a favorite of Judy Garland, Paulette Goddard, and Marlene Dietrich. If there was an assembled crowd, Joan was in the middle of it with her homemade coffee cakes and sandwiches. When the cameras rolled, she brought forth a splendid performance. Her acting was on fire, her emotions immediately accessible.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (11)

Brooklyn was rehearsed like a play, with Kazan spending time with each actor discussing, negotiating, and locating the heart of the character. Fox was willing to invest generously, devoting several acres of the back lot to recreating six blocks and 218 buildings of old Bedford Avenue. Kazan was nervous at having such attention paid to his first outing on film. “Producer Louis Lighton and cameraman Leon Shamroy coached me through step by step and helped me with all of the aspects obviously different from the theater,” he said. He won the affection of his movie cast with his respect for their art, which in those days was often belittled in comparison to stage acting. “The camera is like a microscope and will pick out flaws that are often overlooked in a stage production,” he said. Motion pictures “make the utmost demands upon an actor’s talent.”

…When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened in early 1945, it was met with thunderous critical approval. “Where Miss Smith impinged her printed pages on a vast complex of human love and hope rooted wistfully in tenement surroundings, the camera has envisioned on the screen the outward and visible evidence of the inward and spiritual grace,” noted the New York Times. “Joan Blondell is little short of wonderful,” proclaimed the New York Daily News. Louella Parsons was downright giddy: “You’ll be crazy about Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy. She is great, and great is the word I mean.” Much of the enthusiasm was aimed at Peggy Ann Garner, who offered a startlingly honest performance as the young dreamer Francie.

The enduring beauty of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn derives from the little girl’s growing awareness of the complexities of human relations. There are no villains, only recognizably flawed people struggling for a measure of happiness. No character better expressed the artistic integrity of Tree better than Joan’s. She is here an irrepressibly warm personality able to crack and reveal hidden sorrows and express an unobstructed love of children. She blows into the movie and nearly steals it, dressed in stripes and frills in an effort to look fancy on a budget. Sissy is an insecure, big-hearted, intuitive woman who mistakes experience for wisdom. She can spitelessly grin and sum up other people’s lives, yet on quick glance one notices that hers is in the ruins.

For all of the joy of success accompanying A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Joan felt a twinge of sadness. “Thank God censorship has improved since then,” she said later when speaking of the strangling atmosphere of the time. “They cut the best scene in the picture, the best scene I ever played, and the best piece of acting I have ever done. Aunt Sissy, who is a very sweet, good woman, worked in a rubber factory. Her profession is kept very quiet by everybody in the family. She takes the colorful tins the contraceptives are placed in—they have girls’ faces on them and names like Agnes or Betsy—and gives them to the children to play with. One day she accidentally leaves a rubber in a tin. The little boy asks me about it, and in the most beautiful writing the author, Betty Smith, did, Sissy tries to explain to the children what the rubber is; not by talking about the actual thing, but about love and life itself. It was very simply done, and all of us players hugged each other spontaneously at the end of the scene. It was marvelous and the Legion of Decency made us take it out. Wasn’t that stupid?”

The diluting of Sissy’s character was noted by the New York Times: “Joan Blondell’s performance of Aunt Sissy, the family’s ‘problem,’ is obviously hedged by the script’s abbreviations and the usual Hays office restraints, but a sketchy conception of a warm character is plumply expanded by her.” Film historian Ronald L. Bowers interviewed Joan and stated, “She always felt that if several of her scenes had not been cut from Tree, she’d have a good chance at a Supporting Actress Oscar. There was no rancor in this observation. I don’t think Joan held grudges. She was always optimistic.” When measuring A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Joan’s cup remained forever half full, not half empty. “Kazan let me have a moment or two of tenderness, of maturity, that nobody had ever given me before,” she said with obvious gratitude.

