`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.