Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Nov 6, 1999 (Updated Oct 2, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:direction, script, casting, sets

Cons:often very sad, production code pregnancy

The Bottom Line: Perhaps one of the ten best films ever made, this seminal family tearjerker is recommended to all but the most cynical film fans.


Elia Kazan is best known for making a star of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and introducing James Dean with East of Eden and Warren Beatty with Splendor in the Grass.

He made other great movies as well, that are less well known today. Best of all was his very first film as director, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But Kazan was by then already an experienced director, having made his mark with a series of successful Broadway plays.

Despite being nearly perfect, the film has been harshly criticized by those who had read the book first. The depth of story and character that is in a book cannot be transferred intact into a two hour movie. On the other hand, can an actor's facial expression or voice inflection be perfectly captured on the written page?

The artistic forms are so different that the comparison is flawed. A movie should not be judged by how similar it is to its source material, as if the quality of the book is somehow related to the quality of the film. Also, a film is not better or worse simply because it is different than what the viewer expected it to be. The value of both books and films depends entirely upon how well they are executed.

We know that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is outstanding, because of its devastating emotional impact on the viewer. Only the most hopelessly jaded can watch the film without crying or sobbing.

It is filmdom's greatest tearjerker, even more so than Schindler's List, despite having its focus narrowed to the lives of a humble Brooklyn family. What makes the tragedy of Johnny Nolan so affecting is that his warmth and charm is no match for the harsh realities of life.

Johnny would make a great king, but he can't earn a living. He turns to drink to drown his failure as a breadwinner for his beloved but impoverished family. Meanwhile, his reputation as a drinker keeps him from steady work. Unable to face reality, he becomes a dreamer. Like the tree rising from the cement of Brooklyn, there is hope in perseverance. But like the tree, he is cut down. When the dreams fade, he begins to drink.

James Dunn had first made his mark in cinema during the 1930s, playing a kindly father figure to child actress Shirley Temple in a few of her vehicles. Allegedly an alcoholic in real life, he certainly understood the character of Johnny. He was ideally cast, with most of his dialogue with another child actress, Peggy Ann Garner. Both Dunn and Garner won Academy Awards for their performances, Dunn as Best Supporting Actor, and Garner receiving a special 'Juvenile' Oscar.

Peggy Ann Garner also had the role of her career, but proved unable to capitalize on it. Her only other memorable part was as the younger version of the title character in Jane Eyre (1944), made the year before.

As it turned out, the film's real star would be Dorothy McGuire, who played the hard-working mother determined to see her family survive. McGuire would follow her role with two very good films, The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and would be a familiar cinematic face for many years that followed. McGuire wasn't perfectly cast, however, too young to be convincing as Garner's mother or Dunn's wife. McGuire's character has a 'production code' pregnancy, never showing even on the day of her delivery.

The caring but humorless mother contrasts with her older sister, played with vivacious confidence by brassy Joan Blondell. While Blondell enjoys life on a day to day basis, her choice in husbands has been more practical. She calls them all Bill, perhaps due to their ability to pay them.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn received only one major Oscar nomination, for the screenplay adapted by Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger from the Betty Smith bestseller. Surprisingly, the film wasn't nominated for Best Picture, although even winning might not have prevented the film from its current obscurity. I wrote a newsgroup review for this film some four years ago, and I was ashamed to see when searching for links at imdb.com that none other yet accompanied it. A film's age has nothing to do with how good it is, either. Some of the best films are from the 1940s, including AFI chart-toppers Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

Perhaps the Academy passed over A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because it wasn't a feel-good color musical like Anchors Aweigh, which did receive a Best Picture nomination. More likely, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had too much in common with How Green Was My Valley (1941), which had won just a few years before. Both movies feature a child protagonist, are based on a classic novel, are set at the turn of the century, and feature a working-class family struggling with poverty and tragedy. (97/100)

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