Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

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.

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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

5 Stars

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.

Plot

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.

Comments

“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)

Excellent preface to 2020 Kazan Fest

Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey
By Michel Ciment
Bloomsbury, 1988, 238 pp.

5 Stars

I can still vividly remember watching a particular movie on television as a young teenager back in the early 1970s. The flick was, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), and I was so startled by the unconventional, un-Hollywood-like ending that I took special note of the name of the director, Elia Kazan, in the closing credits.

Over the many decades that followed, I’ve enjoyed watching all of Kazan’s nineteen films and reading the many books written by him or about him.

“Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” is an interesting collection of disconnected articles and notes written by Kazan regarding his directing career. The text is supplemented with many interesting photographs, some of which I’ve never seen before. Be aware that this volume is intended more for Kazan fans who are already knowledgeable about the director and his films. It’s no place to start for a neophyte.

French film critic, Michel Ciment, previously presented a collection of interviews with Kazan, “Kazan on Kazan” (1973), in which the director spoke briefly about each of his films. See my review here.

Reading “Elia Kazan: An American Odyssey” was a timely prelude to the upcoming launch of my Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux series. I was happy to be able to purchase this handsome volume from an Amazon used-book seller at a very cheap price. Bloomsbury used to do an excellent job with these semi-coffee table books back in the day.

This Wednesday: Kazan’s excellent directorial debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

Elia Kazan Film Festival, 2020 Redux

Way back in December 2016, I began a series on director Elia Kazan’s nineteen films. Wow! Was it actually that long ago? It took me all of 2017 to complete that ambitious project (see here) and by the time I was done, I definitely needed a break from Kazan (photo above).

Well, I’m getting the itch again, so I will be viewing all of Kazan’s films in 2020, about one every three weeks. Since I already reviewed each movie pretty thoroughly three years ago, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, after watching each movie, I’ll re-post the archived review with a few new insights that I’ve culled.

Sound good? Dust off the popcorn popper and dim the lights for another year-long Kazan film festival!

Coming soon: Kazan’s remarkable 1945 debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” featuring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, and the precocious, Peggy Ann Garner.

The birth of “folk-rock” in the hills of Los Angeles

Echo in the Canyon
Directed by Andrew Slater and featuring Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Jakob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, and Lou Adler
Greenwich Entertainment, 2018, 82 min

4 Stars

In the early-1960s, young people gravitated to two types of music; there was rock-and-roll for teeny boppers and the “unsophisticated,” and there was folk music for college students and the “socially conscious.” Both groups eyed each other and their music with contempt. But when the Beatles came to America in 1964 and took the country by storm with their infectious brand of rock-and-roll, a few young folk musicians took notice.

In Los Angeles, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn hooked up with fellow struggling folkies, Gene Clark and David Crosby, to form the Byrds and together they created a synthesis of folk music and rock-and-roll. It was one of those rare moments of “game-changing” creativity. The new style of music, dubbed “folk-rock,” was a huge success and had a powerful influence. Both the Beatles and Bob Dylan, folk music’s premier troubadour, were paying attention and changed course; the Beatles became more cerebral and Dylan plugged in. Young musicians and songwriters who were hip to the new sound flocked to Los Angeles where it was “happening.” With some serious paychecks now coming in, Crosby bought a house in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles and was followed by many other like-minded artists. For a brief period, 1965-1968, Laurel Canyon was THE place to be.

Former record company executive, Andrew Slater, put together this documentary to capture some of the excitement of that particular time and place. Host, Jakob Dylan (son of Bob), takes the audience on a journey that includes archived footage and interviews. Dylan and his young friends (Beck, Jade Castrinos, Justine Bennett, Regina Spektor) ruminate on the impact the Laurel Canyon sound had on popular music and perform some of the old chestnuts in concert.

I had been meaning to catch “Echo in the Canyon” at Rochester’s art house movie theater. Having missed it there, I was pleased to see it was already available via Amazon Prime videos. Being an old Byrds/Buffalo Springfield fan, I really enjoyed this documentary. But I was even happier when I listened to my wife describe the film to one of our sons over the phone the next day. She told him the Laurel Canyon musicians sang about peace, love, and universal brotherhood, but they couldn’t get along themselves. Hey, that’s my line! Yup, Jesus Christ is the ONLY answer.

