A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a deeply moving coming of age story in which a child comes to perceive the adults in her life very differently to how she has done so previously. It is also a tale in which the cruelness of reality encroaches upon the dreams and aspirations of individuals and crushes them to dust in the process. The title not only refers to the tree which grows in the courtyard of the tenement building in which most of the film takes place, but also refers to the girl around whom the story is centred. The tree of the title metaphorically refers to Francie Nolan’s desire to get a good education and to grow beyond her working class/poverty stricken roots in much the same way that trees grow until they tower above us out of reach of their ground roots.
Francie is hungry for knowledge and wants a better life than the one she has. She is an avid reader and goes crazy for library books the way other children of her age go crazy for sweets. Her ever loving father does everything he can to support and encourage her dreams and wishes but his battle with the bottle, coupled with his inability to find a well paying regular job, mean that the family remains poor and Francie’s situation remains the same.
This film is one which holds a very special place in my heart. The characters come across as being so real and you can’t help but be caught up in the story of their lives and share their sorrows and joy. The film serves to remind us that those of my generation(child of the 90’s here) and younger are so lucky to have been born in the modern era because we have rights, choices and opportunities that just weren’t on the table for the working class of past centuries. It hits home so much because it shows us what our ancestors went through. Think how many children didn’t get an education in the past, or had to give up school in order to start work at a very early age to help their families get more money. Think how many millions of people had their aspirations and dreams crushed by the reality of their lives. I was the first person in my family to be able to go to University and I felt that fact most keenly as I walked into my uni for the first time. I felt great pride for myself but also deep sorrow for what my parents and past generations of relatives were denied access to.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical debut novel of the same name, which was written by Betty Smith(born Elisabeth Lillian Wehner), and was published in 1943. The novel focuses on the life of Francie Nolan,a poor girl living with her family in the New York tenements during the early part of the 20th century. The novel is split into five sections, with each section focusing on a different period of the characters lives.
The novel was hugely successful upon release selling over 300,000 copies in its first six weeks alone. It was a particular hit with soldiers serving in the Second World War and the book was even released in a special Armed Services Edition, which meant that books shipped out to Armed Forces personnel were specially designed to fit into the pockets of uniforms.
With its extremely moving story of family and the desire for better options in life, it’s not surprising that the film studios were quick to secure the rights to the book. The bidding war for the rights began even before the novel was actually published, with 20th Century Fox successfully acquiring the rights for $55,000. The film would focus on a specific period in the Nolan’s lives, this in contrast to the book which covers several years. The screenplay for the film adaptation was written by married couple Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, whose efforts on the script would be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
The film would mark the feature film directorial debut of Elia Kazan, who at this point in time had mainly worked as a stage actor and theatre director, he had also co-directed the 1937 documentary People Of The Cumberland. Kazan is of course best known for founding the Actors Studio workshop and for the realism he strived to achieve in his films.
On A Tree Grows In Brooklyn the director did several things to ensure he had as much genuine emotion as possible present in the performances, including encouraging Peggy Ann Garner and James Dunn to bond so that they developed a genuine emotional attachment to one another – the result of which is one of the most touching father/daughter relationships ever depicted on screen. The director also used Peggy Ann’s fears and worries about her dad – who was serving in the Second World War at the time the film was being made – to make her become genuinely upset when shooting a particularly emotional scene.
The film would not only introduce a new film director to the world, but would also resurrect the career of actor James Dunn, whose career and fame had sadly waned over the years due to his ongoing battle with the bottle.James was cast as the tragic patriarch of the Nolan family and he would win his only Oscar for his heartbreaking and utterly convincing performance here. James knew better than most what this character was going through and who he was.
Twelve year old Peggy Ann Garner was cast in the lead role of Francie. Initially the studio had wanted an older actress to play Francie but Elia Kazan held firm and insisted that a younger actress was cast. It was the right call and Peggy Ann’s performance as Francie is possibly her finest hour on screen. Peggy was rewarded for her powerful performance in the film with a special juvenile Oscar.