Joan dutifully took part in Fox’s promotion. Norman {her young son} was her date to the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. On 11 March 1945, she sat down with Edgar Bergen’s wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, for a radio spot:

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1)

Charlie:  Yeah! Well, here’s one star that will keep you awake—Miss Joan Blondell! (applause)
Blondell: Thank you, Charlie. You do say such nice things.
Charlie:  Well, you bring out the best in me.
Blondell: What kind of girls do you like, Charlie?
Charlie:  Oh, redheads, brunettes, and Blondells!
Bergen:  By the way, Joan, we saw you in your new picture—A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Blondell: Oh, how nice…and what did you think of me, Charlie?
Charlie:  The same as I’m thinking now!
Bergen:  You were very good.
Charlie:  Well, I thought the tree stole the picture.
Blondell: Yes—aren’t they doing wonderful things with wood these days! Even on the radio!
Charlie:  I’ll ignore that.
Blondell: I was happy to play in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because I lived there.
Charlie:  Oh, happy childhood!
Blondell: On the contrary….As a young girl I found life in Brooklyn one continual struggle.
Charlie:  Where did you live?
Blondell: Near the Navy Yard!
Bergen:  Joan, do you know that Charlie took it upon himself to rewrite the story of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?
Blondell: Why, Charlie?
Charlie:  Well, mine is a little different. In the original story the people went through such terrible suffering.
Blondell: And how is yours different?
Charlie:  In my version the audience suffers.

Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy (2007)

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (10)

A fixer of—frankly—ephemera. In interviews Kazan has said that his work on Broadway at this time was largely technical in nature. He was an arranger of scenes, a creator of stage pictures, a mostly seductive and agreeable mentor of actors. Much of what he was doing did not speak to him in powerfully emotional terms; that would come later, in his collaborations with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, particularly.

And most of what he was doing—however successful it was at the time—does not speak to us, either. His plays of this period lie mainly unread in libraries. Movies, treated so contemptuously at the time by haughty Broadway, are different. Because they are physical products, immutable reels of celluloid, they persist. No one saw the means of their cultural ubiquity in the 1940s—late-night television, Turner Classic Movies, the VCR and the DVD, the growth of academic film studies, film archives, film festivals. But, simply put, film history is now a bustling subculture; theatrical history is, in contrast, a backwater.

When he took a train westward in the spring of 1944 to make his first movie, Elia Kazan was, without being aware of it, entering retrievable, permanent history, about to create a body of work that remains intact—something to be reckoned with. Beginning with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

On the train, committed to making five films in as many years for Twentieth Century-Fox at a salary he considered modest to a fault, Kazan came fully to grips with the book for the first time. Reading and rereading it, he found himself moved to tears by Betty Smith’s novel. As well he should have been. For in this tale of first and second-generation immigrants, clinging desperately to the lower rungs of respectability, trying not to fall into abject poverty, he quite naturally saw points of reference to his own early life.

As many did. From the day it was published in 1943 Smith’s novel, written in a serviceably realistic manner, has never been out of print. An immediate best seller (2.5 million copies in its first two years), it became, and to a degree remains, a rite-of-passage experience for many Americans, particularly young women. Turn-of-the-century Brooklyn is a remote environment to them. So is the national mood that made the book such a success on first publication. It is a warm appreciation of the strength of and persistence of good, plain values, heartwarmingly applied to difficult circumstances.

But the book’s heroine, Francie Nolan, remains a completely relevant figure to this day. It is hard to know just how much of Smith’s own experiences went into her creation, but one can easily see that the writer must have transformed a measure of personal history into a lasting archetype. Francie and her brother, Neeley, are the children of an Irish singing waiter, Johnny Nolan, and his wife, Katie, whose roots are Austrian. Francie’s writing has been encouraged at school, and she dreams of going on to high school, then college, then to a career as a professional writer. She is trying to read her way through every book in her neighborhood branch library. Any ambitious young woman can identify with her yearnings.

