Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A (1945)

Director: Elia Kazan


For many the experience of a motion picture is a form of escapism, perhaps a temporary refuge from the plights and toils of life’s dramas and worries. In the earlier decades of the 20th century most of the best known features consisted of characters in worlds of fantasy, luxury, or visions of places most audiences cannot ever reach or attain. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides a very tangible look at life from the point of view of far lesser means, a relatable tale for anyone who had to watch their pocketbooks and worry about simply affording the essentials. Refreshingly dissimilar from the more lavish pictures of Hollywood’s usual silver screen flare, the feature tugs at the heartstrings with a warm and trying coming of age story.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a drama about an impoverished early 20th century Irish-American family from the tenements of Brooklyn and their trials to simply get by centering from the point of view of the 13 year-old daughter.  The setting is 1912 Brooklyn as the Nolan’s merely look to get by day to day. Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire) is the mother that cares for the family and manages the bare finances to cover the necessities. Johnny (James Dunn) is her charming, happy-go-lucky husband, a singing waiter by trade, whose positivity is a curtain to his struggle to find work and his alcoholism. Johnny’s dearest prize is found in his daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), where his fancifully spun tales have fashioned within her aspirations to make things better of herself.

As a 13 year-old Francie is beginning to become cognizant of how she and her family are of lesser means, with her well-worn clothing and need to treasure every penny with her younger brother Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Francie studies and works hard and to attend a better neighboring school to achieve these dreams of hers, but things look darkest when she loses her father and must take care of her sick and pregnant mother. It appears she must sacrifice her dreams when unexpected support from Johnny’s friends aids the family through the sorrow and strife, culminating with graduation day for Francie from that school year. Here she shares a touching moment of closure over the passing of her father who too wished great things for her, as a gift purchased before he passed is waiting for her. This expressive moment shares with us her own emotional graduation as Francie maturing into a young lady.  Katie becomes engaged with a kindly neighborhood police officer that had befriended the family, who will help support the family into the future. We close on Francie and Neeley reminisce about their late father as seeing a future with less strife, but perhaps not as amusing as it was with their father.

This lovely motion picture is a true gem that is moving, relatable, and impressionable, a perfect example of how movies impact audiences. This coming of age tale for a girl in a poor family shares the joys and hardships of life’s toils for the point of view of a child. The naiveté of a child that age manifests how adult worries are less stressful through a mind’s eye that does not think about the future and focuses on the beauty and romance in the world at hand, despite everything else that gets you down.

This simple black and white feature captures the hardships of many Americans, especially first or second generation Americans who had barely enough to get by. It shares a sense of hope and dreams even though the Nolan’s scrimping and shaving just to pay the bills. Francie’s relationship with her father is touching, as father and daughter share a strong bond. Johnny wishes her daughter to see the world through the rose colored glasses that he makes it appear to be, despite all the hardship and ugliness it entails, creating a world of wonder and romance Francie dreams to one day attain.

Pictures such as this one make this cinematic journey I am traveling on in this series of posts worth all the while. Being unaware of the picture’s content or history made this a film unsuspecting subject as it crept up on my list of features to view and study. It proved refreshingly different look at the world and being a drama about people of lesser means versus the fantastically wealthy or remarkably colorful characters we might be customary to seeing in Hollywood features of this time period. Its take on real life trails of just surviving relatable for most as many have experience times in their lives when things were harder to come by.

The history of the picture dates to 1943 when author Betty Smith was yet to publish the novel and the subject of its movie rights was already in the middle of a  bidding battle among Hollywood studios. It would be 20th Century Fox. A studio such as MGM or Paramount with its more lavish production costs, stable of stars, and tend to produce spectacles would most likely had made the feature a far different product that what we would see here.

Assigned to make this motion picture in his directorial debut was Elia Kazan, a Greek-American of stage directorial fame. Kazan style in dramas would lend him to work on subject matters of a more contemporary concern, especially as his career moved forward. His style of portrayal helped him one day become a founder for the famed Actor’s Studio in New York that would revolutionize acting in the coming decades to a manner that was more of the method style of acting than sensationalized Hollywood bravura of the 1930s and early 1940s

The black and white celluloid and the unglamorous costuming lent to the grit of the film’s drama. When producers got their hands on the dallies and began to praise Kazan’s  work there is legend that the producers at 20th Century-Fox wanted to restart principle photography and make the film a color picture, to which Kazan denied the idea. Whether this tale is true or not, is inconsequential, as the picture benefits from the period in which it was made, when color photography was yet to be the norm in movies.

The film’s cast would not come from the usual 20th Century-Fox stock of stars. Dorothy McGuire, who portrays Katie, is appearing in only her third feature film, and at age 29 was already given a motherly role, albeit with her youthful looks. Her stern demeanor creates the since of a girl that married young and had to mature fast in a tough world. Playing her husband was James Dunn, a veteran of many Shirley Temple movies in the 1930s, and not much else. His actual battle with alcoholism and work with the likes of one of Hollywood’s most beloved child actor years prior probably helped in his portrayal of the loving, happy-go-lucky, but troubled father. His performance won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor after years of feeding from low end pictures.

Joan Blondell makes an appearance as Aunt Sissy, Katie’s free-spirited sister. As one of many platinum blondes of the 1930s, Blondell performance as a worldly woman with a heart for her sister and her family lends well to this picture. Lloyd Nolan, best known as a B-level crime pictures supplies merely an adequate performance as Officer McShane with his commonly flat delivery of his lines for his flat, although likable character.

The most important performance, of course, comes from the child actors. Ted Donaldson as Neeley and the Peggy Ann Garner as Francie. The 11 year-old Donaldson presents a fine mix of “aw-shucks” innocence with a hint of streetwise flare to portray as youth from the streets of Brooklyn. Garner who had the heavy task of carrying the picture gives a bit of a distant performance, almost vexing to a fault as the dreamer and aspiring Francie. Her performance may not be the most convincing, but Garner’s portrayal of the wonderful writing for her character was good enough to get her noticed by the Academy to honor her with a special Juvenile Award for achievement for a child actor, an award that honors work in all of 1945, including her appearance in Junior Miss and Nob Hill.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn brought in a box office draw of over $3 million, a tidy sum for such a humbly produced 20th Century-Fox feature. With some Academy Award recognition and good critical praise the feature would be seem as one of the year’s better films and later many historians honor it as one of the better films in American cinema history. For me it is a treasure that has the power to bring tears to some eyes as a story of love, lose, diligence, and dreams. It marks one of the few times that an unsuspecting feature film had gripped me through this cinematic march.

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