Monday 9 March 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason, Ted Donaldson and Peggy Ann Garner

Elia Kazan was a massively important director and it surprised to find that he only ever directed twenty features. This was the first and while I've heard about it often as a memorable drama that people fall in love with, it opens like a textbook of how to generate nostalgia. We're in Brooklyn, as you might expect from the title, in a poor neighbourhood and anyone who really lived there at the time would be sucked into these details. Of course, as we're set in the early 1900s, that's now likely to be their kids or grandkids that may have heard the stories.

I don't know if this is remotely accurate but it feels like it is. We open on a Saturday and the street is packed and the windows are all open. The kids have plenty of clever little tricks and they use them too, to acquire all sorts of trash to hawk at Carney's Junk Yard for pennies. There are games going on, using whatever props might be to hand, even if that's as simple as just cracks on the pavement. There's music everywhere and it's surprising how many of the tunes are still recognisable. There's all sorts of merriment and drama and work too, and wherever it's going on people crowd around filling an 'all human life is here' type scenario. It's only half that picture though: the poor half.

We're focused on the Nolans, who seem to be getting by somehow even though they're living off pennies, literally, but it's a hard struggle. There are four of them living in a small apartment and they're a memorable bunch, defined superbly as characters. Katie Nolan rules the roost: a proud mother who never has a dull moment. If she's not cooking, she's making the beds or darning socks, or washing the stairs to bring in extra money to help her kids get the sort of opportunities she never had. She never stops moving because she's driven and she's perfectly played by Dorothy McGuire, who gets the depth here that she never got as the mom in all those many Disney movies. Those roles didn't need the acting that this one did but she more than met the challenge.

Her husband is Johnny Nolan, who's close to being a professional pipe dreamer and he knows it, always promising things that he couldn't ever deliver. He's a singer and a waiter, or both at once, and while he brings his wages home to his wife he has an unfortunate habit of spending all his tip money on drink. He has a good heart though and a way about him that lifts everyone around him. As it's mentioned at one point, he says hello to everyone like he's giving away something. Because he keeps coming in and out of the story, he's really a supporting actor but in the hands of James Dunn, he won a well deserved Oscar, partly because it would appear that he was playing himself.

The kids are Francie and Neeley and they're well adjusted good kids, even if they're still only partway through the process of growing up and don't understand everything that goes on around them. They're not perfect but they're the sort of kids anyone would want to have for their own, free range kids too that aren't protected from the world by well meaning do gooders but by common sense and guts. Neeley is capable and good hearted and always hungry, well played by twelve year old Ted Donaldson. He doesn't get half the screen time his sister gets though.

Francie is superbly brought to life by Peggy Ann Garner who was thirteen at the time and she won a special Oscar for being the outstanding child actress of 1945. She has a brain in her head and a heart in her chest and both are powerful and full of promise. She's her father's daughter, full of imagination but far more grounded. Much of the film here is in seeing how she grows up, keeping the best of her father but acquiring the best of her mother. There are scenes here where the world just rushes in on Francie, she flounders under the weight of it but comes out on top. It's a deep role to play but she succeeds so much better than most lauded child actors ever did in their signature films. She's what the title is really talking about, though the film is only part of Betty Smith's source novel, which has more literal and metaphorical trees over a much longer timeframe.

There's able support from established actors. Beyond McGuire and Dunn, there are some very talented named lending a hand, not least Joan Blondell as Katie's sister Sissy, who is a very different character but just as capable in her own ways. This comes a decade or more after her heyday in the thirties but she's even more striking here, turning everyone's eye. James Gleason is his usual excellent self as a good hearted bar owner and Lloyd Nolan is a politely hesitant good New York City cop.

It's the story though that shines brightest, providing a solid framework for all these actors to fully develop all these characters and giving them plenty of opportunity to do so. It also gave Elia Kazan the opportunity to start off his directorial career in no uncertain terms. It's a very sentimental story, in fact there's almost no let up from the sentimentality, but unlike most movies it's appropriate and handled appropriately.

So much of the story is set up in the scene itself and then explored on the faces of the characters and their simple ad often innocent words. Katie and Johnny are troubled but there are no violent outbursts and stormy arguments full of pointless vitriol. Nobody throws anything or tries to deflect the issues away by causing a disturbance; Johnny isn't even a violent drunk. These are people trying to make the most of what they have given the limitations of who, what and where they are. That simplicity and honesty gives it power. I can understand why so many people fall in love with the film: it teaches so much without ever preaching, and it draws in its audience because there's likely to be something for most to relate to. This is my first time through, but it would appear to be a film to grow with. Kids should certainly still watch it today, sixty some years on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad you liked this, it was one of my favorites growing up and it still is to this day. Good review!