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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Betty Smith's beloved novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" has been a
favorite book for generations since its publication. The transfer to
the screen brought the distinguished theater director Elia Kazan to his
first assignment in the medium. The adaptation for the movies was
written by Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, and uncredited Anita Loos.
The Nolan family of Brooklyn is at the center of the story. Johnny, the father was a poor man that took jobs wherever he could find. Having a fine singing voice, he found jobs as a waiter in many functions, but he never had anything substantial. Johnny struggled all his life to get away from the bottle, something that eventually proved to be his worst enemy.
Katie Nolan, on the other hand, was a hard working woman who was always penny pinching to make ends meet for her family; every cent was accounted for. Her two children, Francie and Neely, were her pride and joy, but being a practical woman, she foresaw to have Francie quit school to get a job that would bring extra income. Telling Johnny about her plans for the girl, met with his opposition because he wanted his daughter to have the education he never had.
Francie, like her father, was a dreamer. Unlike him, the girl was well grounded. She hated the poor school where she and Neely attended; she had her eyes set on the nicer, and bigger school, a bit far from where she lived, something that thanks to her not practical father was remedied when he decided to lie about their address in order to qualify. It is at the new school where Francie meets a kind teacher is decisive in making the girl's dreams come true.
The film is an inspiration with its uplifting story about sacrifices the Nolans experience. Being poor was not a badge of honor, but in many ways it gave Francie something to get out of her station in life by aspiring to excel in areas where other children would not. Her love for her family helped her overcome the many obstacles she had to face. At the end, she cannot help but being reminded of a father who was not around to see her school achievements.
Peggy Ann Garner made a tremendous contribution to the success of the film. She was a child actor with an expressive face that drew the audiences to her presence in the films where she appeared as a child actor. James Dunn gave a strong performance as Johnny. Dorothy McGuire appeared as Katie. Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason, and the rest of the supporting players contributed to the enjoyment of this classic film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director Elia Kazan made his directorial debut in features with this
film, an account of growing up in abject poverty in turn of the century
Brooklyn. Peggy Ann Garner, who died tragically young in real life,
plays a young girl soon to graduate from 8th grade who simultaneously
deals with her drunken pipe-dreaming father (Oscar winner for
supporting actor James Dunn), her hard-working and increasingly
embittered mother (Dorothy McGuire), her younger brother (Ted
Donaldson), her brassy aunt (Joan Blondell), and the impoverished times
in which she lives. With the film, Elia Kazan contributed to a new age
in film-making in which a mixture of stark realism, psychological
aspects of characters, and social causes combined to enlighten as well
as entertain an audience. The film was based on Kazan's Yale classmate
Betty Smith's novel with the Oscar-nominated screenplay written by
Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger, and Anita Loos.
The film is episodic in some ways, sentimental in other ways, and perhaps a bit unbelievable at the end. However, the true to life nature of "growing up during hard times" struck a chord with the World War II audience that initially saw the film, and it remains a classic family film to this day. Garner received a special Oscar as most promising juvenile performer. Dunn carries the film whenever he is on screen. McGuire does an outstanding job disappearing into the role of an embittered yet sympathetic matron. Lloyd Nolan adds able support as a neighborhood policeman, remember those, and James Gleason does the same as the neighborhood barkeep. Great acting and dialog are the highlights of this film and the hallmarks of many of Kazan's films that followed. ***1/2 of 4 stars.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a delightful film. It bristles with pathos
and endearing characters that shine through the well written dialogue
and plenty of time to allow characterisation of each to help us to get
to know them.
Arguably, the central one, the young girl, Francie (played by Peggy Ann Garner) is daughter to club singer Johnny Nolan and mother Katie (James Dunn and Dorothy McGuire) is intelligent and cheery and loves her alcoholic Dad. She defends him by saying that he's sick rather than drunk. He's a lovable dreamer who fills her head with heady rubbish but can't bring the housekeeping in. His hard-working wife tries by him and the suffering household as well as their younger than Francie, son, Neeley.
As in debut director Elia Kazan's later and most well known movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, there's a third adult and that aspect is Katie's glamorous sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). She's a before-married Aunt to the children but whom Katie believes is a bad influence on. This character adds balance and colour and extends the family unit out of the tenement building, the one that is always in sight of the titular tree. The tree can be seen as a solid yardstick with its roots deeply ingrained and which times move on by. The family problems might also be seen to being rather ephemeral when compared alongside the length of the life of a tree.
The film moves on to include a friendly police officer who comes to their attention via Johnny being drunk one day and helps him home rather than arresting him and he takes a distant shine to Katie and one day, who knows, he might get to know the family more.
