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