The studio had originally wanted Alice Faye to play Francie’s mother Katie but Alice was unavailable, and so the search was on to find another actress for the role. Gene Tierney was brought in to do a screentest but in the end Dorothy McGuire was cast. She is superb as the long suffering wife and mother who isn’t really as tough and harsh as she makes out. Joan Blondell shines as Katie’s outgoing sister, Sissy. Ted Donaldson(who we sadly lost earlier this year aged 89) was cast as Francie’s younger brother Neeley and steals every scene he’s in. Lloyd Nolan was cast as police officer McShane, the local beat cop who falls hard for Katie and helps the Nolan family whenever he can.
The film was shot on the 20th Century Fox lot in 1944 with a full stage taken up by a four story replica of a tenement building. At the time it was constructed this set was one of the most elaborate ever to be assembled. Veteran Cinematographer Leon Shamroy worked on the film and provides us with some beautiful photography and use of light.
The film begins during summer. Francie Nolan(Peggy Ann Garner)is a thirteen year old who lives with her mum, Kate(Dorothy MacGuire); her food obsessed younger brother, Neeley(Ted Donaldson); and their kind father, Johnny(James Dunn). The Nolan family are poor and rely on the money Johnny brings in from any work he can get as a musician.
Unfortunately Johnny is a functioning alcoholic. He tries his hardest to do right by his family but sometimes squanders the small wages and tips he makes on booze instead. Katie and Johnny are desperately in love but Katie is becoming weary of it all. Katie can sometimes be harsher to her children than she means to be, while Johnny in contrast is always gentle and fun.
Katie’s younger and more fun loving sister, Sissy(Joan Blondell) has been married several times, something which has caused quite the scandal(oh, the horror!). Sissy drops in when she can to brighten Neeley and Francie’s days. Sissy is the healer in this story. She supports her sister, brother in-law, and her niece and nephew and she tries to ease any upset and tension. She’s the sort of person who makes you feel everything will be okay when they’re around. Joan Blondell delivers one of her best performances and makes you miss Sissy when she’s not on screen.
Francie is a bright child who loves reading and desperately wants to become a writer. She encourages her father to write a letter to the headteacher of a better school in their area to request a transfer for Francie. To Francie’s delight the request is accepted and Francie is enrolled. When Christmas comes around Katie finds herself pregnant again and the little money they have getting tighter, so she arranges for the family to move into a cheaper and even smaller apartment than they were in before. She suggests that Francie drops out of school and gets a job to help out. Knowing how shattered his baby will be if she has to give up her dreams, Johnny goes out in the cold and snow to look for any type of work he can get. Tragically he falls ill in the process and dies.
Upon his death the family receive such kindness and hear from so many local people how beloved and special Johnny was. Johnny always tried to help people and cheer them up. Francie and Neeley get after school jobs to help out and Katie prepares to bring her third child into the world. Since her father’s death Francie has retreated into herself and hasn’t grieved properly. She blames her mum for her dads’s death and doesn’t think Katie loves her as much as she loves Neeley.
This isn’t true of course and soon Francie will begin to see her mum differently. She will also come to accept that her beloved papa wasn’t this perfect figure she so believed him to be(something interestingly that Neeley had already realised while their dad was still alive). At her graduation ceremony Francie will discover just how much her dad believed in her ability to make her dreams come true and succeed. If you don’t cry at this moment then you must be heartless.
The film reminds us that while we all obviously have to face reality, there is nothing wrong with being imaginative and having dreams and aspirations. Never let anyone or anything stop you from following your heart and wishes. I think the film also serves to remind parents that their situation in life should never stop them from actively encouraging their children to follow the path they want to in life. Don’t force your children to take a job or get into a profession that YOU think they should be doing, instead listen to what your child is telling you about the profession they want to go into and support their choice.
I also love how positively Librarians and teachers are portrayed in this film. When Francie announces she is working her way through the library books in alphabetical order and takes out a book with heavy content more easily understood by adults, the Librarian is clearly bemused, but she lets her take the book despite knowing its content could well go way over her head. The Librarian also selects a purely escapist and more age appropriate novel for Francie to take home in order for her to have a backup book should she struggle with the other one. Library staff are the guardians of knowledge and should never put up barriers in the way of someone wanting to borrow and explore the books in their care. That scene always makes me smile.