But there is still richer emotional material in her. There is, for example, her blind adoration of her charming, unreliable father. He has his own frustrated dream—that one night a Broadway producer will wander into a saloon where he’s singing, hear his silvery voice and make him a star. But he’s also an alcoholic; you can never count on him actually to return home with the pocketful of tips on which his family depends for their subsistence. His wife, Katie, is made of sterner stuff. She’s a hard, practical woman who has come to hate (and repress) the romantic side of her nature, which long ago yielded to Johnny’s blarney, reducing her and her brood to their anxious and marginal existence. Indeed, in the course of this story she gives in to Johnny one last time, becoming pregnant as a result, thus precipitating the narrative’s central crisis.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (6)

Thinking about Johnny and Katie at the time, Kazan wrote in his notebook about their “nobility,” which, he says, “is fulfilled in spite of themselves.” He felt it important that they did not fully understand their own good impulses, but that blindly “they live up to the best in themselves.”—through their daughter. In these notes Kazan is more coldly analytical, more schematic in his approach than usual—and more overtly psychologizing as well. When he reviewed the film, James Agee thought it perhaps too easily Freudian in its approach.

But I don’t agree. Kazan was right; the way the parents keep losing sight of their better instincts under the impress of their hard lives, but keep rediscovering them, makes them, to me, all the more appealing. It also makes their daughter’s endless forgiveness of the romantically perceived father, and her resistance to the harsh practicality of the mother all the more touching. This was, as it continues to be, a common emotional conflict among young women—rendered the more touching in Francie’s case because she is so obviously a product of them both—at once dreamy and striving. Then add to that her relentless, if good-natured, ambition, her willingness to work hard in school, while picking up, for her family, whatever small advantages that she can on the streets and in the shops of her neighborhood, and she becomes an exemplary, proto-feminist heroine.

All of this was surely implicit, needing only a little detailed development in the excellent script Kazan was handed, the work of Tess Slesinger, a leftist novelist and short story writer (The Unpossessed, Time: The Present) and her husband, Frank Davis (they had previously written The Good Earth), which was equally touching. It drew on all the strengths of Smith’s work, with their compression further intensifying it.

In the mysterious way of Hollywood, Kazan never met the writers. But he drew close to Bud Lighton as they prepared the film for production. As Kazan later recalled, Lighton said he wanted to work with “a new director whom I can ‘help,’” and in Kazan’s words, “he put the world ‘help’ in quotes, but he did help me.” The biggest thing he learned from Lighton, he said, was to pay meticulous attention to the script, making sure everything was in near-perfect order before shooting began. Kazan remembered putting a little more emphasis on the immigrant elements of the piece, though he also insisted that this development was quite minor.

In Kazan’s account, Lighton became something of a father figure to him during preproduction. He was a calm, WASPy movie veteran (he had worked mainly at MGM, mostly with tough old pros like Victor Fleming), a large man, losing his sight (he used a huge magnifying glass to read the script), rather right wing in his political views, and given to working off tension by practicing with a bull whip, with which he was, according to Kazan, quite adept. He also had a small ranch in Arizona, to which he slipped away whenever he could. Essentially they seem to have formed a sort of us-against-them bond.

But Lighton was only part of Kazan’s good luck on his first Hollywood venture. He found that he liked working at Fox. The studio’s chairman, Spyros Skouras, was, like himself, a Greek immigrant, notorious for his wayward grasp of the English language, not likable or brilliant but tough and sympathetic to Kazan—if only because there were so few Greeks in the industry. Darryl Zanuck, the chief of production, was also someone with whom Kazan could identify. They were both small, driven men, whose sexual appetites were as prodigious as the fierce concentration they brought to moviemaking. Zanuck, who tended to work the nights away screening dailies and rough cuts in the basement of the Fox executive building, was famous for his ability to spot the weaknesses in what he saw and to propose corrections for them. Kazan might quarrel with him over details, and generally mistrust him, but he never thought of him as a tyrant or a fool. But the best thing, for Kazan, was the film he was making. He didn’t always know what he was doing, but there were plenty of people willing to instruct him. And this was a lucky production, one of those movies in which all the pieces seemed to fall easily into place.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (2)

