Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
When I was in eighth grade, I had to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I don’t really remember anything about it. I suppose that isn’t surprising, since that was well more than three decades ago. In fact, I really only remember a couple of details here and there and nothing about what the actual story was about. So, admittedly, I’ve been a bit curious about revisiting it this long after when I first encountered it. What I expected wasn’t what I got. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s upsetting. In the case of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, getting something different than I expected was a good thing.
What makes this film work is that unlike a lot of films from the Depression era and the years after, this is the story of people who are very poor and struggling to survive. In a sense, it’s an American answer to the early Italian neo-realism films like Ladri di Biciclette. This is a family where the only luck is bad luck and the only way out is dreaming of the stars while lying in the gutter. While on the surface this is the story of the hard-luck Nolan family, it’s really the story of Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) growing up and her relationship with her father Johnny (James Dunn, who won a supporting Oscar for the role).
The Nolans are dirt poor, and get by because mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) works in their tenement building and the kids Francie and Neeley (Ted Donaldson) sell scrap and make whatever extra money they can. Johnny works when he can as a singing waiter, getting gigs at dinners and weddings. The real problem is that Johnny is, despite his talent and sunny outlook, both a dreamer and an alcoholic. Francie has learned to say that he is “sick” when he’s been drinking, and she more than anyone forgives him completely. Johnny is always claiming that someday he’ll get discovered by someone and the family will suddenly have everything they want, but only Francie really believes him. Francie is devoted to him despite his faults, and he is equally devoted to her.
This is very much a family drama. Katie’s sister Sissy (Joan Blondell) is something of a loose woman, working on her third husband as the film begins. Sissy is the opposite of Katie. She’s flighty and interested in having fun. When she gets the kids in trouble, Katie bans her from the family apartment, thinking that she is a bad influence on her children.
Of course, this is very much Francie’s story, and it really is the story of her coming of age. Thankfully, this is a coming of age story for a girl that doesn’t involve sex. In fact, it’s much closer to the typical boy’s coming of age story in that it will require a death of some sort for her to become an adult. Francie is an interesting character. She’s a bright kid, working on reading her way through the public library alphabetically by author. She’s thoughtful and introspective, the sort of young girl who would almost certainly be classified as weird in a lot of cases because of her interest in books and school. In fact, one of the major turning points of the film comes when she convinces her father to send her to a much better school a little further away from the family home. They arrange this by pretending to have Francie live with a non-existent relative in the school’s district.
There’s a lot good here and not much bad. The story is almost secondary to everything else, since the story is really just a lens for us to experience the characters. Those characters are entirely based on the performances that we get, and they’re damn fine. James Dunn is damn near perfect as Johnny Nolan. He’s exactly what we need for the film. He’s both a slave to his own vices and demons and a man who genuinely loves his family. The film wouldn’t work if his family didn’t love him back, and they do. Ted Donaldson’s Neeley is completely believable as a kid who doesn’t realize just how poor his family is and how tough their lives are. Dorothy McGuire has a somewhat thankless role, but she works in it perfectly, trying desperately to be hard enough to raise her children despite her husband’s problems and desperately wishing she didn’t have to be so hard.
But this is Peggy Ann Garner’s movie through and through. She was given a special Oscar as the outstanding child actress of 1945, and had the world been then what it is now, I could see her nominated for this role. Children’s roles in this era are often difficult to watch because the kids seemed to have often been cast for their looks and not their acting chops. Garner handles the role like a champ, like an adult actress in a child’s body. It would be a tough go against Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, but I’d give the kid an even chance for the win.
This isn’t a happy movie, but it’s surprisingly uplifting. It’s a hell of a fine drama and I’m glad to have watched it.
Why to watch A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: It’s a dandy, realistic drama from a time that didn’t have many of those.
Why not to watch: I’ve got nothing. You should watch this if you haven’t.