February 11, 2014

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Grade: 96/100

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn

What it's about. Betty Smith's novel, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," is considered a classic today, but it was just two years old in 1945, when the present film was made. It marks the directing debut of Elia Kazan, a second generation Greek-American who would later enjoy tremendous critical success with two Marlon Brando films, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in a tenement district circa 1910. A family of four struggles to get by. They consist of gregarious but alcoholic singing waiter Johnny (James Dunn), his beautiful, hard-working, and respectable but humorless janitor wife Katie (Dorothy McGuire), and their two pre-teenaged children, sensitive bookworm and dreamer Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and her stereotypically normal younger brother Neeley (Ted Donaldson).

Supporting characters include Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell), Katie's brassy sister, her latest husband Steve (John Alexander), local beat cop McShane (Lloyd Nolan), who takes an interest in comely Katie, Johnny's kindly bartender James Gleason, and Katie's elderly mother (Ferike Boros), who dispenses hoary wisdom to all who will listen.

Tragedies involving the ill-fated Johnny are designed to draw tears from even the most hardened viewers. You have been warned. This film makes Terms of Endearment seem like The Muppet Movie.

How others will see it. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a moderate commercial success. Wikipedia lists it as the #13 film of 1945 in terms of U.S. box office. In a year with competition from the likes of The Lost Weekend and Mildred Pierce, the film nonetheless won two acting Oscars. Dunn won Best Supporting Actor and Garner picked up the infrequently awarded juvenile Oscar. The screenplay was also nominated.

Today at imdb.com, the user vote total is 4500, respectable for a mono black and white family drama. The user ratings average 8.2 but there a sizable generation gap and a modest gender gap. Men under 30 grade it a fairly high 7.6, while women over 45 award it a whopping 9.0 out of 10.

Given the film's obvious high quality, the question becomes, why do so many young men grade the film 7 or lower. Inevitably, some viewers familiar with the novel lament its condensation from a 16-hour read into a two-hour film. A larger number may simply seek entertainment, which they won't find here.

How I felt about it. Having seen the film several times, I can say that it is not quite perfect. The actors playing the parents are mismatched in age, with Dunn fifteen years older than McGuire. Garner's character is perhaps too precious, and for an alcoholic, Johnny is hardly ever drunk and never seen drinking. McShane's speech to win his place in Katie's family is so eloquent that it could only be provided by a first-rate screenwriter.

On the other hand, it was a big moment in McShane's life, Johnny likely reserved his drinking to Gleason's bar, Garner is not the first soft-spoken bookworm, and the charm associated with Johnny's character might have ensnared a younger woman. In any event, it is difficult to envision other actors in their respective roles, one reason why I will likely never watch the 1974 Cliff Robertson television adaptation of this film.