Betty Smith’s 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is beautifully adapted by first-time director Elia Kazan.
“They don’t make films like they used to…” A phrase that often elicits the romantic notion of a simpler, more innocent time, clarion and linear narratives in filmmaking, reminiscent of a comfort and predictability in storytelling that puts the viewer at immediate ease. Director Elia Kazan played with these expectations and tropes from the start of his career as he chose projects that addressed socially conscious issues.
Betty Smith’s hugely popular 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, fit this approach perfectly. Kazan had been working within Theatre for several years before the opportunity to direct the novel presented itself. While he frequently expressed personal disappointment at the resulting film, which was he first feature, it garnered critical acclaim and success including three Academy Award nominations, a Best Supporting Actor win for James Dunn, and an Academy Juvenile Award for Peggy Ann Garner.
The film can, in its simplest form, be considered a typical coming-of-age drama but an equally strong argument can be made on the competing elements of realism versus idealism. Set in the early 20th century, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, introduces us to second generation Irish Immigrants the Nolan family as they struggle through a recession and resulting abject poverty.
Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) and wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire) have diametrically opposing approaches to raising their two children: studious and precocious Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and industrious and spirited younger brother Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Johnny walks a precarious line between a kind, loving father who dreams big for himself and his family and not supplying the necessary support and practicality required from a father. His struggles with the “sickness” leaves him inebriated, unavailable and perhaps even indifferent to the struggles of his wife in particular.
Dorothy McQuire’s performance as the subdued and stifled mother and wife, Katie, is pitch perfect. The lack of support from her husband is so grave that she is forced to clean the tenement building while her children hustle and scrounge to collectively make ends meet. Katie’s daily struggles, and more broadly her existential disquiet creates a distance, coldness and a hard indifference towards her husband she is acutely aware of. Katie’s sister, Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) embodies a more free-spirited and modern female character whose choices challenge the norms and the early 1900s.
These elements and the imagery of the single tree growing outside the family home combine gracefully to create a heart-warming tale of struggle and fulfilment. Francie yearns for a better education and prosperous life which her father frequently promises; her unshakeable resilience mirrored in the tree which grows from the cracks in the concrete on the Brooklyn streets. The threat of the destruction of the tree is the perfect metaphor for her own strife and determination to survive regardless of the resistance and opposition faced from poverty, family status and broken promises. Francie’s internal conflict echoes the desires of the wider society and the loss she has to experience to fully gain her own independence mimics the sacrifice and misery the populous had to endure before relief was eventually gained.
The film is beautifully shot in the crisp and pristine black and white that epitomises the classic era of cinema. The story may be linear and unsophisticated, but remains engrossing and captivates in the depiction of these characters’ lives, and one that feels authentic and discerning. Each actor – lead and supporting – give performances that evoke an honesty that we seldom see in more contemporary films and as such deserves more attention and respect. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a seminal novel and the film adaptation is no less of an important and valuable piece of historic cinema.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is available now as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.
- 1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray from a 2K restoration completed from a 4K scan of the original film elements
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- Feature-length commentary by Richard Schickel with Elia Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Normal Lloyd
- The Making of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Hollywood Star Time: Original radio broadcast version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from 1946, starring Peggy Ann Garner, James Dunn and Joseph Kearns
- PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring new essays by Kat Ellinger, Phil Hoad, and Philip Kemp, alongside rare archival imagery
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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