Kazan said to me in 1990 “that every picture that is successful has one little miracle in it, and we had ours—Peggy Ann Garner, the little girl.” The daughter of an English-born attorney father and a mother who pushed her into acting, she had made several previous films without quite achieving child stardom. But now at age thirteen, she was luminously right for this role. She was not particularly fond of her ambitious mother, but she adored her father and was “worried” as hell about him,” as he was overseas, serving as an air force pilot. The analogy between her real life and the fictional role she was playing was perfect. “I could just look at this girl and see the fright on her face,” Kazan remembered.

Indeed, he played on that fear. There comes a point in the story where, with his wife pregnant and the family facing utter destitution, Johnny Nolan plunges out into a blizzard, determined to find steady work, and then dies of exposure. Preparing Garner for the scene where she must accept his loss, Kazan “dropped a few rods” about the possibility of losing her own father in the war. What, exactly, he said, he claimed not to be able to remember. But he did remember Garner crying “all morning, all afternoon, all night.” It was exactly what he needed. “You know,” he later reflected, “I think finally a film director has to get a shot, no matter what he does. We’re desperate people. And one way or another, no matter what we have to do, we’ll do it. And we’ll be sweet and nice afterwards. And I hugged her and kissed her and did everything in the world for her….But at that time I had to get it. And I got it.”

Is there something chilling in this confession? Yes, there is. But it is by no means unique in movie practice. And it goes to the heart of Kazan’s art, setting up emotionally loaded situations on his sets and in his rehearsal halls, hoping the feelings he encouraged would spill over into performance. It is what he did instead of publicly analyzing the script. It is also what he did in casting, hoping his players’ offstage relationships would analogize with the ones he was trying to build in performance.

Tree offers a good example of that, too. Garner naturally gravitated to her on-screen father, James Dunn. He had been a minor star in 1930s movies, but his career had been laid low by alcohol, exactly like Johnny Nolan’s. This background Kazan judged perfect for his needs. “If you can get the real thing, that’s great, and I got Jimmy Dunn. You can’t beat that, because he didn’t have to act. He just looked like a guy who had boozed too much and also was jolly and lovable at the same time he was also sort of a mess.” For the length of the shoot, he and Garner formed a loving bond, and their scenes together are wondrous. It is, for example, he who explains to her the symbolic tree of the title—a tough specimen that sinks down its roots through cracks in the concrete and somehow flourishes, as Francie does, in an unyielding environment. It is he who consoles her when it looks as if she’ll have to withdraw from school and go to work to help support the family. It is he, with his impotent dreams, who keeps hers alive.

And it is he, frankly, who annunciates a theme that would be central to Kazan’s work for the rest of his career. It is the theme of the damaged male. Johnny was, for all his charm, disastrously wounded by drink, just barely able to navigate life. After him came a deluge of male dysfunction in Kazan’s work. Whether we are talking Joe Keller, the cheating manufacturer of All My Sons or Willy Loman, driven to suicide by his failure to capture his share of the American Dream, whether we are talking the crypto-homosexuals of Tea and Sympathy or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, whether we are talking the rapacious sexual brutality of Stanley Kowalski or Terry Malloy’s yearning for tenderness, full human status, in On the Waterfront, we are talking of men who somehow fail to match the conventional masculine ideal as it was everywhere presented in popular culture.