It's a real pity that it's never shown on U.K. TV and that I had to get my DVD as a South Korean release.
I have a lot of movie I enjoy watching over and over again, but I will never loss interest in this great film. The performances are some of the best you will ever see. The story is well crafted to pull you from one emotion to the next without losing the beat of the heart at the center of this masterpiece. It is not the outside influences that form the plot of this movie, but the relationships of each member of this Irish family. Each person trying to do the right for their family and not knowing how to. Each must find the correct path. To correct old mistakes. To find, not just forgiveness, but understanding. With little education and very little hope of escaping their poverty, this family struggles to understand each other's motives and what is in their hearts. This story has no weak points. From start to finish the film grips you with the conflicts of holding a family together. So I will not spoil you with the plot. It becomes very clear what this family is faced with. It takes you from the fantasy of an old Irish tune sung on the streets in the early morning to knife stabbing reality poverty and false hopes.
As a young girl growing up in a situation similar to Francie, I first
read the book in 1968 as a 14 year-old. I credit the book for being the
first -- the impetus -- that instilled in me a life-long love of
reading! I had never read a book that caused such emotion and kindred
spirit feelings towards a character. I cried right along with Francie.
I had a fun-loving, alcoholic, ne'er-do-well father, but I was the
apple of his eye - his first daughter after two sons. I loved my
playful father so much and felt about my mom as Francie did -- that our
mothers were so serious, practical -- and not at all fun-loving.
It was years later, as an adult, that I first saw the movie. Emotions flooded me again as I watched the book come to life on television! The acting by all was superb. Dorothy McGuire reminded me so much of my mother. And James Dunn was the epitome of my father -- except my dad wasn't musically inclined. LOL And I WAS Francie -- at least in my imagination. I was the talented child who loved school. My older brothers couldn't care less, and I felt they were the apples of my mother's eyes.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in this movie -- and which has stayed with me -- was when Francie tearfully confronted her mother about why she had to leave school to take on home and baby-care responsibilities, instead of her brother, who didn't even want to go. I felt that Katie loved her son more than her daughter, and that she was being unfair to Francie.
In a theatrically tense episode in the movie, Katie Nolan finally told Francie how proud she was of her writing and how well she did in school. Francie thought her mother cared little about her good schoolwork. But Katie answered Francie's tearful question about leaving school with something like, "Because I knew you loved school. That you will go back. If I don't make Neeley go, he'd never finish." Katie saw Francie's strength and potential for success, after all. She was proud of her daughter!
From this scene I understood, as a young girl, that sometimes tough decisions have to be made for the betterment of others. Francie WOULD go back to school, because she loved school -- and she she was strong and determined. Neeley didn't want to go and had to be forced to go or he would never finish.
I absolutely loved the relationship between Francie and her father. He encouraged her to dream, to laugh, to create, to live! So very much like my own dad. Like Francie, I love to write. I like to imagine that Francie, like myself, went on to earn degrees in journalism and blessed the world with her creative spirit and love of writing.
In this age of everything goes on television and in the movies -- young people today could learn a lot from this movie; so many of them are living in similar (but much more serious and volatile) family situations.
I don't purchase many movies on VHS or DVD, but when I do I generally pass them on to others when I'm done. I buy a lot of books, but only keep reference or other important books. I pass on others. I have an early edition and a newer edition of the book in my library, and a DVD copy of the movie! They will always be in my collection!
In the absorbing "Kazan Par Kazan" by Michel Ciment some kind of
equivalent of the Truffault/Hitchcock epic interview,the director says:
"Something was wrong in the settings of "A tree ..." :had we filmed in
East Side NYC ,it would have been closer to reality:the rooms were too
clean,but there was worse: the hairdos and the dresses seemed to come
from a magazine .The only thing that was believable was Peggy Ann
Garner's face because her father was fighting on the other side of the
ocean and her mother had problems.She knew what sufferings and
uncertainty meant."in another part of the book,Kazan insists on the
fact that Julie Harris's face was the soul of "East of Eden".
Often hailed as "the movie by Kazan which predates his heyday in the fifties ","A tree" ,although inevitably too long and handicapped by production problems ,somewhat lives up to its reputation: It displays Kazan's social concerns,his sympathy for unconventional figures,dropouts: the father is a close relative of Blanche Du Bois ("Streetcar named Desire" ) ,Caleb ("East of Eden) or Ginny ("Splendor in the grass").The importance of education (the girl who wants a better school and the graduation ceremony) was important for Kazan who was the first in his family to go to college.
This is a work Kazan's fans (and others) should not miss.