I also love the scene where Francie’s teacher is extremely kind and non-judgemental when she asks to take a pie home from school for the family to enjoy .There is no judgement or interference on the teacher’s part, she responds to Francie gently and doesn’t make her feel awkward. Many who work in schools and higher education will sadly know many students who rely on their educational establishment to provide them with access to food,toiletries etc, and this scene hits home because it is sadly still a reality for many in modern society. It’s just heartbreaking to know that while there has been so much positive change and modernisation in society, there are sadly some things that haven’t changed since the days of the mass poverty and slums that the working classes were forced to live in around the world.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a beautiful and heartwarming tale of family, love, hope and overcoming the odds in life.
5 thoughts on “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn(1945)”
I haven’t seen this film in decades. Your review makes me want to see it again (I think it comes up on TCM once in a great while). Thanks.
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Good review: it’s been years since I’ve seen this movie. I remember one of my aunts really loving it.
“Think how many children didn’t get an education in the past, or had to give up school in order to start work at a very early age to help their families get more money. Think how many millions of people had their aspirations and dreams crushed by the reality of their lives.”
My great-grandfather had to deal with this back in the 1920s. He was a bright kid, but the family was poor, so he was forced to go to work at 14. It’s sad to think of how many kids had to become breadwinners instead of just being able to be children.
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I LOVE this movie. ❤ I generally watch it about once a year. Except, before the last time I watched it, a few years had slipped by (maybe I didn’t have access to it anymore or something, I don’t remember), and in the meantime, I’d forgotten just how much I love it. 🙂 But it came my way again and a blogging buddy of mine inspired me to rewatch. So, there I am, innocently enjoying this movie I hadn’t seen in a while, and you know how when Johnny makes his first entrance, you hear him singing before you see him? Well, the instant I heard his voice, I misted up. I kid you not. It was an automatic reaction. ❤ If that’s not an indication of a powerful performance (that must’ve impacted me deeply enough to stick with me on some level), I don’t know what is.
I’m a bit of a James Dunn fan, anyway. I enjoy him in anything. (And that’s really saying something, because he definitely made some clunkers in his career.) It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Kazan got him and Peggy Ann to bond first, because their relationship feels so natural. ❤ I really think James Dunn must’ve been good with kids in general, though. I’ve seen him in multiple films with children (and even babies), and he always has such an easy, genuinely charming rapport. He also starred with Shirley Temple in 3 or 4 of her films. Bright Eyes is my favorite. It was aviation-themed, and there’s a trivia item on IMDb that Shirley (who would’ve been about 5 years old, I guess) was into planes at the time, and her Christmas wish was for Santa Claus to deliver her presents by airplane. So, James Dunn dressed as Santa and parachuted Shirley’s presents down to her. ❤ Now, of course, this may not be true (since anyone can put anything on IMDb), but it’s such a good story, I sure want it to be – especially because that is SO sounds like something the “real” Johnny Nolan would do. ❤ That’s another trivia item I remember. Kazan wanted Dunn to play Johnny (who, just like the character, was well-liked as a person, but his professional credibility was shot due to his drinking), because he insisted Dunn wouldn’t have to “play” Johnny – he WAS Johnny.
I enjoyed this as much as your post about Anastasia. ❤ I was totally late to the party on that one, but I did leave a comment, if you haven’t seen it yet. Also, I replied in our conversation on my “Top 10 Leading Men” post with my thoughts on No Down Payment, which you’d recommended. 🙂
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Loved reading about your reaction to hearing James Dunn for the first time in a while. Such a wonderful actor and a joyous screen presence. I hope he took some comfort in the Oscar win. Although this film didn’t revive his film career, he did receive regular TV work. I so want that story about him delivering presents at Christmas to be true. From all I’ve read about him he was a lovely man and generally well liked.
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Great review! I’m way overdue for a rewatch of this one. I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was a kid, but it made an impression on me, probably because I’ve always been a big reader, and like you, I appreciated the emphasis on books. The idea of a pocket-sized edition is particularly appealing. 🙂
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