Kazan was not alone in questioning the traditional masculine ideal at this time. During the war and its aftermath the whole film noir genre, for example, presented a rich array of damaged males in criminal contexts. It is also fair to note that Kazan himself sometimes skipped the topic in films like Boomerang and Panic in the Streets. But by and large this was a matter that drew his most avid—and sympathetic—interest. However successful he became, he remained in his own mind the immigrant outsider, ever the imperfect American.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (3)

His autobiography lays out his neediness on virtually every page. We understand that it drove almost all his actions—from his marriages to his politics. It is the great given of this life, just as the sympathy he lavished on the lies of Johnny Nolan is one of the great givens of his work. Along with his predilection for cool blonds.

Kazan makes a joke of this in his best, and most autobiographical, novel, The Arrangement. His narrator-protagonist is describing his mistress, whose fine silky hair he adores and he says, simply, “Being Greek blondness is my fetish.” To which one almost replies “No kidding.” All three of Kazan’s wives were blonds. Almost invariably his leading ladies were, too. Often they were cool blonds, appraising and ironic with his leading men, sometimes angry with them, but almost always wanting them to be better than they are.

Dorothy McGuire’s Katie is of the angry variety. Not being Irish, she is more reserved with her emotions than her husband or children are. She had about her a natural, well-bred reserve, but with just a hint of underlying hysteria—a woman guarding her feelings lest they undo her. This held back quality pays off when Francie comes home from school one day and finds her alone, in labor. In her pain, she cries out confessionally. She would have liked to have Francie’s gift for expression, Johnny’s gift for friendship. She does not wish to be the hard, ungiving woman she has become. In this she is a typical Kazan wife. The more sexualized younger women, often the “other” woman, in his works tend to be more playful, more fun. In other words, Katie was a sort of Molly {Kazan’s then-wife} clone. But, as he often did in his work, Kazan cuts her a break. In that long, beautifully played confessional moment, she wins not only Francie’s heart, but the audience’s as well.

Curiously, Kazan never claimed for himself great directorial acumen on this picture. He conceded that he knew something of this cut of New York life from his own younger days. In his autobiography he concedes, too, that he was beginning to miss Molly and his children and the comforts they offered him and that his longing infused this film. But he felt himself to be very much the tyro on this project. His director of photography, the veteran Leon Shamroy, sensing his insecurity, particularly with the camera, suggested that perhaps they should codirect the film, and Kazan seriously considered the possibility (it was Lighton who talked him out of it). Almost a half century later he was still saying, “I didn’t have that much confidence….Maybe it looks that way. I’m glad it does. But I was essentially a stage director and what I did…was I staged the scenes wherever they took place mostly in a room, the way I would on a stage.”

There’s some truth in that description, but he’s being too modest. There’s often an instinctive elegance in his framing and a very intelligent movement of figures within those frames. Greatly aided by Shamroy’s camera, he creates a very good sense of claustrophobia within the Nolans’ tenement and draws a good contrast between it and the streets outside. This may be a backlot Brooklyn, but it has a much stronger authenticity—including a horse-drawn trolley car—than most studio-bound films of the time had. And that says nothing of the bustling life of Tree’s subsidiary characters—Joan Blondell’s Aunt Cissy {sic} with her busy romantic life, Lloyd Nolan’s stolidly patient, ultimately rescuing cop are notable—and of the lovely grace notes that the script introduces—Francie and Neeley tricking a prize tree out of a reluctant dealer on Christmas Eve, for example, or the gift of flowers from Johnny, delivered after his death to his daughter when she graduates from primary school, or best of all the fierce immigrant’s speech, celebrating the opportunities America offers, coming from Katie’s mother and prefiguring themes Kazan would return to again and again.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (5)

On the whole A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was rapturously received when it opened early in 1945. Only James Agee rendered serious reservations about it. He rather mysteriously thought, for instance, that it might have included a school outing sequence, in order to give viewers a more spacious view of turn-of-the-century urban life. Equally mysteriously, he thought it too self-consciously realistic in its reconstructions of old Brooklyn. What one takes away from his piece—a longer review than he normally gave studio products—is a rather grudging tone; he just doesn’t want to concede that a best-seller as mighty as this one could yield up a film as emotionally powerful as this one. Oddly, his hesitant praise of the film matches Kazan’s hesitations about it. {You can find this review in James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism by James Agee and Michael Sragow}

Indeed, in his biography, Kazan compares the film unfavorably to the book that, at this time, he most admired—Zola’s Germinal, that brutal saga of a mining community and the way the work reduces the miners almost to the animalistic level. It is an unfair, even absurd, comparison.

