Paul at Silver Screen Classics is hosting his first ever blogathon(congratulations my friend), and he has chosen to focus on film adaptations of classic literature. Be sure to visit his site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a deeply moving coming of age story, one in which a child comes to view the adults in her life in different ways to how she has perceived them previously. It is also a tale in which the cruelness of reality encroaches upon the dreams and aspirations of individuals and crushes them in the process.
The title not only refers to the tree which grows in the courtyard of the tenement building which most of the film takes place in, but also refers to young Francie, the girl around whom the story is centred. The tree of the title metaphorically refers to Francie’s desire to get a good education and grow beyond her working class/poverty stricken roots, in much the same way trees grow until they tower above us out of reach of their ground roots.
Francie is hungry for knowledge and wants a better life than the one she has. She is an avid reader and goes crazy for library books the way other children of her age go crazy for sweets. Her ever loving papa does everything he can to support and encourage her dreams and wishes, but his battle with the bottle and inability to get a well paying regular job mean the family remains poor and Francie’s situation remains the same it has been up to now.
This film is one which holds a very special place in my heart. The characters come across as being so real and you can’t help but be caught up in the story of their lives and share their sorrows and joy. The film serves to remind us that those of my generation(child of the 90’s here) and younger are so lucky to have been born in the modern era, as we have opportunities and options that just weren’t on the table for the working class youth of the previous centuries. When you watch the Nolan’s story, I think it hits home so much because it shows us what our ancestors went through in real life. Think how many children didn’t get an education in the past, or had to give up school in order to start work at an early age to help their families get money. Think how many millions of people had their aspirations and dreams crushed by the reality of their lives.
Francie with the Librarian and with her Teacher. Screenshots by me.
I also love how positively Librarians and Teachers are portrayed in this film. When Francie announces she is working her way through the library books in alphabetical order and takes out a book with heavy content more easily understood by adults, the Librarian is bemused but never the less lets her take the book, despite knowing its content will most likely go way over her head. The Librarian also selects a purely escapist novel for Francie to take home to enjoy too, in order for her to have a backup book should she struggle with the other one as the Librarian suspects she will. Library staff are gatekeepers of knowledge and should never put up barriers to someone wanting to borrow and explore the books in their care, so that scene always makes me smile. I also love the scene where Francie’s teacher is extremely kind and non-judgemental of her when she asks to take a pie home from school to ease her families hunger. There is no judgement or interference on the teacher’s part, instead she responds to Francie gently and doesn’t make her feel awkward. Many who work in education will sadly have had experience of youngsters who rely on their educational establishment to provide them with their sole access to food, and this scene hits home because it is sadly still something of a reality for many in modern society. It’s just heartbreaking to know that sadly some things haven’t changed.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical debut novel of the same name, which was written by Betty Smith(born Elisabeth Lillian Wehner), and was published in 1943. The novel focuses on the life of Francie Nolan,a poor girl living with her family in the New York tenements during the early part of the 20th century. The novel is split into five sections, with each section focusing on a different period of the characters lives.The novel was hugely successful upon release selling over 300,000 copies in its first six weeks alone. It was a particular hit with soldiers serving in the Second World War and the book was even released in a special Armed Services Edition, which meant that books shipped out to Armed Forces personal were specially designed to fit into the pockets of Armed Forces uniforms.
With its extremely moving story of family and the desire for better options in life, it’s little wonder that the film studios were quick to get their hands on the book rights. The bidding war for the rights began even before the novel was actually published, with 20th Century Fox successfully acquiring the rights for $55,000. The film would focus on a specific period in the Nolan’s lives, this in contrast to the book which covers several years. The screenplay for the film adaptation was written by married couple Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, whose efforts on the script would be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
The film would mark the feature film directorial debut of Elia Kazan, who up to this point in time had mainly worked as a stage actor and theatre director, he had also co-directed the 1937 documentary People Of The Cumberland. Kazan is of course now very famous for founding the Actors Studio workshop and for the cinematic realism he strived for and achieved in so many of his films.
On A Tree Grows In Brooklyn he did several things to ensure he had a lot of realism present in the performances, including encouraging Peggy Ann Garner and James Dunn to bond so that they developed a genuine emotional attachment to one another – the result of which is one of the most touching father/daughter relationships ever depicted on screen. The director also used Peggy Ann’s fears and worries about her dad – who was serving in the Second World War at the time Peggy made the film – to make her become genuinely upset when shooting a scene.
