In Brooklyn circa 1900, the Nolans manage to enjoy life on pennies despite great poverty and Papa's alcoholism. We come to know these people well through big and little troubles: Aunt Sissy's scandalous succession of "husbands"; the removal of the one tree visible from their tenement; and young Francie's desire to transfer to a better school...if irresponsible Papa can get his act together.Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
In the June 1945 issue of Screenland Magazine costume designer Bonnie Cashin, in her column "Notes from a Designer's Diary" comments "If the average American girl could be the heroine of her own life story, and dress accordingly! This thought struck me more forcibly than it ever had before while I was fitting Dorothy McGuire for the part of Katie in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Most of the girls want to look a little glamorous on screen (and off) whether the story calls for rags or riches. Not Dorothy. A stickler for characterization, she stood for hours in her old rags and ravels, suggesting a patch here, a droop there, deliberately deglamorizing herself in order to make sure that not a single bright thread should give the lie to Katie's threadbare life. Dorothy was playing a heroine of poverty and she dressed accordingly. So should we all, in the parts we play, in make believe, or in life. Joan Blondell didn't complain, either, when as Aunt Sissy, she had to wear the sort of ugly-period-of-1914 clothes, the high-topped shoes, the blousy blouses, the too-tight corset. "Oh, Bonnie," little Peggy Ann Garner said to me when we were making Francie's clothes, "oh, Bonnie, every picture they put me in I have to wear poor girls' clothes. Can't I have one good dress?" So we gave her the white graduation dress and the red roses and Peggy Ann accepted poverty and trouped through the picture, patiently ironing her one faded cotton (and she did iron it) and well content. See more »
When the girl is ironing, she never gets a hot iron off the stove; back then, said irons had to be heated from some heat source, usually the stove top. One was used while another was being heated, and then the person would switch when the one ironing got too cool to press the wrinkles out. See more »
Films about the post Civil War, pre World War I years in urban America usually are nicely entertaining with a warm nostalgic glow about them, liberally sprinkled with the music of the time. One of the biggest marketeers of that kind of film was 20th Century Fox.
So it's a bit of a surprise that Fox would market a film like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The nostalgia is there, but there's a large slice of reality in this film about life growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn pre World War I. Maybe because a new director, named Elia Kazan who would make his mark directing dramas of social significance was in charge here.
It was his feature film debut as a director, so Darryl Zanuck didn't give Kazan a name cast to work with. Some were up and coming, some were coming back, and some were fading out. Yet the mix was great, not a bad note in the cast.
I also have to say that I liked Kazan's use of the hurdy-gurdy as background music. Rings on Her Fingers and Ciri-biri-bin were never played better.
This was Dorothy McGuire's third feature film and the role of Katie Nolan was hardly a glamorous one. But she's perfect as the mother who keeps her family together, but loses and regains some humanity in the process. She was an underrated actress in her time, always gave great performances and was never fodder for the scandal sheets.
Joan Blondell and James Dunn were respectively cast as McGuire's sister and husband. Blondell, who had sparkled in Warner Brothers musical films and films of social significance was a perfect fit for Aunt Cissy. With this role she transitioned nicely into character roles and never lacked for work.
The career of James Dunn is a puzzle. He was an ex-vaudevillian of good talent who had slipped into B Films by the time A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was made. He won a richly deserved Oscar as Johnny Nolan, singing waiter and would be star. Maybe his dreams outraced his talent, but Nolan had every reason to dream. What's not remembered is that folks who would have been Dunn's contemporaries like Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante started out that way. He was a man with the talent, but you need the breaks as well.
Dunn's scenes and relationship with daughter Peggy Ann Garner pivot the film. His character of Johnny Nolan is not unlike Gaylord Ravenal in Showboat if he had stayed around until his daughter was beginning adolescence. That Oscar should have revived Dunn's career, but didn't. He had very much the alcohol problem that his character in the film had. Ironically he's remembered today for supporting Shirley Temple in three of her films in the thirties than this Oscar winning, best supporting actor performance. But maybe those films were good training for this role. Neither Dunn nor Garner upstage the other.
The best acted scene in the film is when McGuire goes into labor and Garner is the only one around. Back in those days before medical insurance, people had their babies at home and infants died, due to lack of good post-natal care. In fact prior to this scene, Joan Blondell cashes in an insurance policy so she can splurge on the cost of a hospital because previous infants of her's had died.
Garner is a bright girl and her father encouraged her to dream big as he did. She was daddy's little girl and her relationship with mom was not all it should have been. As mom goes into labor and they wait for Blondell to arrive, they start confessing to each other. Garner realizes the sacrifices mom has made and McGuire realizes how much she's stifled her daughter's dreams. It's a wonderfully played scene and you're made of stone if it doesn't affect you.
Rounding out the cast is Lloyd Nolan as the neighborhood beat cop, James Gleason as a tavern owner and Ted Donaldson as Garner's younger brother. I should also mention that Peggy Ann Garner got an honorary Oscar as most promising juvenile performer of 1945. She had a decent career, but nothing ever as good as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.
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