Postscript: Many have asked why one of Laurel Canyon’s most celebrated former residents and artists, Joni Mitchell, is conspicuously missing from this documentary? Well, Joni has been scathingly critical of Bob Dylan in several interviews and I’m sure Jakob Dylan was not enthusiastic about featuring her in any form or fashion. Peace? Love? Harmony?

I don’t usually sit around and watch paint dry…

…but when I do it’s because my wife has one of the “Star Wars” movies on the TV in the other room.

 

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to offend those who do enjoy “Star Wars.” However, I have a reputation for being very closed-minded about the “Star Wars” franchise that I need to uphold and this frivolous idea somehow popped into my head last night that I thought some might enjoy. 🙂

The Criterion Collection releases Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Written by Bud Schulberg
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

4 Stars  for the film itself.

3 Stars  for this Criterion Collection DVD release.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd.”

I reviewed “A Face in the Crowd” at length a couple of years ago (see here) as part of my series on Kazan’s nineteen films, so I’ll just note a few thoughts I have about the movie and this DVD release:

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office flop in 1957, but has garnered an increasing number of admirers over the decades. The reason? The film’s warning of the manipulative power of television and marketing in relation to politics was eerily prescient. More than a few contemporary commentators have cited this film in relation to president Donald Trumps’ populist appeal, which is no doubt the main reason why Criterion selected it.

Most people are familiar with actor, Andy Griffith, who became a national celebrity in his 1960s television role as the friendly sheriff of Mayberry. Few people are aware of Andy’s strikingly contrasting film debut in “A Face in the Crowd” in which he played an ornery drifter turned power hungry, megalomaniac and political kingmaker. Griffith is a hoot and Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick also played excellent parts. The film’s ending falls a little flat, but that’s a minor criticism,

I’m pleased Criterion selected “A Face in the Crowd” as one of its premium releases and I appreciate now having the film in Blu-ray high-definition. Criterion normally provides a large number of bonus features with its releases, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with “A Face in the Crowd.” I did enjoy the new interview with Ron Briley, author of “The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan” (see my review here), as well as the new interview with Evan Dalton Smith, author of the forthcoming biography, “Looking for Andy Griffith.” Also included is the documentary short, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Griffith, Neal, Franciosa, and screenwriter, Bud Schulberg, but this extra was previously included in the Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release. I enjoyed the DVD package booklet featuring an excellent essay by film critic April Wolfe, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the movie’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith. However, I’m disappointed that an audio commentary from a film critic/historian was not provided. That’s a major oversight.

Justice League (and a Legionnaire) vs. The Fatal Five

DC Comics pulled the plug on the Legion of Super-Heroes’ own comic book series back in 2013, but the teen heroes from the 31st century have been busy making cameo appearances in a variety of other venues, including the very recent…

Justice League vs. The Fatal Five
Directed by Sam Liu
Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment, 2019, 77 minutes

4 Stars

Plot

In the 31st century, three members of the galaxy’s most powerful crime team, the Fatal Five, break into the Legion’s headquarters in Metropolis, and abscond with a time-travel sphere with Star Boy clinging on for dear life. Their destination? 20th century Earth. But Star Boy is able to place the villains in state of stasis before the vehicle crashes. Superman recovers the sphere and brings it to Justice League of America’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, the stranded Star Boy has some big problems. He suffers from a form of schizophrenia and his medication is back in the 31st century. His increasingly erratic behavior results in being sent to prison.

Mister Terrific of the Justice League inadvertently releases the three members of the Five – Mano, Tharok, and the Persuader –  and they immediately search for Jessica Cruz, one of the Green Lanterns, who has some mental health issues of her own. What do Mano, Tharok, and the Persuader want with a Green Lantern and where are the other two members of the Five; Emerald Empress and Validus?

