The 1945 film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is based on Betty Smith’s coming of age novel of the same name. The story follows a second-generation Irish-American family living in New York in the early 20th century, just before World War I. Though the movie deviates from the novel and covers a much smaller portion of the original story, producer Louis D. Lighton and director Elia Kazan succeed in creating a realistic and powerful interpretation of the story.
The movie stars Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Peggy Ann Garner, and Dorothy McGuire. Dunn and McGuire play Johnny and Katie Nolan, who have two children: Francie (Garner) and Neely (Ted Donaldson). Johnny is a dreamer, and, while he gets along better with the children than his wife, his drinking habits and inability to keep a job places a heavy burden on the family. Despite his weaknesses, Johnny’s love and efforts to find a better school for Francie makes up for a lot of his absence. Katie loves her children dearly, but the pressure to raise them and find enough money to pay their bills leaves her bitter and frustrated. She has nothing left to give her children besides sharp remarks and chores.
Meanwhile, Katie’s sister, Sissy (Blondell) stirs up drama when she remarries for a third time. Sissy couldn’t be more opposite than her sister. She’s affable, funny, and free-spirited. She has no children. However, her unconventional choices upset Katie so much that at some point in the movie Katie blocks Sissy from seeing the family, which upsets Francie and Neely.
When Katie discovers she’s pregnant with their third child, and they can barely afford the two they already have, she tells Francie that she’s going to have to drop out of school to help support the family. Francie is devastated because her brother isn’t asked to quit school, and she is the one who cares about her education. She is a precocious 13-year-old. She wants to read every book in the library, and she’s steadily working through the A’s. Her younger brother, Neely, has street smarts, but he could care less about school. Johnny takes Francie’s side, and he is determined to find a way for her to stay in school. Despite the fact that there is a terrible snowstorm, Johnny braves the freezing weather to find work to help pay for Francie’s school. He never returns.
Albert Einstein once said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” Francie and her family endure many hardships. However, these struggles are important life lessons for Francie. No one gets through life unscathed. With her father suddenly missing, the audience gets to watch Francie transform from an innocent girl to a strong young woman. Yet, the movie also shows that life isn’t all about obstacles. There is always beauty in life, even during the darkest times. Francie and her mother grow closer because of the challenges they face.
The title of the movie refers to a tree that grows in the courtyard of the apartment building where the Nolan family lives. Francie and her father call the tree “The Tree of Heaven.” At the beginning of the movie, the branches are drastically cut back. Johnny explains to Francie that cutting back the branches is necessary for the tree to continue growing strong. Throughout the movie, the tree is referenced as a symbol of life’s many cycles.
Though there are many wonderful coming-of-age films, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is especially important to watch because of the film’s director. Elia Kazan was one of Hollywood’s most talented directors. Early on in his career, he and fellow actors Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford established Actors Studio in 1947, which was a non-profit workshop. In 1951, Lee Strasberg took over when Kazan relocated to Hollywood to focus on directing.
Kazan was known for choosing films that dealt with social or controversial issues and for working closely with his actors. His other works include On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden. He preferred working with lesser-known actors because he felt they were more malleable. Kazan’s style and method of directing produced films that were more based in realism compared with other films at that time. Because he didn’t use such high profile actors, the audience focuses less on who is playing the role than the story itself. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was Kazan’s directorial debut, and the film was very successful. James Dunn won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the charismatic, but troubled father, and Peggy Ann Garner received the Academy Juvenile Award. Even though Kazan worked with lower-profile performers, the people he chose to work with were very talented and often continued to have successful careers. Joan Blondell is a force to be reckoned with in her role as the high-spirited Aunt Sissy. She’s lovable and her sense of humor lightens the otherwise very serious drama. Blondell and Dorothy McGuire continued to work well into their old age.
Unfortunately, Peggy Ann Garner and Ted Donaldson did not have the same longevity in their acting careers. However, their contributions to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are powerful and deserving of respect. As the sarcastic and witty younger brother Neely, Ted Donaldson also offers some comic relief in this serious drama. Even at the age of twelve, Donaldson’s impeccable comedic timing was perfect for this film. Few performers enjoy success throughout their entire career. Yet this film would not have been the same without Garner and Donaldson.
Most people today probably haven’t heard of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The film doesn’t have the same notoriety as Casablanca or Giant. Yet, this film is just as valuable and important to watch. Kazan would go on to face the blacklisting and naming of names. Much like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, man always has to face the challenges of life and the challenges within himself.