Today, we begin our series re-reviewing all of director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. We begin with Kazan’s excellent debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In preparation for this post, I watched the movie once again and my wife happened to walk in at the tail end. She asked to see it and I gladly sat through it for a second time. The cast is stellar and twelve-year-old Peggy Ann Garner’s performance is not to be missed. For some strange reason, this film regrettably is not available on DVD or Amazon streaming. My review below was originally posted back on December 9, 2016 and has been slightly revised.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes
Elia Kazan’s growing reputation as a Broadway theatrical director came to the attention of Hollywood movie studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.
Twelve-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer, but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. Despite his shortcomings, he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.
Katie loves Johnny, but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by notifying school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter, even if it is dishonest.
When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less-desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promises of his marriage.
The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.
After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family is informed he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The neighborhood saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security and stability Johnny was never able to provide the family.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who stated that he relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed-up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part, but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance in her third film role as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire also had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set, as Peggy Ann Garner reflected on much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the “Elia Kazan Collection” box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective:
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the Ailanthus tree determinedly growing through the cracks of the Nolan’s tenement courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with a priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When her teacher recites Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” a distraught Francie questions out loud if her father’s fervent love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewers to decide the answer for themselves. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.
Next up: Kazan’s sophomore stumble, “The Sea of Grass” (1947)