The unstable Star Boy breaks out of prison using his impressive mass-altering powers and defends Jessica from the villainous trio. The Justice League – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Mister Terrific and trainee, Miss Martian –  soon join in the fray and the crooks are forced to flee.

The JLers set up a mind-meld and ascertain from Star Boy’s memories that Emerald Empress and Validus were apprehended by the Legion in the 31st century and sent to the 21st century to be imprisoned in the only facility strong enough to hold them; the Green Lantern Corps’ impenetrable Sciencells on the planet Oa. Ah, so that’s it! The villains need Green Lantern Jessica to lead them to their imprisoned comrades.

Mano sends an ultimatum to the JLers: turn over Jessica or explosives will detonated in cities throughout the world. Metropolis is suddenly rocked by powerful blasts, forcing the JLers to flee, and Jessica is impelled to lead the villains to Oa and the Sciencells where Validus and the Emerald Empress and her powerful Emerald Eye are freed following a tussle with two Green Lantern guards. Jessica’s Green Lantern ring is destroyed in the melee, rending her powerless. The Emerald Empress then super-charges the powers of the Eye using the Green Lanterns’ Central Power Battery.

The Five return to Earth and the Princess initiates her plan to use the Eye to destroy the Sun, thus annihilating Earth and eliminating the Legion as future antagonists. The JLers intervene, but succumb to the power of the Five. Just when all seems lost, Jessica finds her nerve back on Oa and reassembles her Green Lantern ring and reclaims her powers. She returns to Earth and apprehends the Five. However, the Eye is already well on its way to a cataclysmic rendezvous with the Sun. Superman, Jessica, and Star Boy give chase, but it’s too late, the Eye plunges into the Sun and it begins to fracture. Star Boy sacrifices himself and flies into the Sun, knowing his powers to alter mass can reverse the fracturing process and save Earth.

In the final scene, the JLA members are joined by a contingent of Legionnaires from the 31st century to honor the fallen Star Boy.

Comments

Hey, I enjoyed this animated film quite a bit! It was a good story and I appreciated the LSH tie-ins. The inclusion of once-taboo mental health topics into the story-line was interesting. The “Clutch Cargo” animation was extremely stiff, but that’s what fans of DC’s low-budget, direct-to-video, super-hero animated films have come to expect. Last July, we reviewed the origin of the Fatal Five in Adventure Comics #352 (see here) and the sacrifice of Ferro Lad to save the Sun, so it was interesting to see another Legionnaire sacrifice his life for the same purpose, although this time the Fatal Five were opponents rather than reluctant allies. It was strange to see Mano portrayed as the leader of the Five in this film, when Tharok, with his half-computer brain, was the historical leader of the evil quintet. Good stuff. Lots of fun for an old DC Comics Silver Age fan. Legionnaires making cameo appearances include Brainiac 5, Chameleon Boy, Dawnstar, Mon-El, Saturn Girl, Shadow Lass, and Tyroc.

Criterion selects Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services are quickly making DVDs a thing of the past, however, Criterion continues as a resource for outstanding, classic films. Criterion selects films it deems to be significant and presents them in high-quality resolution along with many bonus features.

No, I’m not a film buff even by the slightest stretch of the imagination. I’d much rather read a good non-fiction book than invest two hours in a Hollywood fantasy. But readers of this blog know that I am a fan of the films of director, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). His quintessential method-acting movie, “On the Waterfront” (1954), was previously released by Criterion in 2013. I now see that Criterion will be releasing Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) on April 23rd.

“A Face in the Crowd” is a fascinating movie featuring a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith as the folksy ne’er-do-well-turned-populist-kingmaker, Lonesome Rhodes, and Patricia Neal as the radio producer who discovered him, much to her regret. See my 2017 review of the film here.

Criterion’s summary of the film on it’s website is as follows:

“A Face in the Crowd chronicles the rise and fall of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a boisterous entertainer discovered in an Arkansas drunk tank by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a local radio producer with ambitions of her own. His charisma and cunning soon shoot him to the heights of television stardom and political demagoguery, forcing Marcia to grapple with the manipulative, reactionary monster she has created. Directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, this incisive satire features an extraordinary debut screen performance by Griffith, who brandishes his charm in an uncharacteristically sinister role. Though the film was a flop on its initial release, subsequent generations have marveled at its eerily prescient diagnosis of the toxic intimacy between media and politics in American life.”

