Easy-going father-daughter sentimentality in Kazan’s debut, which softens up an already gentle novel
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Peggy Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), John Alexander (Steve Edwards)
In 1912 an Irish-American family, the Nolans, struggle to make ends meet in Brooklyn. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) keeps a close eye on the purse strings to ensure she can keep a roof over the head of her children: 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and young Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Problem is, Katie also has a third child: her husband Johnny (James Dunn), a happy-go-lucky dreamer and “singing waiter” who is also a hopeless drunk. Johnny, with his “live-your-dreams” outlook on life, natural charm and instinctive understanding of people, is Francie’s idol. With another child on the way, and the Nolan cash reserves at breaking point, can the family hold together?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn drips with sentimental, old-fashioned, easy-watching charm. Adapted from a best-selling novel by Betty Smith, it strips out most of the plot (which covers nearly 17 years rather than the single one featured here) and considerably waters down the original’s content. (It also, hilariously, avoids any appearance at all of the eponymous tree at the centre of the Nolan tenement block, which is cursorily referenced only twice.) Smith’s book was a semi-auto-biographical chronicle of a life of struggle survived by a daughter who flourishes, but the film is more of an optimistic fable of the triumph of family love.
It feels strange that this is the first film of Elia Kazan, who would become better known for hard-hitting, location-shot, method-tinged dramas rather than the tear-jerking charm here. Kazan was later sceptical about the film – highly critical of what he considered his overly theatrical staging, particularly of the scenes set in the Nolan home – and even at the time stated he was so unsure about what he was doing that the film was effectively co-directed by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. But Kazan’s skill with actors shines through and he invests it with a great deal of pace and emotional truth.
His main benefit is the very strong performances from Garner and Dunn in the film’s most important relationship. Both actors won Oscars (Garner the juvenile Oscar, Dunn for Best Supporting Actor) and it’s the loving meeting of hearts and minds between father and daughter that lies at the film’s heart. Francie is a young girl dedicated to education – slavishly, but obsessively, reading through the local library in alphabetical order, regardless of suitability of the books – who dreams of going to a better school and bettering her life. It’s a dream that her mother struggles to grasp – largely unable to see beyond the immediate needs of putting food on the table – but which her father understands and is desperate to support.
This bond is partly what leads to Francie’s idolising her doting dad. And Johnny is doting. He’ll do things her mother won’t dream of doing – including weaving an elaborate fantasy to win her a place at that better school. He’ll joke and laugh, sing songs and entertain her while indulging her artistic leanings. Unfortunately, he’ll also make promises to reform he won’t keep, stumble home late at night or be found, drunk in the street, having boozed away every penny he’s earned.
Dunn poured a lot of himself into this self-destructive dreamer. A vaudeville comedian who had a successful run of films with Shirley Temple in the 1930s, he had blown most of his fortune in bad investments. By the 1940s was struggling to find work with his drink problem widely known. But he was also charming, decent and kind, but seen to lack the drive to build a successful career. In effect, Johnny was a version of his own life, and Dunn not only nails Johnny’s charm but also laces the performance with a rich vein of sadness, guilt and shame, but still loved by all.
While Johnny jokes and laughs with the neighbours, Katie cleans the hallway of their tenement block to earn extra bucks and moves the family to a smaller room to save what money she can. Played with a fine line in drudgery and put-upon stress by Dorothy McGuire (in a role as thankless as Katie’s life is), Katie remains unappreciated by her daughter (who sees her as a moaner who won’t cut her father a break) and by her husband as being too obsessed with the purse-strings.
The major flaw, for me, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that the film falls almost as uncritically in love with Johnny as Francie. Getting older it’s hard not to see Johnny as essentially irresponsible and selfish, a well-meaning but destructive force on the family, the cause of the poverty which has made Katie crushed, dowdy and increasingly stressed and bitter. She essentially suffers everything – skipping meals, slaving over multiple jobs, saying no to every desire Francie has – while Johnny flies in, cracks jokes, says yes to everything and disappears when its time to work out how to deliver.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, however, wants to tell a sentimental story of a father-daughter bond and hasn’t got too much time for Katie – or for making Francie really face the flaws in her father and the virtues of her mother (for all the film gives mother and daughter a late reconciliation). There is something fake about this (tellingly the book gives a sharper realisation for Francie and subtly changes Johnny’s fate to make it less idealised). But all edges are shaved off here and the family divisions are bridged as easily as poverty is eventually solved. (There is also considerable watering down of the liberated lifestyle of Katie’s sister, engagingly played by Joan Blondell).
It makes for a film that’s warm, comforting and essentially light and even a little forgettable. It’s all too easy to drop off in front of it on a Sunday afternoon. Try as you might, you can’t say that about other Kazan films. A little more grit to this would have increased its impact considerably.