A Tree Grows in Brookyln (1945): The Precursor to I Remember Mama

ATreeGrowsInBrooklyn1945Poster.jpgThe 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.

4/5 Stars

The Clock (1945)

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May 25th, 1945. That’s when The Clock was originally released. To save you doing all the mental calculations V-E Day was on Tuesday, May 8th and the folks at home were ready for the war to be over. So in such an environment, this is hardly a war film and it can’t even claim to be a post-war picture like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It’s floating in limbo.

This is the story of a fresh-faced soldier boy in the big city (Robert Walker) constantly craning his neck in awe of skyscrapers and cowering a little bit under the weight of them all. As such he’s constantly being bumped into, like a tourist perpetually lost. From such a moment springs an almost unforgivable meet-cute we can spy from a mile away. She trips over him and loses a heel.

But our stars are winsome and their persons genuine in nature in the days when that was unequivocally so. Corporal Joe Allen (Walker) proves to be to New York City what Mr. Smith was to Washington D.C. He even rides the very same sightseeing bus. He’s also a bit of an idealistic builder not unlike George Bailey.

The soldier and the gal he asks to follow a piece, end up taking a Central Park stroll together followed by a tour of the local art museum, taking a load off, butt up against an Egyptian sphinx. There’s something inherently refreshing about its meandering wanderings through New York City. It gives this illusion of circumstance where there is no clear-cut agenda. In a moment of decision, he goes pell-mell chasing after her bus because he knows something special is onboard and he sets up a date just like that.

Vincente Minnelli is looking out for his heroine as Judy Garland was his own new romantic interest but his camera setups also reflect a stewardship over the contents of the film with his usual array of fluid shots. Far from just taking care of Garland you always get a sense Minnelli is watching out for all his actors with his camera often walking alongside them. She proves to be a fine performer sans singing and although long remembered for Strangers on a Train (1951) and his tumultuous personal life, Robert Walker undoubtedly exudes a naive candor of his own.

It’s always striking how Hollywood was able to cast a certain vision of the every day while reality was oftentimes so different. One aspect of that was the wartime shortages which made shooting on location highly impractical so everything from train stations to exteriors were created on the MGM lot to closely mirror their real-life counterparts and it, for the most part, takes very well. We feel like we are traveling through the big city with a soldier and a gal. At any rate, the city crowds feel realistically suffocating.

But beyond the simple (or not so simple) realm of sound stages and set design it also extends to the actors themselves. Robert Walker who played opposite his wife in the epic home front drama Since You Went Away (1944), had a horrid time getting through the picture as their marriage was on the rocks.

By the time he got to The Clock he had been overtaken by alcohol addiction and Jennifer Jones was all but on the way to marrying executive David O. Selznick. Judy Garland on her part, that shining beacon of traditional Americana was struggling with an addiction of her own and after some creative differences with Fred Zinnemann, she had her soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli brought on to revitalize the production.

In these ways, it becomes obvious how there’s almost a conflicting double life going on in front of and behind the camera and yet there’s no doubting that this picture is brimming with sincerity whether partially made up or perfectly simulated. It still works.

You can undoubtedly see the same fascination with the very conversations and interactions that make up a relationship in everyday environments. The walking and talking we do when we share time together. The silly things we get caught up on or pop into our heads on a whim. And yes, there is a bit of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in Minnelli’s picture for those who wish to draw the parallels but the beauty of it is The Clock is obviously not trying to be anything else. It takes simple joy in its story and the characters it holds in its stead.

It’s a film that dares have a scene where our two leads sit in a park, silent for a solitary moment as they listen to the street noise emanating from the city center and breaking into their tranquility. Take another extended sequence where the two lovebirds catch a ride on a midnight milk wagon driven by that perennial favorite James Gleason.

He’s the local milkman waiting impatiently for his request on the late night radio station and intent on some company along the route. But a flat tire puts him out of commission only to bring about another inspired piece of casting. Keenan Wynn as a drunk appears for mere minutes and earns high billing in the picture. It’s worth it. When our stars are allowed to sink into the periphery, the accents of the real world come into focus.

It’s equally true that those are the exact moments where you see the extent of another person’s character. Because it’s not simply the two of you but you get the opportunity to see them in a context with other people and that’s often very telling about who they are. Depending on the perceptions it can make you fall even more in love with someone and seeing as these two individuals help their new friend with his milk run, you can just imagine what it does for their relationship.

As for James Gleason and Lucille Gleason, they make the quintessential cute old couple and that’s because they truly are spinning their wisdom and bickering like only the most steadfast wedded folks do. The last leg of the film is when it goes for drama turning into a literal race against the clock bookended by one of the most distinct courthouse weddings ever captured. But even this picture doesn’t end there. Further still, it sinks back into this odd shadowland between the drama and the happy ending.