Special features listed for the upcoming Criterion release include the following:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office disaster when it was released in 1957, but its warning regarding the corrupting influence of the media upon politics is certainly an important issue in our current era and the reason why Criterion added it to its collection.

 Face in the Crowd – from the Criterion Collection web site
https://www.criterion.com/films/28703-a-face-in-the-crowd

A Face in the Crowd – Trailer

“See a movie, talk about a movie…”

The Oscars are coming up in six weeks and there’s quite a lot of buzz in the media because they can’t seem to find anyone with a politically-correct enough past who’s willing to host it. Movies (and entertainment in general) are such an important part of our culture. For many people, deciding on the next movie they’re going to watch is the opiate gets them through the day. Which brings to mind a couple of memories from the past:

My paternal grandfather died in 1967 when I was eleven-years-old. Back in those days, it was routine to have calling hours for the deceased at the funeral home for two or even three evenings in a row prior to the funeral service and burial. Our extended family gathered for the three-night wake at Felerski’s Funeral Home on Hudson Avenue in what remained of Rochester’s small Polish enclave. I wasn’t very close to my grandfather, who spoke very broken English and was 66 years older than me when he died. So I viewed the wake and funeral pretty much as an occasion to get together with our many first-cousins.

Anyway, while at the funeral home during one of the evenings, I was standing by my oldest sister who was carrying on a conversation with our cousin, Rick, who were both in their late-teens at the time. They were discussing the 1966 movie, “Fahrenheit 451,” which was directed by Francois Truffaut and based upon Ray Bradbury’s popular 1953 sci-fi novel. Very briefly, the story is about a futuristic society in which the government is so repressive, that “firemen” don’t put out fires, they START fires in order to burn “subversive” books. Okay, so back to my sister and cousin. It wasn’t that they were just discussing the movie, they were picking apart every little detail as if it was the most important thing in the world! I didn’t time it, but it seemed like the intense conversation lasted an hour. I thought to myself, “Sheesh, who could possibly care that much about a dumb movie? These teenagers aren’t so smart after all.”

Flash forward twenty-five years later to 1992. At that time, our two sons were seventeen and fourteen-years-old, respectively. There were three things the boys loved to regularly banter about; sports, music, and movies; especially movies! They would talk incessantly about movies. All of that chitchat reminded me of that endless and ridiculous dialogue between my sister and cousin. One day, in my scolding, fatherly tone, I interjected into their lengthy movie discussion, saying, “Boys, it’s all a big nothing. What does it all count for?” Right then and there, I coined that phrase that still reverberates in our family’s lore:

“See a movie, talk about a movie. Talk about a movie, see a movie, and round and round and round.”

Our youngest son then turned to me with a quizzical look on his face and responded, “Well, what else is there?” I knew the answer to that question deep down, but I had walked away from the Lord the previous year so I kept my mouth shut. Sad.

There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies and interests. I’ve been known to spout off at length about a few topics myself (including some lengthy posts about movies directed by Elia Kazan!). But believers need to do a self-check and see if the Lord is sovereign over every aspect of their life. Entertainment, in all of its various forms, isn’t the be-all-to-end-all, but for many people, that is exactly what gets them through the day. Our sons still love their sports, music, and movies, but now I’m able to let them know that there is something, no, Someone, who is so much more than all of that.

Happy New Year!

I wish all of my WordPress friends and readers a Happy New Year in the Lord Jesus Christ!

If you have not repented of sin and accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior by faith alone, what are you waiting for?

“For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Corinthians 6:2

If you are a blood-bought, born-again believer, may you more faithfully follow the Lord, Jesus Christ, through His Word and the guidance of the Holy Spirit!

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” – Ephesians 5:15-17

None of us are assured of seeing 2020 in these frail bodies in this fallen world.