A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) Poster

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10/10
Bleak, tear-stained turn-of-the-century drama focusing on the hard knocks of tenement living offset by brilliant direction and radiant performances; an absolute must.
gbrumburgh-110 November 2001
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.
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10/10
Brooklyn -- the way it was
the_old_roman3 September 2001
What a magnificent motion picture! Dorothy McGuire and Peggy Ann Garner give the greatest mother-daughter performances of all time. Betty Smith's book is a classic, and this film somehow manages to do it perfect justice in the first movie ever directed by Elia Kazan.

In many ways I feel privileged to be able to comment here because I may be the only "reviewer" in these pages to have been in Brooklyn very close to the time of this film (I was born in 1909). The film recaptures the feel, the mores, the neighborhood so magnificently, it is incredible. Every time I watch this movie, I feel as if I am revisiting my youth, albeit an idealized version.

Everyone who watches this movie should share it with the next generation of moviegoers. It truly is timeless.
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9/10
A Large Dose of Reality and Sentiment
bkoganbing3 May 2005
Films about the post Civil War, pre World War I years in urban America usually are nicely entertaining with a warm nostalgic glow about them, liberally sprinkled with the music of the time. One of the biggest marketeers of that kind of film was 20th Century Fox.

So it's a bit of a surprise that Fox would market a film like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The nostalgia is there, but there's a large slice of reality in this film about life growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn pre World War I. Maybe because a new director, named Elia Kazan who would make his mark directing dramas of social significance was in charge here.

It was his feature film debut as a director, so Darryl Zanuck didn't give Kazan a name cast to work with. Some were up and coming, some were coming back, and some were fading out. Yet the mix was great, not a bad note in the cast.

I also have to say that I liked Kazan's use of the hurdy-gurdy as background music. Rings on Her Fingers and Ciri-biri-bin were never played better.

This was Dorothy McGuire's third feature film and the role of Katie Nolan was hardly a glamorous one. But she's perfect as the mother who keeps her family together, but loses and regains some humanity in the process. She was an underrated actress in her time, always gave great performances and was never fodder for the scandal sheets.

Joan Blondell and James Dunn were respectively cast as McGuire's sister and husband. Blondell, who had sparkled in Warner Brothers musical films and films of social significance was a perfect fit for Aunt Cissy. With this role she transitioned nicely into character roles and never lacked for work.

The career of James Dunn is a puzzle. He was an ex-vaudevillian of good talent who had slipped into B Films by the time A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was made. He won a richly deserved Oscar as Johnny Nolan, singing waiter and would be star. Maybe his dreams outraced his talent, but Nolan had every reason to dream. What's not remembered is that folks who would have been Dunn's contemporaries like Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante started out that way. He was a man with the talent, but you need the breaks as well.

Dunn's scenes and relationship with daughter Peggy Ann Garner pivot the film. His character of Johnny Nolan is not unlike Gaylord Ravenal in Showboat if he had stayed around until his daughter was beginning adolescence. That Oscar should have revived Dunn's career, but didn't. He had very much the alcohol problem that his character in the film had. Ironically he's remembered today for supporting Shirley Temple in three of her films in the thirties than this Oscar winning, best supporting actor performance. But maybe those films were good training for this role. Neither Dunn nor Garner upstage the other.

The best acted scene in the film is when McGuire goes into labor and Garner is the only one around. Back in those days before medical insurance, people had their babies at home and infants died, due to lack of good post-natal care. In fact prior to this scene, Joan Blondell cashes in an insurance policy so she can splurge on the cost of a hospital because previous infants of her's had died.

Garner is a bright girl and her father encouraged her to dream big as he did. She was daddy's little girl and her relationship with mom was not all it should have been. As mom goes into labor and they wait for Blondell to arrive, they start confessing to each other. Garner realizes the sacrifices mom has made and McGuire realizes how much she's stifled her daughter's dreams. It's a wonderfully played scene and you're made of stone if it doesn't affect you.

