"if one claims A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN is Kazan’s best work, most likely, it is not an overstatement."
Elia Kazan’s reverberating if under-celebrated debut feature, adapted from Betty Smith’s 1943 eponymous novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN takes a closer look on a second generationIrish-American family in the year of 1912, dwelling in their cramped tenement apartment in Brooklyn, struggling with immiseration and bereavement.
If the synopsis sounds depressing, conversely, the film is nothing if not life-affirming, Kazan attests to be a top-drawer storyteller with his unobtrusive camerawork, snaking dexterously within a two-by-four space,the narrative is unfolded from the POV of Francie (Garner), a sensitive, studious and impressionable 13-year-old girl, who develops a quasi-Electra complex towards her buoyant father Johnny Nolan (Dunn), at the expense of a small chasm between her and the more matter-of-fact, diligent housewife mother Katie (McGuire). The Nolans is a happy family, Francie also has a younger brother Neeley (Donaldson), except for their hand-to-mouth existence, because Johnny is anything but an adequate breadwinner, his forte is to bring contagious elation to those around him, with his chirpy singing and devil-may-care spirit, a pipe dreamer afflicted by intemperance, he is more contented in dreaming up what he will do when his ship comes in, than actually actuating it, alas, Johnny's American dream never actualizes, but this doesn’t make him a lesser human being, on the contrary, he is a generous giver, lading out merriment whenever, wherever, spontaneously, only the sad truth is that he is not up to raise a big family, which flags up why contraception is more an imperative than an immoral contraption for humans. James Dunn wins an Oscar (beggar belief this is the film’s sole Oscar nomination!) for his brimful, simpatico earnestness beautifully corroded by a telling patina of pathos.
Katie, on the other hand, is the hinge of the household, husbanding every cent (but regularly ponies up their weekly premium nonetheless), and her disenchantment of a rosier future starts to gnaw at her when it clocks to her that it might never occur, yet, it is the thought that she loves Johnny for who he is, conciliates her and puts her on her mettle, in the end of the day, it is the bonhomie the family basks in really matters, Dorothy McGuire wholeheartedly avails herself of Katie’s plain demeanor and modest rig, and pours out her ambivalent emotion with unrivaled assurance and veracity, the final reconciliation between her and Francie strikes such a profound chord that it is an oceanic remiss her low-key brilliance is stiffed by the Academy here, among many an awards-worthy achievement of this refined gem.
Serendipitously, child actressPeggy Ann Garner is conferred with a special Oscar for her central performance, in fact, the whole movie is her Bildungsroman and Garner makes good in both those emotion-charging demands and those plumbing into Francie’s more infantile dispositions, as in completing for parental attention from Neeley,Ted Donaldson also shines with a naturally cavalier mien that largely countervails Garner's more precocious headspace. Last but not the least is aunt Sissy, Katie’s elder sister, played by Joan Blondell with snazzy verve and pizzazz, thrice married and naming all her hubbies Bill, she is by any rate, a different kettle of fish from Katie, yet the exemplar of a kid’s favorite aunt, a happy-go-lucky counterpart of Johnny, but free of livelihood worries, a bonus to be a woman of its time, isn't it?
A humane, unassuming drama inculcating precious wisdom of growing up, of calibrating one’s life aspect and of finding hope and sunshine in one’s darkest moments, if one claims A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN is Kazan’s best work, most likely, it is not an overstatement.
referential entries: Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954, 8.1/10), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951, 9.0/10), GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947, 7.8/10).