Youngster in early 1900's New York longs to leave her squalid Brooklyn surroundings where her happy-go-lucky father has left her entire family in a financial bind; worse, her mother has just discovered she's pregnant again. Popular film from Betty Smith's book gets tremendous boost from Peggy Ann Garner's performance in the lead (she won a special juvenile Oscar, which was well-deserved) and from Oscar-winning James Dunn playing Garner's ne'er-do-well Pop. Otherwise, debuting director Elia Kazan sets out to wring every ounce of emotion from each and every scene, and it gets a little grueling. This theatricality combined with the long running-time causes the picture to flag in its last act. Still, "Brooklyn" is a big-hearted family film, well-acted and with sentiment to spare. **1/2 from ****
I've seen well over 4,000 movies (3,245 since I started keeping a list,
and at least 100 a year before that), and of them all, A Tree Grows in
Brooklyn stands out in my memory as the single most effective in terms
of the performances of the actors affecting the viewer.
It's a simple story about a poor family, a timeless story that will ring true to millions of families around the world, similar in type to movies like I Remember Mama, The Human Comedy, and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, but more serious, and in my opinion even more insightful than those fine films. And it's certainly one of the top five tear-jerkers of all time, up there with films like All Mine to Give, On Borrowed Time, Old Yeller, and Bridge to Terabithia. But it's pleasant to watch, even joyful at times, even if you anticipate the sad part.
Every actor in the film rose to the occasion, bringing the character's of Betty Smith's novel to life with fidelity and veracity, depth and breadth, in several cases giving the best performance of a lifetime. That's certainly the truth in the cases of Peggy Ann Garner as young Francie and James Dunn as her lovable, lovable, and lovable - and alcoholic - lovable father Johnny Nolan, both recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Oscars for their roles in this movie, for best juvenile performer, and best supporting actor, respectively. But also I think Dorothy McGuire as Francie's mother Katie, Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy, and Lloyd Nolan as Officer McShane each gave their finest performances ever here. (Funny little coincidence of names: Nolan played Mike Shane in several movies, here he plays McShane in a movie full of Nolans.) There's not much point in detailing the plot here; you should certainly see it for yourself, and it's a shame it's not on DVD yet, as of this writing. Suffice it to say one parent is an irresponsible dreamer, the other a hard provider, both giving love in different ways, and young Francie must learn to retain the best from each. If you've read the book by Betty Smith, this film is very faithful except they left out one incident that would have been considered inappropriate in a film in the 1940s, when young Francie was approached by a molester. The film works perfectly without that.
Another favorite character actor has a small role: James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Bishop's Wife, Suddenly), as one of Johnny's friends.
Betty Smith's acclaimed 1940s novel is given a memorable and enduring
treatment by director Elia Kazan on his debut. The film works so well
for an audience today, despite being rooted in a very specific time and
place -- pre-war Brooklyn -- because its real concerns are universal.
The contest or contrast between a dreamy, charming, alcoholic husband,
who makes others feel good about life, and a practical mother, who runs
the family and makes herself less attractive to others in her
relentless pursuit of a decent living, could be transposed to any
culture, any time. The cast are faultless. The mother, Dorothy McGuire
(who Kazan apparently thought might be too refined for the part) is
excellent as Mrs Catherine Nolan. She understands the role intimately
and gets the acquired 'hardness' of the woman, determined to lift up
her family's fortunes, just right. James Dunn picked up an Oscar for
his performance as her husband. Who could deny him? He is totally
believable in the part. Both children are excellent: in a sense they
are at the core of the story (almost all the outdoor action
concentrates on them) and the actors carry the story with charm and
humour. There are a handful of films about family life lived at the
fringes of poverty which, by striking a balance between joy and pain,
have retained lasting value. This is one of them.
The Korean-made DVD provides a good image and sound from an unrestored but clean copy of the film. The liner notes are in English and there is a full suite of subtitles, if you need them. A good product.
Yes, this movie is over-sentimental and wears all its earnestness (and its many messages) plainly on its sleeve. But I'm such an ol' softie that it got right to me. I loved watching this family of flawed characters, with a richness and complexity that was just beginning to take shape in Hollywood films. The story sometimes creeps up to the brink of romanticizing poverty, and each time undercuts it with harsh reality or bitterness. These aren't merely simple people finding simple joy in the simple things... they make do, but they ache from want. And it's also a movie about decency, and how it comes easier to some than others. I thought the cast was wonderful, even the little boy never gets horribly obnoxious. They aren't necessarily great actors, but their performances are very endearing even in their darkest moments. A lovely and heartbreaking film that choked me up more than once, a fantastic first effort for Kazan.
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