Rounding out the cast is Lloyd Nolan as the neighborhood beat cop, James Gleason as a tavern owner and Ted Donaldson as Garner's younger brother. I should also mention that Peggy Ann Garner got an honorary Oscar as most promising juvenile performer of 1945. She had a decent career, but nothing ever as good as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.
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9/10
Did not expect to be so moved by this movie
Scarlett O13 March 2002
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.
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The Nolan Family
lugonian26 December 2003
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 deservedly 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." (****)
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10/10
On my personal top ten list
Tom White15 June 2005
A long time ago when I was still working in an automotive shop I taped this movie from KTTV at about three o'clock in the morning, bad reception and commercials and all. The whole thing was a revelation to me. Why, in my years of enjoying all sorts of classic movies at revival houses both in New York and here in Southern California, had I never heard of this movie? For the next three weeks I believe I would come home and watch it almost every day. As an adult child of an alcoholic father, this film moved me in a personal way that I don't think I can even fully investigate, it's just too basic for words. But in terms of cinematic quality alone, this film is a masterpiece. No matter what Elia Kazan did since, we have him to thank for this movie. There is not one false note in the whole of this movie; every actor IS the character they play, most especially Francie Nolan, played to absolute perfection by Peggy Ann Garner. The black and white cinematography is used to its best advantage, the sets are perfect, the music -- contemporary tunes playing along in the background by a rickety-sounding little orchestra -- just "there" enough to provide the auditory backdrop that is the soundtrack of the times, and the emotional intensity and pacing is even, never heavy-handed, and consistent from beginning to end. This is probably the most perfect and authentic film of the black and white era. Hopefully the reason 20th Century Fox has delayed the DVD release is that they're enhancing the package with some special features that devotees of this movie like myself will really enjoy. When the movie came out on VHS I ran to buy it. It will be the same with the DVD.
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A Charming Family Story
Snow Leopard27 October 2004
This charming family story has much to offer. The story has a wealth of worthwhile, thoughtful material, plus some good lighter moments, and the production is on-target, not stinting on anything but never drowning out the substance of the story. Several of the cast members give particularly good performances, and most of them are also well-matched with their roles.

Much of the story centers on a couple of interesting relationships. In both cases they are well-acted, and in both cases the relationships suggest a number of themes worth thinking about. Having these two relationships so well-defined and memorably portrayed raises the movie well above the level of a mere sentimental family story.

The relationship between Francie and her father probably makes the movie, and it is wonderfully acted by James Dunn as the somewhat unsteady but thoroughly endearing father, and Peggy Ann Garner (in one of the finest child performances you will see) as the loyal, intelligent daughter.

Dorothy McGuire plays the important but thankless role of Katie, the stern, dour, yet sincere mother, the kind of role that few actresses can handle well. Katie's relationship with her sister (Joan Blondell) is another of the strengths of the movie. Blondell's flamboyant but sensitive portrayal of Sissy wins all the scenes that she is in, yet McGuire is also essential to making them work and to bringing out the themes implied.

