Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis
Based on a Novel by: Betty Smith
Starring: Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan
Running Time: 129 min
BBFC Certificate: U
I’ve only seen a small handful of Elia Kazan’s films, but I’ve been greatly impressed by every one. This year has given me a couple of key titles he directed to cross off my list too. A couple of months ago I saw A Face in the Crowd for the first time and was positively blown away by it. Now Eureka have given me the chance to see Kazan’s debut feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which they’re releasing on Blu-Ray as part of their Masters of Cinema series.
Kazan started out in the theatre and made quite a name for himself as part of New York’s Group Theatre, which was formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. He began working as an actor, but soon moved into directing. It was at the height of his stage success that he decided to turn his hand to directing films. After making two shorts he was offered the chance to helm an adaptation of Betty Smith’s hugely popular 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. After working on socially conscious material with the Group Theatre for several years, that side of the novel likely appealed to him. Though he has been known to show a little disappointment in the resulting film, many would disagree as it was and still is well received and went on to win 2 Oscars (3 if you include the honorary Juvenile Award Peggy Ann Garner won for her work as a child actor that year).
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming-of-age drama set in Brooklyn in the early 20th Century. The Nolan family are second generation Irish/Austrian immigrants living in poverty. Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) and his wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire) have very different approaches to bringing up their two children, Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and Neeley (Ted Donaldson). Johnny is an alcoholic and perpetual dreamer, who just wants his kids to be happy and have nice things, but fantasises about it with them rather than providing it, as his job as a singing waiter does little to keep bread on the table. It does so little in fact that Katie cleans their tenement building and has the children sell rags to help make ends meet. Katie is a realist and is finding herself growing ever colder and harder as the years go on. She still loves her husband but is fed up with him filling their children’s minds with dreams they’ll never be able to fulfil.
The film is really about Francie though. We see most of the film from her perspective as she begins her teenage years and finds herself torn between her dad, who has his head in the clouds but Francie adores, and her mother who she’s less close to yet shares many similarities with. Francie is proving to be the most promising member of the family, with a sharp mind and keen imagination aided by her love of reading (wonderfully captured in a scene in a library where she tells the librarian “I want to know everything in the world”). She longs to go to a respectable school she’s seen uptown and her dad manages to wrangle her in there through dishonest means, but the financial toll proves heavy on the family.
During the first half of the film, I thought it was nice but a bit sappy. The depiction of the plucky working class making the most of their situation felt rather sentimental, lacking the bite of Kazan’s later work. However, some dark turns as the film goes on and the subtle layers that present themselves in forethought turned me around and I grew to appreciate this fine directorial debut from Kazan. Yes, the film remains sentimental throughout, particularly in the final moments, but it’s presented effectively enough to get away with it and emotionally the film is immensely satisfying. I won’t lie, I got through a great deal of tissues in the second half. Being a father of two daughters myself it was hard not to be touched by this story of a young girl struggling to fulfil her ambitions and her hapless father doing his best to help.
A key factor in how well this affectionate story is delivered is the cast. Kazan was famous for getting the most from his actors, directing an incredible 21 Oscar-nominated performances (with 9 wins) during his career. He got off to a flying start with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as James Dunn won the Best Supporting Actor award that year. Dunn had struggled with alcoholism like his character, resulting in a lack of work after a promising start to his career, so there must be a lot of his own memories and demons driving his layered performance. Dorothy McGuire is equally as strong as his tough wife, but it’s young Peggy Ann Garner who most impresses in the lead role. She was an experienced child actor already, as was Ted Donaldson, but her work here is streets ahead of most young actors at the time, who largely leant on their cute nature rather than embody any true character.
It’s this naturalism that keeps the film from getting bogged down in saccharine too. Kazan was always keen to keep his films ‘real’ and he himself was an immigrant to America and lived in a fairly poor neighbourhood in New York during his youth, so must have especially wanted to keep this story authentic. He wasn’t able to shoot on location as he preferred later in his career, but the production design team do a good job of recreating a Brooklyn street and tenement block. It’s full of life, which is allowed to shine in a few impressive exterior sequences. Most notable is a wonderful crane shot that moves from a handyman fixing the washing lines up a long telegraph pole, across the wives giving him grief and ending on Francie reading by herself on the fire escape. As well as perfectly encapsulating the setting and our protagonist, it serves as proof that Kazan could effectively utilise cinematic tools that were alien to his experience as a theatre director.
Overall then, though it’s rather sentimental and very much a tearjerker, it’s beautifully made. The performances are strong, particularly the young lead, and the film is full of warmth, heart and more naturalism than most films of the era. It’s hard not to fall for its touching charms and it comes as easily recommended as all the Elia Kazan films I’ve seen so far.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is out on 22nd July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer is fantastic. The film looks clean, detailed and sharp but natural. The sound is solid too.
You get a few special features too:
– 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 Norman 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
The Dorothy McGuire piece is a bit throwaway and sappy, and the archive ‘making of’ is a little too nostalgic. The commentary, however, saves the set. Schickel has plenty to say about the film and a few soundbites from Kazan, Donaldson and Lloyd fill the gaps to keep the track moving along. As always, the booklet is a vital part of the package too.