A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [50 Films Older Than Me #41]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #41.

Spoilers ahead.  

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Directed by Elia Kazan

Release Year:  1945 (25 years before I was born).

What it is about:  13 year old Francie Nolan is the elder of two children of a poor family, living in Brooklyn in 1912. Her mother Katie is a hard-working woman, forced to take responsibility for her family as her husband Johnny is an alcoholic and too much of a dreamer to make a consistent living. Francie idolizes Johnny but resents her mother for her cold demeanor. The family experiences a number of challenges, including a relationship breakdown between Katie and her free-spirited sister Sissy, Francie’s desire to go to a better and more expensive school, and Katie’s about money when she discovers she is pregnant.

Johnny tragically dies while looking for work, devastating Francie and deepening her divide with her mother. Katie goes into labor, and while waiting for her sister and mother to arrive to help, Katie and Francie finally bond with each other.

Starring Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan, Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan, James Dunn as Johnny, Ted Donaldson as Neeley (Francie’s brother), Joan Blondell as Sissy, John Alexander as Sissy’s husband Steve, and Lloyd Nelson as Officer McShane, a local police officer who marries the widowed Katie at the end of the movie.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve read the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which this movie is base on, quite a few years ago. I don’t remember it that well except that I knew the central marriage in the story was an unhappy one and that the husband died about halfway through. I also knew that the movie didn’t cover as much ground as the book (no surprise there), ending around the time of the husband’s death.

Reality: As A Tree Grows in Brooklyn got underway, I was prepared for a slow-moving story about the trials and turmoils of an impoverished family–kind of like a long episode of Little House on the Prairie put into an urban setting.

I deceived myself (as I often do) into thinking that the films old-fashioned sensibilities would make it hard to enter into its world and make me fairly impervious to any intended emotional impact. And at first I seemed to be right, but as the movie continued it hit me some good storytelling and a few moments of unbelievably well-crafted drama–scenes that were well written, strongly acted and expertly directed.

Both James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner were awarded Oscars for their work in this movie–a Best Supporting Actor award for Dunn and a special Juvenile Award for Garner. And both are good. Dunn’s work with Johnny Nolan embraces the man’s contradictions–he has the joyful, child-like ability to be part of his daughter’s world, but at the same time is weighed down by shame and self-loathing. He is desperate to better himself but lacks the tools to do so, which eventually contributes to his death.

Peggy Ann Garner, meanwhile, has a few awkward moments as Francie but eventually demonstrates a strong rapport with her on-screen father. She has a natural and non-glamorous quality that makes her easy to believe as the poor and awkward teen. Her emotional journey is the centerpiece of the movie, and she hits all the key beats successfully. The sequence where the iciness in her relationship with her mother begins to thaw is especially compelling (see below).

But as good as both of these actors are, neither of them are the real heavy-hitter of this movie. She doesn’t get the same level of accolades for some reason but the performance that really hit it out of the park for me was Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan. Katie comes on slowly–at first all we see is a no-nonsense woman who spends all her time keeping her household in order.

But just when we might be tempted to view her unsympathetically, the movie goes a little deeper with her, and see that just as her disappointment overwhelms Johnny, his unreliability is crushing to her.

This comes out especially in one of the great scenes that I mentioned earlier, when a cheerful Johnny comes home after a successful evening’s work. Katie is caught with her hair literally down, and Johnny, buoyed by his good fortune, is drawn in by her beauty and the reminder of the happier days the couple have known. Katie seems equally open to Johnny’s amorous advances, but their conversation goes on too long and Johnny’s pie-in-the-sky rhapsodies about all the good things he’s going to do for the family and all the ways he is going to change becomes too much. Katie’s subsequent outburst, and the terrible deathly quiet that then falls between them, tell us that this is a woman who has had to put up with years of her husband’s failures, and that she simply cannot stand to listen to another word.

Dorothy McGuire is incredibly lovely but is so effective at disguising that fact with an overwhelming sense of just being beaten down by life, and in this amazing scene she brings to the surface in a compelling and nuanced way the pain the woman carries.

The other scene which really got me is even better, when at the end of the movie Katie is giving birth and until her other relatives arrive to help, only Francie is there to look after her. Katie is nearly delirious, which allows a lot the things she would normally be too scared or ashamed to reveal to escape her lips. It would be hard scene to get right, as such dialogue could easily sound contrived or forced, but McGuire (and Garner) nail it. The scene becomes Katie’s emotional release, where she can finally confess how much she loved Johnny, how much she admired him for his good qualities, and how much she misses him. Again, we the contrasts of the character are presented, and we see both Katie’s strengths and weaknesses just as Francie does, even as she is finally receiving the validation and approval that he mother is normally unable to give her.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the movie then goes on to some genuinely funny and uplifting scenes showing Francie graduating and getting asked out on her first date, and then Katie being proposed to in the most low-key manner by the kindly Officer McShane who has been showing her such attention throughout the movie. I love this sequence and someday when I make my list of favorite fictional marriage proposals, it will certainly earn a spot there.

And before I forgot, the rest of the cast is good too, including Joan Blondell (who I also recently watched in The Cincinnati Kid) as Sissy and Ted Donaldson as Francie’s brother. And I got to love Lloyd Nelson as Officer McShane. That guy is great.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? I really didn’t think I would, but I love this movie. I love Dorothy McGuire, and I love how the director knew when to be subtle and when to be bold, when to be loud and when to be soft, when to be in your face and when to keep things off-screen. There’s an emotional restraint to the production which works in its favor.

See here for the Master List.

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