The adaptation to the screen is pretty well-conceived. Naturally, much of the depth is going to be lost when you distill a worthwhile novel into a two-hour movie, but the screenplay highlights some very good material, and if it encourages anyone to read the book, so much the better.
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10/10
People will still be enjoying this movie 100 years from now
tomhull31 August 2000
I was not around in 1945 so I have no idea what was going on in the minds of the people who voted for what would be the five nominees for best picture of that year. Maybe this was just one of those movies that somehow didn't register right at first. Or maybe a movie about people living in poverty was not considered proper Oscar material. Anyway, I am sure there are millions today who agree with me that this is one of the great and beautiful movies of all time. The characters are so down to earth real and believable. Except maybe for the aforementioned poverty, you can identify with them and their situation and, therefore, you care about them. There are several very good and solid performances and then there is, of course, Peggy Ann Garner's performance; maybe the best ever by a juvenile in movie history. The most memorable scene for me is near the end, when the audience has just about forgotten about Papa, the director reminds us of him with the flowers and card found by Francie. I tell people who have not seen this movie that near the end there is a scene that will grab them around the throat. At least the voters saw fit to award Oscars to Peggy Ann and James Dunn.
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Go Forth Into the World and Make Thy Dreams Come True.
tfrizzell10 July 2004
A youngster (Peggy Ann Garner) in circa 1900 Brooklyn dreams of a suitable education and ultimately a better life. She and her young brother (Ted Donaldson) experience highs and lows as their lives are followed in a documentary-style format that creates a realistic and compassionate view. Poverty is tough in the area though as mother Dorothy McGuire (in arguably her greatest role) and father James Dunn (in one of the finest performances ever captured on film, he deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1945) have a hard time making ends meet. McGuire has a difficult time seeing the bright things in their lives, while Dunn (a hopeless alcoholic) treats everyone, including strangers on the street, with love, respect and understanding. Dunn sees greatness in Garner, even when most do not, and does his best to see that her hopes do come true. The title is symbolistic as a large tree in front of the family's low-rent apartment is about to be cut down to their dismay. It also refers to the fact that Garner is growing up and showing maturity way beyond her years; she is literally branching out and letting her leaves flourish. First-time director Elia Kazan arguably does the best work of any film-maker who had never completed a feature previously as he just lets Betty Smith's wonderful novel unfold methodically with a deliberate pace, tone and style. The screenplay yielded Oscar nominations for adapters Frank Davis and Tess Sleringer. Dunn, an actor who had a very pedestrian career, showed just how much of a hidden talent he really was. He is the straw that mixes the entire movie into an American classic. Arguably one of the top 10 films of the 1940s and one of the best features of all time. 5 stars out of 5.
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10/10
Brilliant
aimless-4623 April 2006
I was going to get on here and sing the praises of Peggy Ann Garner, but once I began reading the earlier comments further praise seemed unnecessary. I will mention that her earlier portrayal of young Jane Eyre is also quite extraordinary and showcases her skills almost as well as "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". Garner should remind contemporary film watchers a lot of Evan Rachel Wood, especially the way they bring a confident ferocity to their portrayals that is an extreme rarity in talented young actors.

Francie Nolan (Garner) is an imaginative but practical girl who lives with parents and younger brother in a Brooklyn tenement. She worships her father, Johnny (James Dunn), a dreamer with a drinking problem, who works as a singing waiter. She respects but increasingly resents her no nonsense mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), who is saddled with managing the family's precarious finances.

Fans of Betty Smith's book may take issue with the adaptation's failure to prominently feature the literal title character (i.e. the tree). The tree is a metaphor like the flowers in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds" and the trees in the film adaptation of "Speak".

But such is the nature of adaptations, which much pick and choose a limited number of story elements and communicate them as efficiently as possible. For example, watch early in the film for the two brief appearances of the sick little girl (Flossie Gaddis played by Susan Lester) who lives in a neighboring apartment. Flossie first appears to show off her new silk dress to Katie who is annoyed that Flossie's parents wasted money on such a frivolity, money that should have been saved so the child did not end up in a pauper's grave. But when Flossie shows it to Johnny, he immediately picks up on the parents' wisdom and instinctively makes comments that leave Flossie beaming with joy (while Katie scowls from the top of the stairs). The point being that this little micro story of about 50 seconds screen time communicates about 50 pages worth of narrative regarding the wildly divergent attitudes of the two adult Nolans.

Along these same lines is a later scene that begins and ends with Katie asking Francie for the time, emphasizing the passage of only two minutes. Sandwiched within this short interval are a host of revelations for Francie that dramatically change her world and her view of her mother's actions.

But "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is more than just a retelling of the ant and the grasshopper story, with a sympathetic nod to the grasshopper. It is about finding a balance between enjoying each day and living for the uncertain future. Young Francie is figuratively title character and can be expected to grow up with a nice mix of her mother's discipline/ practicality and her father's zest and imagination. That we buy into this happy ending is a testimonial to Garner's skill in convincing us that Francine has acquired this degree of multi- dimensionality.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is more complex than it first appears. The Nolans are an interesting family, with a lot of love for each other but a history of unfulfilled promises and recriminations that make it hard for them to accept tenderness from each other.

A lot of distance has grown up between mother and father and between mother and daughter. Even communication is complicated as Francie is often too round-about for her mother, who wants things more direct after years of marriage to the unreliable Johnny.

All in all this is an extraordinary film, a deserving contender for anyone's all time top ten list. Although most of the praise is for Dunn (Oscar) and Garner (Special Oscar), McGuire handles a difficult role quite well and even succeeds in evoking sympathy for a character who is very hard to like.

Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
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