We could venture a guess it settles in on a realistic denouement where life isn’t always as we would like it but we can still love people deeply and do not regret the decisions we have made. As we walk off into the crowd with Judy Garland there is little to no regret only a faint hope for a future and assurance in the institution of marriage as something worth pursuing.

They are traditional values and yet somehow, in this context, there’s something comforting about them. Minnelli has spun his magic on us even as the cinematic in its so-called reality slowly drifts away from the Hollywood marital standards of its stars. It’s both an idealized vision and a genuine one.

4/5 Stars

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Montgomery. He just doesn’t have a charisma or a delivery that I much care for so as far as carrying a whole picture I’m not quite sold.

Still, with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, it all seems to work and it’s funny and clever in ways that would cause Hollywood to strive for storytelling that looked to think outside the box. Of course, the irony is, a new box gets created for people to work inside — a new style or sub-genre — but there’s little question that Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels very much the first of its kind. If not, I stand corrected.

It’s a story effortlessly built around quirky inventiveness. There are fantasy elements here that feel very much akin to the likes of Stairway to Heaven (1946), Random Harvest (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (both films from 1943 and 78).

Heaven is depicted as a kind of celestial processing center where human beings are plucked away from their life on earth to begin a new afterlife. Through intervention, by angelic beings, lovers can all but forget one another only to have some deja vu feeling that they’ve been together before.

And further still, the ideas of the heavenly and angels entering into everyday life soon became a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood much in part to this picture. Without it, there’s a possibility that classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the Bishop’s Wife (1947) would not have been conceived in their most remembered forms. After all, what would those films be without Clarence or Dudley? Or what would this one be without Mr. Jordan for that matter?

Elaine May must have thought the story was ripe for more exploration too when she penned Heaven Can Wait which expanded a great many of these ideas only in a different context.

Unequivocably this rendition proves to be far from a one trick pony, taking a main conceit that admittedly seems absurd at first — even gimmicky — and turning it into a fantastical comedy with continual possibilities.

Imagine just for one moment that a feisty boxer, Joe Pendelton (Montgomery), preparing for his next big bout flies to the site of the fight only to have his plane malfunction en route. He looks like a goner but he’s pulled from the aircraft too soon by 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). In fact, it’s 50 years too early, his date with the afterlife is not until 1991 (In case you were wondering, Montgomery actually passed away in 1981). Being the bullish personality that he is, Joe’s not going to sit by when he had such a good thing going on earth.

The genial Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) grants his wish and inserts Joe back into life but they must find him a new body — you see his previous one has already been cremated which makes for added complications.

We plot his journey between two distinct individuals and their bodies and aside from the opening plane crash, a few puffs of smoke, and a few parlor tricks, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on any amount of special effects. For all intent and purposes, things are normal as they’ve always been. It’s just the parameters that have changed. Namely the fact that Joe can see Mr. Jordan and no one else can. First, he’s Bruce Farnsworth formerly a crooked magnate who was murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover.

Boy, are they surprised when he turns up again. Mr. Jordan and the audience see Montgomery but the others see and hear the man that they think they’ve done away with. Still, coaxed by Mr. Jordan, Joe or Farnsworth, turns this man’s life around, taking ownership of his past indiscretions and helping the father of a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) who was accused of fraud.

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Meanwhile, Joe, err, Farnsworth still has his sights on his previous shot at the boxing ring. It all comes off rather odd to those who used to know his alter ego but he calls up his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) and he’s finally able to convince him of his true identity due to his beloved saxophone always in tow.

Finally, it looks like he’s on the road that he wants but alas complications ensue. He finds himself falling for Ms. Logan and circumstances are such that he must find another body. He settles on a straight-arrow named Murdoch and subsequently gives the fighter a second chance in the ring while hiring on Max to be his coach so he can still actualize his dreams.

Mr. Jordan leaves Joe in this moment, seeing he has a version of the life he always wanted and the celestial being conveniently removes all of Joe’s memories of a previous life. Of being a man named Joe Pendleton. It makes for some goofy comedy with Corkle and supplies one budding meet-cute with Ms. Logan.

While the theology is probably sketchy at best, it’s a good-natured, comic interpretation of the afterlife that serves the world of the film well. The only thing in question is the ethical nature of angels removing human memories but surely Claude Rains knows what he is doing.

James Gleason is an absolute riot as the one human privy to the whole gag only to look like a complete nutcase when questioned by anyone else who is “normal.” He easily puts you in stitches and Edward Everett Horton has his flustered indignance down pat. He made a career out of it after all.

4/5 Stars