'A Tree Grows In Brooklyn' was an auspicious debut for Elia Kazan who later went on to make 'On the Waterfront' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. This 1945 adaptation of the book of the same name by Betty Smith, centres round a bright young girl called Francie Nolan, growing up in 1900s New York. Like the eponymous tree at the back of their house, uncared for and forgotten, yet pushing it's way through cement, she and her poverty stricken family battle to survive.
Okay, it sounds a bit po-faced and full of angst but it's not, it's a warm hearted coming of age film with a stunning (and Oscar winning) performance by the lead actress Peggy Lee Garner. I don't often get impressed by child actors to be honest. Their performances are often bad - either wooden and stiff, or cringingly hammy in a spoilt brat Sylvia Young drama school kind of way. Problem is, you can't really complain because, well, they're kids... what kind of monster are you? How dare you put them down! Do you knock over people with crutches that get in your way as well? That's the reaction you get. Bah, humbug! Well, I reckon it takes a very talented director and an unusually gifted kid to get an exceptional performance and Elia Kazan certainly guides the children in this film with panache. Like I say young Miss Garner is fantastic in this movie, whether haughty and mischievous, or distraught with grief, her performance is always convincing, both entertaining and real. Totally sincere. Sadly this seems to be the highlight of her career as the big roles never came her way when she grew up. How sad. She was a magnetic talent. Anyway, the film opens with bustling street scenes of early Brooklyn and we are instantly drawn into her world as she and her younger brother, Neeley, haggle with a scrap merchant. She then darts along to the library where we find out she is reading her way through every book from A to Z, because she wants to "know everything in the world". Ambitious kid! The first half hour introduces the people in her life. We meet her father, Johnny Nolan, a singing waiter dreaming of Broadway, who is an alcoholic and often unemployed. Francie has a happy relationship with her wistful father, as splendidly played by James Dunn who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role. Johnny dotes on her and encourages her to rise above her tenement existence. She in turn sees in him special qualities that her family don't; they just take him for granted as a happy go lucky wastrel. Then there's her pragmatic mother Katie, with whom Francie's relationship is more strained. Dorothy McGuire's performance as the repressed mother is also a fine piece of acting, as she is a far less sympathetic character but still made likeable. Other characters include Officer McShane, a shy local policeman, and Francie's auntie, Sissy, a gregarious "bad" girl, dating inappropriate men and often the centre of tenement gossip, as spread by the local insurance collector as he makes his rounds. A thriving, though poor Irish-American community is thus portrayed, with pubs, shops, markets and schools all woven into the story. Though the film was shot on the backlot of 20th Century Fox studios it all looks very authentic.
Two things struck me about watching something made so long ago. One was how the visuals do not look that dated, the angles, editing and camera moves are the same as you would expect from something made twenty or thirty years later. There are plenty of dolly shots and there's a nice crane shot of a workman on a pole that a modern film would be proud of. Another is the way a lot of the characters talk - in a fast, affected Cagney-esque manner that seems so peculiar now. You don't know whether they really spoke like that in working class New York, or if it's an invention of the movies (before everyone started talking like the Sopranos!) Who knows, but it's fun to listen to nonetheless. On the downside, with a running time of 125 minutes there was bound to be a few dull scenes where nothing much happened and some could have been left out. Also, the portrait of Brooklyn seems to be a bit idealised as there seems to be no mention of crime despite the poverty. But that's it really, it's a class act, a snapshot of a bygone era with scenes that will linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
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