Saturday, October 1, 2016

Through Concrete, Like a Damn Dandelion

Film: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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.


  1. I agree with all you say, this is a sober drama but because of the acting constantly engaging.

    Dunn's win is one of the best the category has ever contained, I know that good actors don't need to be what they portray to do it effectively but knowing that Dunn previous to this was such an extreme alcoholic that it had scuttled his career adds a touch of poignancy to his work.

    Peggy Ann Garner's career is one that puzzles me. She's just so good in this, never having the cloying vapors that Margaret O'Brien would have brought to the part or any kiddie tricks but always appearing as an intelligent young girl on the cusp of womanhood. Watching her you think "There's someone that will mature into an interesting screen presence." but whatever alchemy was present at this point didn't remain and she's forgettable in everything else I've ever seen her in. She didn't possess that POP that enabled Natalie Wood, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin to move from child star to an adult career. Be that as it may she's wonderful in this.

    The same goes for Dorothy McGuire, who really makes something out of someone who could have just been a hard case bitch, and Joan Blondell, who brings a whole different energy into the film whenever she appears. You actually feel a lighting of mood when she walks in thanks to that buoyant personality of hers.

    1. Yeah, this is pretty solidly wonderful all the way around. It could have very easily been either maudlin and syrupy or really dark and depressing. It's none of those things, and that more than anything is what makes it really work.

      Dorothy McGuire is in many ways the unsung hero of this, because a lot of what could have gone wrong would come directly from her. She makes it work, and it makes everyone else in the film better.

  2. I saw this a year or so ago (on MOVIES!) and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

    My reason for deciding to watch it might be considered odd by some. Do you remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is reminiscing about his youth, and he's skipping along singing "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady"? And the gang of dogs - including the bulldog with the green sweater and the derby - all start chasing him all over Manhattan. And at the end, he grabs a book off a bookseller's cart to use as a weapon and the dogs see the title and start barking excitedly and they run across the Brooklyn Bridge to go to Brooklyn. And the title on the book is ... "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

    (I watched the 1950 film The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady just because the song it's based on is mentioned in the cartoon. Debbie Reynolds is great in a small part as a sass-mouther little sister!)

    I guess "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was - at one time - a big deal as a major book you were supposed to read in school. (Like "The Great Gatsby" or "Lord of the Flies.") But I don't remember ever hearing about it (outside of the Bugs Bunny cartoon) until the last few years. It's one of the books in the literature collection at my local library. They don't have any Charlotte Bronte except "Jane Eyre" and they don't have a single book by Anne Bronte (I adore Anne Bronte) but they have three or four copies of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." I've been thinking of reading it, but I want to read "Waverley" (by Sir Walter Scott) first.

    1. What I remember of the book is that it's not bad. I don't think it's To Kill a Mockingbird good, but I'd pick it for my kids ahead of something like Catcher in the Rye, which I flat-out hated.

    2. I love The Catcher in the Rye. I read it every three or four years or so. Holden is hilarious.

    3. I came to that book far too old to appreciate it for anything other than a whiny kid being whiny.