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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) 
Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dodd, Joan Blondell

I read Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" three summers ago, and ever since, it has been one of my favorites. I had been wanting to see the movie, but it was unavailable on Netflix until recently. For those of you not familiar with it, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl living in Williamsburg near the turn of the century. Her coming of age is riddled with less than easy circumstances which force her to grow up fast. Her father, Johnny, is a luckless but lovable singing waiter with a weakness for alcohol whom she hero worships. Her mother, Katie, is hardworking and practical, hardened by her determination to create a better future for her own kids. Katie's sister, Sissy, is a wonderful, warm woman and a lovely aunt to Francie and her brother but is branded by a liberated sexual attitude and a carelessness that are the reasons for the multiple marriages she's got under her belt. These adults in her life, her struggles, and her own idealism sparked by a love of literature shape Francie as she transforms from a little girl to a young woman.

Despite the fact that Elia Kazan directed this, I found this film to be more corny than gritty. And to me, that was the real failure of the film. A kind of tenacity exists in the book that is not as prevalent in the movie, and when it does come across, it is very heavy handed. Granted, because it was the 1940s and the Hays Code was in effect, there were more gruesome aspects crucial to the original story that couldn't have been portrayed in this. For example, Sissy's story of marriages and miscarriages, touched on but not fully developed in the film, was, to me, one of the most heartbreaking parts in the book. Also, a horrific incident where a pervert molests Francie - her father lovingly tries to preserve her innocence to the best of his ability afterwards, a gesture that greatly demonstrated their strong bond. Of course, like I said, seeing that it was the 40s, it was not a viable possibility that Kazan could have addressed the latter, but the former could have, in my opinion, been further expanded upon.

Peggy Ann Garner won a Juvenile Oscar for her portrayal of the main character, Francie. The problem with child actors is that they usually fall into over exaggerated mannerisms - and I don't blame them for it, because after all, they are kids, and I rather fault the directors who encourage this acting as a means of buying the hearts of viewers. I didn't find Garner to be an exception above that typical standard. Francie's childhood has its good moments, but many times it was cruel and this lent her sensitivity and a maturity beyond her years, which is absent in Garner's performance. However, Garner effectively captures her idealism.

Dorothy McGuire can be very enjoyable in the right thing - for example, she is wonderful in Friendly Persuasion and she is even good in the light romantic role given to her in A Summer Place. She is fair as Katie; what I liked least was her tendency to be over theatrical, which I'm sure stems back to Kazan, and this hurt her chances at conveying the quiet resilience of the character so palpable in the book. But she is also successfully stoic and strong at other moments. James Dunn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as ne'er do well Johnny. His is one of the stronger performances in the film, though physically, he is never what I pictured Johnny to be: in the book he is young and handsome but Dunn seems tired, old, wrinkled next to twenty-seven year old Dorothy McGuire. Then there is Joan Blondell as Sissy. As I mentioned above, Sissy was one of my favorite things about the book and while I hail Blondell as the iconic gum snapping blonde dame of the thirties, I kind of wish she hadn't been cast in the role. Her performance is one dimensional, displaying Sissy's fun loving side but void of any of the sadness that is so touching in the book. However, in her defense, Blondell definitely suffers from the stagnant development of her character, and she might have been able to preform better had Sissy's character been better served by the script. Lastly, Lloyd Nolan in a smaller role as Officer McShane, the kind police officer who befriends the Nolan family. He was good and I really have no complaints.

Ultimately, the problem with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that it takes a plucky story of a girl's maturing into adulthood and forces it to become sentimental and schmaltzy. In doing so, it makes characters that in the book are so beautifully complicated seem flat and stereotypical. Really, this film can't do justice to the book - so if you haven't read that yet, my advice to you is skip the movie and read that instead.

(P.S. It's been nearly two years since I'd done a movie review on here! Here's to getting back into it.)


Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

First, welcome back.

I must be sentimental, because this movie makes me cry every time I see it. I have to say that most actors of the period revered Jimmy Dunn's performance in this. Robert Mitchum, who was nominated with him, said he actually voted for Dunn. And, unlike you, I think Joan Blondell made a great Aunt Sissy.

Rianna said...

Thanks, it's good to be back! I thought that James Dunn's performance was good, even if I didn't he was physically well suited to play Johnny. Sissy was my favorite character in the book. Joan Blondell is enjoyable but I think an actress with more range would've been able to give the character its necessary depth. But, like I also said, the script didn't serve her particularly well in my opinion.

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