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In Brooklyn circa 1900, the Nolans manage to enjoy life on pennies despite great poverty and Papa's alcoholism. We come to know these people well through big and little troubles: Aunt Sissy's scandalous succession of "husbands"; the removal of the one tree visible from their tenement; and young Francie's desire to transfer to a better school...if irresponsible Papa can get his act together.Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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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