In turn of the century New York, thirteen year old Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) and her Austrian/Irish-American family struggle against poverty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) is a steadfastly practical woman eager her children, including streetwise young Neely (Ted Donaldson), should work to maintain the household, even as she laments her own increasingly hardening soul. Francie comes alive whenever her papa, Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) comes home. A lovable charmer, his drinking and inability to find steady work keeps the family in poverty, but Johnny has a knack for seeing the good things in life and making people feel better about themselves. Free-spirited Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) is a frequent visitor and sets tongues wagging whenever she lands a new man, much to the annoyance of kid sister Katie. When bright spark Francie displays writing talent, Johnny concocts a little white lie so she can go to a better school. But when the newly-pregnant Katie suggests Johnny make Francie quit school and work for extra money, the family faces its darkest hour.
Written by Betty Smith, the semi-autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn became a national bestseller in 1943, with copies even distributed to servicemen overseas. This superb screen adaptation is no less beloved and marked the debut of master director Elia Kazan, of On the Waterfront (1954) fame. You can see why Smith's story caught on with a wartime audience as it envisions American life as an ongoing struggle to endure and improve, suggesting the Second World War was just the latest chapter in the immigrant experience. In addition to its poetry and humanism, there lingers a nostalgia for the Brooklyn of yesteryear, underlined by Alfred Newman's organ-based score, the sound of the roller rink or fairgrounds on Coney Island.
The sights and sounds conjured by Kazan would have resonated strongly in 1945, by which time the first wave of European immigrants were homogenised and giving way to the black and Hispanic influx set to write the next chapter. True to life but tender hearted, moving but never mawkish, uplifting but unsentimental, the film details child death, back-breaking work, illness, and starvation that arises from poverty but is set amidst a neighbourhood bustling with life, laughter, gossip and incident. At heart it's the duel between pragmatism and aspiration that makes up the American Dream, eloquently surmised by the children's grandmother and symbolically embodied in the Tree of Heaven - commonplace in New York then, but today ironically considered an invasive species - growing outside the Nolan's home. A stand-in for our child heroine Francie.
While Dorothy McGuire was the star-name here and excels as the conflicted Katie, this movie belongs to the boisterous double-act of James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner. Dunn won a best supporting actor Oscar for playing Johnny Nolan, the singing waiter who regales his daughter with tall tales, yet is secretly dying inside, unable to do right by his family. He turns the simple act of playing piano into an emotionally shattering moment. Garner simply delivers one of the greatest child performances of all time, solemn and soulful, gawky yet lit with an inner light as the child who earnestly pledges to know everything in the world by reading her way through the library, A to Z. She too was awarded a special Oscar for most outstanding child performer of 1945. Francie lies at the centre of a series of heart-wrenching episodes: the children's attempt to win a tree for Christmas; her heart-to-heart with Johnny that precipitates a fatal decision; an anguished plea to god; the harrowing birth scene where Francie almost has to deliver her own baby sister; and the posthumous gift left for her on graduation day. Whether viewed as a testament to the enduring human spirit or just a good old Hollywood weepy, this is a wonderful film and highly recommended.