But Kazan’s mood at the time was very dark, which meant that the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn appeared to him as a kind of bitter irony. Yet a success it was. One of the top-grossing films of 1945, it brought an Academy Award to James Dunn and a special Oscar for Peggy Ann Garner as the year’s best child performer. Moreover, it has had an afterlife that few films enjoy. It became a “family favorite” largely because of its heartwarming aspects, though it is much better than that, especially in its lack of overt sentimentality.

Elia Kazan: A (Critical) Biography by Richard Schickel (2005)

Tree Grows in Brooklyn (4)

The warm and compassionate story of a slum-pent family in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg which was told with such rich and genuine feeling in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, has received pictorial embodiment to a remarkably harmonious degree by Twentieth Century-Fox in a fine film based on the novel which came to the Roxy yesterday. If some of the ripe descriptive detail of the original is missing, that is due to the time limitations of the picture. The essential substance has been maintained and presented in a manner which carries tremendous emotional punch.

For the producers have very bravely shunned the more felicitous course of making their film a humorous abstract of neighborhood folklore and folkways and have got to the core of the story which Miss Smith plainly tore from her own heart. That is the rare and tender story of a valiant and sensitive little girl reaching hopefully for spiritual fulfillment in a wretchedly meager home. It is the story of the wondrous love she gathered from a father who was a cheerful ne’er-do-well and of the painful peace she made with her brave mother after the adored father had died.

Where Miss Smith impinged her printed pages on a vast complex of human love and hope rooted wistfully in tenement surroundings, the camera has envisioned on the screen the outward and visible evidence of this inward and spiritual grace. Through a truly surpassing little actress, Peggy Ann Garner, on whom the camera mostly stays, the producers have ably provided a sensitive mirror for the reflection of childish moods and for all the personal comprehension of the pathos of poverty.

Little Miss Garner, with her plain face and lank hair, is Miss Smith’s Francie Nolan to the life. And James Dunn plays her father, Johnny Nolan, with deep and sympathetic tenderness. In the radiant performance by these two actors of a dreamy adoration between father and child is achieved a pictorial demonstration of emotion that is sublimely eloquent. Perhaps the sequence representing the ambition of Francie to go to a better public school and the innocent conspiracy with her father to arrange it is the best in the film. Certainly the moment when Francie whispers joyously into her father’s ear, “My cup runneth over,” touched this reviewer as very few scenes ever have.

Scene from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

But, as well as the pathetic attachment between father and daughter, the film transmits a deeply affecting conception of the mother, Katie Nolan, whose life was a constant struggle against the family’s only adversary, poverty. As Dorothy McGuire plays her, she gains strength and clarity through the film until a beautiful and rewarding understanding of her troubled, noble nature is revealed.

Joan Blondell’s performance of Aunt Sissy, the family’s “problem,” is obviously hedged by the script’s abbreviations and the usual “Hay’s-office” restraints, but a sketchy conception of a warm character is plumply expanded by her. And Ted Donaldson is boyishly delightful as the healthy, literal tad of the brood. Lloyd Nolan is good as the policeman, James Gleason makes a vivid pub owner and Ferike Boros is fine as the grandmother in a generally excellent cast.

Elia Kazan has directed this picture, his first, with an easy naturalness that has brought out all the tone of real experience in a vastly affecting film.

 New York Times by Bosley Crowther, March 1, 1945

Notes written and compiled by Caren Feldman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.