Sunday, May 08, 2016

Tonight's Movie: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) at the TCM Classic Film Festival

For the second time since I've been attending the TCM Classic Film Festival, my first film on opening night was inspired by a key book from my childhood.

In 2014 the festival kicked off with 20th Century-Fox's CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (1950), based on the book by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

This year the first of the 15 films I saw at the festival was Fox's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), based on the novel by Betty Smith.

I first became acquainted with the book when I bought a used copy while on vacation in Idyllwild, California. I was probably around 12 or 13 at the time. According to the price pencilled in the book, seen here in a photograph, it cost me the princely sum of a quarter. What it gave me was far, far greater than that.

The moving story of Francie Nolan's coming of age was in many ways an eye-opener for me -- indeed, upon rereading it, I also discovered that certain things had flown right over my head the first time around.

Due to the Production Code the movie was fairly circumspect compared to the book, particularly when it came to the character of flamboyant Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell), but even so the movie brilliantly captures the feel and tone of the novel.

Prior to the film, Jeremy Arnold interviewed Ted Donaldson, who played Neeley Nolan. Donaldson, seen below in an official TCM photograph, was 12 when the film was released. He has vivid memories of rehearsing with the cast, spending days reading the script aloud and establishing their relationships. He loved working with Dorothy McGuire and had a crush on Joan Blondell. He felt TREE was the best thing Dorothy McGuire ever did; indeed, watching it for the first time in decades I found it shocking that she wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

I'd been a bit ambivalent about revisiting the movie, as the story isn't particularly cheery, but as it turned out I thoroughly enjoyed it and was very glad I went. It's superbly craft and acted, a very fine film indeed. One of my friends was so moved by it that she saw it a second time when it was encored on Sunday!

For those who aren't already familiar with it, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN tells the story of the Nolans, a very poor New York family scraping by in the early 1900s. Johnny Nolan (Oscar winner James Dunn) drinks too much and earns too little; his wife Katie (McGuire) scrubs floors trying to keep food on the table.

Young Neeley (Donaldson) is all boy, while dreamy Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) loves books, writing, and school. Francie is overjoyed when her father manages to transfer her to a nicer school, but crushed that she might have to drop out and help support the family when her mother has a baby.

The script, sets, and performances are all pitch perfect. It would be easy for McGuire to have been unlikeable as the stressed Katie, but she plays the role with a great deal of nuance. In her face we see the beautiful young girl Katie had been a few years previously, and we can also read in her face how badly her dreams have been crushed. Katie is a determined woman when it comes to her children, working tirelessly to keep them fed and making sure Aunt Sissy's unorthodox behavior doesn't create problems in the neighborhood.

Dunn conveys the ne'er-do-well Johnny's likeability and shiftlessness, as a man who can never quite stay away from the bottle and work harder to provide for his family. Blondell was the book come to life; she was Aunt Sissy, to the extent I can't imagine anyone else playing the role.

This was one of several excellent mid '40s roles for Peggy Ann Garner which were inspired by books. While at Fox Garner memorably played young JANE EYRE (1943); she starred in the title role in JUNIOR MISS (1945), inspired by a book by Sally Benson; and she appeared in a delightful adaptation of Craig Rice's HOME SWEET HOMICIDE (1946).

In TREE Garner is outstanding, the Francie of the book come to life. She captures Francie's sensitivity and the joy she finds in books. Donaldson likewise is very natural as Neeley.

The supporting cast also included Lloyd Nolan as the local cop on the beat; his last scene is marvelous. James Gleason, John Alexander, Ferike Boros, Adeline De Walt Reynolds, Charles Halton, and Ruth Nelson are also in the cast.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN was directed by Elia Kazan and filmed in black and white by Leon Shamroy. It runs 129 minutes.


A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN is an affecting depiction of the struggle to survive and rise above poverty in the tenements. Very much recommended.


Blogger KC said...

This film moved me so much. I actually teared up reading this post. Garner especially tugs at me.

10:51 AM  

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