The reveries of a Saturday afternoon in childhood are where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chooses to begin and it proves a fine entry point, giving us an instant feel for the world the Irish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its contours are impoverished, even harsh, but also richly American.
There is a mother (Dorothy McGuire) who is practical and ever-resourceful, scrimping and saving to eke by an existence for her family. She faithfully pays her family’s due to the door-to-door insurance man Mr. Barker, who is always ready to sow some juicy gossip around the community.
It occurs to me that Katie Nolan (McGuire) is a precursor to Irene Dunne’s role in I Remember Mama. But there is also a near-callousness that is lacking in the latter part, which is mostly sunshine. In this regard, it gleams with a certain individual truth. Struggling to make ends meet, Nolan asserts, “My kids are going to be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.” She dishes out tough love and makes difficult decisions in what she deems is their best interest — an extension of her undying love for them.
There’s an extraordinary shot showing bickering wives, stories up in their apartments, with clotheslines strung up every which way and a man trying to fix the source of their problems.
Nearby sits the little girl enthralled with her book and you understand first hand the power of the library. Because with the internet, television, and movies we’ve deluded them but, at a certain time, books were a way of escape, of learning, and open avenues to distant places.
Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) is, without question, the emotional center and if we are to extend the earlier juxtaposition further, she is an analogous version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in I Remember Mama. We view the memories of the past through their impressionable eyes.
She too is captured by her imagination — the rapturous escapes that stories and music can provide a fanciful mind like hers in the station of life she finds herself in. Francie’s deepest wishes are granted when she is able to attend a fine school where her benign teacher gently cultivates her passions.
The advice passed down to her is empowering as Francie is inspired to be a writer. She must write about the things she knows imbuing them with truth, which can then be dressed up with the whims of her imagination.
It’s true Francie maintains an underlying sweetness and innocence even in the midst of heartache. For instance, there is the annual Christmas ritual retrieving discarded trees and boy do the kiddies bring home a whopper. Its presence alone puts some yuletide cheer and the smell of evergreen into their holidays.
It only takes such a minor yet meaningful Christmas scene to humble us in our modern tendencies so that we realize how off-base our modern celebrations are. These folks have nothing and yet to look into their eyes you see such contentment in the singing of a song and quality time spent together.
However, the most debilitating ideology in the film is the concept of neverending cycles — believing the lie that change is impossible and things will never be different. Because already you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see it most obviously in the marriage of Francie’s parents.
Johnny Nolan is an ebullient father bred on dreams and singing. There’s always a song in his heart whether “Swanee River” or “Sweet Molly Malone” and unfortunately, for the sake of his family, a bottle in his hand. His daughter memorializes him aptly, “He had nothing to give but himself but this he gave generously like a king.”
The words stand tall and true. To my mind, I have not seen such a compelling father finger as Johnny Nolan in some time and the reasons are as obvious as his flaws. He’s an alcoholic. He makes promises he can never keep. He’s practically useless when it comes to providing for his family. And yet through all his shortcomings shines a light of generosity and geniality that positively warms the cockles of our heart. We cannot condemn him without loving him just as deeply. There you have the testament of a truly impactful character.
Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) proves another bright spot in the film and her vivacity, much like her brother-in-law’s, injects the film with a buoyancy making us grow fond of them even as their flaws are laid fully bare. Sissy has her own struggles holding onto a marriage with a couple of husbands already coming and going. Her escapades leave her baby sister shaking her head and hoping to shield her kids. And yet even Aunt Sissy has her admirable qualities.
The local police officer Mr. McShane (Lloyd Nolan) walks his beat with a quiet integrity, disregarding any stereotypes of policemen and fashions them into compassionate people the world could probably use more of. Meanwhile, kind old Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) heaps neighborly generosity on the Nolan’s in an effort to help the overextended Mrs. Nolan make ends meet. It’s the benevolent spirits in the film who are quietly memorable.
Too blinded by the resonating sentiments, I failed to see the obvious denouement of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which nevertheless proves deeply satisfying. As its title suggests, out of death and decay can grow new hope. It comes from hardy stock and dutiful cultivation, which all seem integral to the American way of life.
For me, it’s almost unthinkable to think the man who played a small part as Googie in City for Conquest only 5 years letter would alight on a directorial career that shook Hollywood over and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He brought us Brando and Dean, conquered stage and screen and left an indelible mark on film acting forever. Of course, we’re talking about Elia Kazan and here he has his first prominent muse Dorothy McGuire (a founding member of the La Jolla Playhouse) who is often an unsung star fitting as she’s playing an unsung heroine
It seems a fitting entry point into Kazan’s career as it is an immigrant story and he came from such a family. It makes no difference that he wasn’t Irish because we can surmise the essence is much the same. He believes in the American dream no doubt and the love and integrity that can see people through the turbulence of life.
However, perhaps the most striking acknowledgment has to do with the fact this story does not thrive on intensity — one might see that as being a marker of Kazan’s most noted works — it’s tenderness mostly. But then if you stop a moment and think of Brando slipping on the glove belonging to Evie (Eva Marie Saint) or James Dean crying to his father (Raymond Massey), you realize he never lost those sentiments. What made his films was the real emotions that reach out to us. He never allowed for those sensations to waver. There you have an integral element of his success.