The film would not only introduce a new film director to the world, but it would also resurrect the career of the actor James Dunn, whose fame had sadly waned over the years due to his ongoing battle with the bottle.James was cast as the tragic Johnny, the patriarch of the Nolan family, and he would win his only Oscar for his heartbreaking and utterly convincing performance here. James knew better than most what this character was going through and who he was.
Twelve year old Peggy Ann Garner was cast in the lead role of Francie. Initially the studio had wanted an older actress to play Francie, but Elia Kazan held firm and insisted a child was cast. It was the right call. I think Peggy Ann’s performance as Francie is possibly her finest hour on screen, and she was rewarded for her work in the film with a special juvenile Oscar.
Top left to right:Dorothy McGuire as Katie, Ted Donaldson as Neeley, Joan Blondell as Sissy. Bottom left to right: James Dunn as Johnny and Lloyd Nolan as McShane. Screenshots by me.
The studio originally wanted Alice Faye to play Francie’s mother Katie, but Alice was unavailable, so the search was on to find another actress for the role. Gene Tierney was brought in to do a screentest for the role of Katie, but in the end Dorothy McGuire was cast. Dorothy is superb as the long suffering wife and mother, who isn’t as really tough and harsh as she makes out. Joan Blondell shines in the role of Katie’s outgoing sister, Sissy. Ted Donaldson was cast as Francie’s younger brother, Neeley and he steals every scene he’s in. Lloyd Nolan was cast as police officer McShane, the local beat cop who falls hard for Katie and helps the Nolan family when he can.
The film was shot on the 20th Century Fox lot, with a full stage being taken up by a four story replica of a tenement building. At the time it was constructed this set was one of the most elaborate to be assembled. Veteran Cinematographer Leon Shamroy worked on the film and provides us with some beautiful photography and use of light.
The film begins during summer. Francie Nolan(Peggy Ann Garner)is a thirteen year old girl who lives with her mum, Kate(Dorothy MacGuire); her food obsessed younger brother, Neeley(Ted Donaldson); and their kind but alcoholic father, Johnny(James Dunn). They are a poor family and rely on the money Johnny brings in from any work he can get as a musician. Unfortunately Johnny is an alcoholic and sometimes squanders the small wages and tips he makes on booze instead. Katie and Johnny are desperately in love, but Katie is becoming weary of what he does. Katie can sometimes be harsher to her kids than she means to be, while Johnny in contrast is always gentle and fun.
Katie’s younger and more fun loving sister, Sissy(Joan Blondell)and has been married several times, something which has caused quite the scandal(oh, the horror!). Sissy drops in when she can to brighten Neeley and Francie’s days. Sissy is the healer in this story. She supports her sister, brother in-law, and her niece and nephew, and she tries to ease upset and tension.
Francie is a bright child who loves reading and desperately wants to become a writer. She encourages her father to write a letter to the headteacher of a better school in their area to request a transfer for Francie. To Francie’s delight the request is accepted and Francie is enrolled.
When Christmas comes around Katie finds herself pregnant again. The little money they have is getting tighter, so she arranges for the family to move into a cheaper and even smaller apartment than they were in before. She suggests that Francie drops out of school and gets a job to help out. Knowing how shattered his baby will be if she has to give up her dreams, Johnny goes out in the cold and snow to look for any type of work he can get. Tragically he falls ill in the process and dies.
Upon his death the family receive such kindness and hear from so many local people how beloved and special Johnny was. Johnny always tried to help people and cheer them up. Francie and Neeley get after school jobs to help out and Katie prepares to bring her third child into the world. Since her father’s death Francie has retreated into herself and hasn’t grieved properly. She blames her mum for her dads’s death and doesn’t think Katie loves her as much as she loves Neeley. This isn’t true of course. And soon Francie will see her mum differently. She will also come to accept that her beloved papa wasn’t this perfect figure she so believed him to be(interestingly something which Neeley had already come to realise while their dad was still alive). At her graduation ceremony, Francie will discover just how much her dad believed in her ability to make her dreams come true and succeed. If you don’t cry at this moment there is something wrong with you.
The film reminds us that yes we have to face reality, but there is nothing wrong with us being imaginative and having dreams and aspirations at the same time. Never let anyone or anything stop you from following your heart. I think the film also serves to remind parents that their situation in life should never stop them from actively encouraging their children to follow the path THEY want to in life. Don’t force your children to take the job or profession that YOU think they should be doing, instead listen to what your child is telling you about the profession they want to go into and support their choice.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a beautiful and heartwarming tale of family, love, hope and overcoming the odds in life.