Thursday, February 5, 2009
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), though it starts with the strains of early 1900s hurdy-gurdy music and ends with a young brother and sister looking back on their childhood, is almost startlingly free of nostalgia.
Continuing with our look at two poetic but very different films that were made on the heels of each other, “Brooklyn” takes a more somber view, is more intimate where “My Darling Clementine” (post here) is painted with broader strokes. One is an innocent look at a rough place. One is a tough look at a rough place, though the eyes of innocents.
This is not a “how it was in the good old days” movie. This is an honest, unsentimental dramatization of a poverty-stricken family that ennobles this struggling family even while exposing it. This film is being shown on TCM this coming Sunday, so today seemed like a good opportunity to discuss it. If you’ve not seen it, here’s your chance.
The novel by Betty Smith, rich with memorable minor characters and anecdotal history of Francie Nolan’s world, is not replicated detail for detail in this film. It can’t be; there’s too much of it, and the book covers too much time. Elia Kazan, in his directorial debut, does a magnificent job lifting only bits of the book, and using the imagery of film like mortar between the bricks of Betty Smith’s story.
However, Mr. Kazan, in his autobiography “A Life” (Knopf, NY, 1988) expresses dissatisfaction with the film, complaining that it was not realistic enough. He remarks: “It was just another movie…it was mushy. I did think Peggy was fine and Jimmy the real thing and Lloyd Nolan marvelous and Dorothy McGuire valiant, but the whole thing was poverty all cleaned up (emphasis his).”
I can’t explain his disdain for his brilliantly and sensitively directed film, nor can I understand it. The realism that became the trend in films in the next decade and which remains today might have shown us an uglier film, but it would not have shown the Nolan family any more pitiful, their world any more harsh than what was achieved so beautifully in this film. Perhaps it is the film’s incongruous beauty which Kazan disparages decades later, the way an accomplished writer might look ruefully back on a high school essay as too immature and innocent.
Francie reads aloud an essay she wrote about her alcoholic father, and in her innocence, giving him the nobility of a king, and it nearly tears our hearts out.
James Dunn deservedly won a Best Supporting Academy Award for his role as Johnny Nolan, a singing waiter who destroys himself with alcohol. He is unable to support his family, but his dreamer’s passion for life makes him beloved among his neighbors and especially his adoring daughter, Francie. He fills her head with stories and songs, and promises he cannot keep.
Francie is played by Peggy Ann Garner, probably the best child actress of the day, with her expressive face, a natural delivery, and a seeming mature understanding that belies her woeful innocence. Her brother Neeley is played by Ted Donaldson, who is also natural and at times, genuinely funny in his role. My only criticism of him is that he looks too healthy and well fed. The Nolan children, according to the book, were starving a good part of the time. In the scene where Dunn brings home, in the wee hours of the morning, leftovers from a wedding for which he was hired as a waiter, the children rise from bed and dig in. The movie turns this into an impromptu party for the family. The books makes it appear more desperate, perhaps not unlike dogs eating out of the garbage.
Their mother is played by Dorothy McGuire in one of the most challenging roles of her career. The complex Katie Nolan, a woman beaten down by life and her husband’s alcoholism is the spine of her family if not always its heart. There is a keen precision to her performance, an intelligent use of individual moments to pinpoint who Katie is and what she is feeling. We learn Katie is multi-faceted, that her mind is always working, conniving to survive, calculating, and constantly evaluating herself, mostly to her own dissatisfaction.
The wonderful Joan Blondell plays her sister, the loving, effusive, devil-may-care Sissy with warmth and earthy charm. She is all heart and no prudence. James Gleason has a brief role as the awkward and apologetic bartender friend of Johnny’s. Lloyd Nolan, whose depth and strength as an actor is probably not as lauded as it should be, plays the cop on the beat who lives his lonely life on the fringes of the Nolan family, a stranger on the outside looking in, until at last he gratefully becomes part of it.
Despite the memorable character actors and a surprisingly huge cast of extras playing the neighbors in the claustrophobic alleys of this depressed Brooklyn neighborhood before World War I, the main story is the triangle between Katie and Johnny Nolan, and their daughter Francie.
Their struggle, separately and together, is one not just of survival, but of their chosen methods of survival, how their methods clash, and how they are, ultimately, inter-dependent on one another. Dignity is the theme. Balance is the goal.
Dorothy McGuire survives by taking control. For her, control is her peculiar comfort. She cannot depend on her husband to provide, so she works as a charwoman for their tenement building, and saves pennies in a tin can nailed to the closet floor. Every penny plunked into the can gives her a sense of preservation, of satisfaction, a few seconds of a sense of freedom.
James Dunn survives by escaping their poverty in pipedreams, and sentimental ballads, and looking for luck in all the wrong places. And copious amounts of alcohol to wash it down.
Peggy Ann Garner is the linchpin between them. She is closer to her fanciful father, whom she prefers. He is more fun, more gentle, and more understanding. Papa tells her to dream. Mama tells her to stop dreaming. Papa tells a dying child in the building that her expensive new dress makes her look beautiful. Mama says her parents are foolish to spend money on clothing that will last longer than the child, that they will suffer the ignominy of burying her in a potter’s field because they throw their money away on trifles.
Young Miss Garner is awash in a sea of pre-adolescent emotions, desires and terrors, thrives on the stability her mother represents, but needs her father’s buoyant hopefulness. It is Papa who comforts her that the scraggly favorite tree outside their window that is cut down will grow again, because it is tough. The tree becomes the metaphor for Francie. She is tough, as tough as the tree, as tough as her mother, but it will take a lot to make her discover this.
Dignity is as important to poverty stricken people as money is. McGuire hands precious dimes and nickels over to the insurance man to ensure that she, her husband, and her children will have a proper burial. She admonishes her sister for her carefree attitude to her multiple romantic relationships, because she will shame the family. McGuire is obsessed with avoiding shame as much as avoiding the wolf at the door. Garner unwittingly has inherited this trait, proudly showing her handful of pennies to a suspicious floorwalker at a 5 & 10 cent store, proving that she has a right to be there because she is a customer.
They are so proud, mother and children that they express concern only in their eyes when the visiting insurance man pours too much of their precious condensed milk in his coffee. McGuire stiffens when she sees him explore with the toe of his shoe a tear in their torn carpet. We see a room without curtains, a Christmas tree with paper ornaments that was salvaged from being literally thrown away, rough dirty bricks framing Francie’s sensitive face during her fire escape library book reading, the peeling paint on a metal bed frame. These speak eloquence.
The use of rain and snow in the movie to evoke atmosphere reminds me a lot of director Frank Capra. It has an emotional quality.
One of the strengths in the film is the long scenes, with not a lot of cutting between shots. Many scenes have the feel of a play. The scene when Francie ministers to her mother in labor shows us the child-woman Garner playing with equal strength to McGuire. This is not a scene between a veteran actress lending benign support showcasing a kiddie cutie pie, as in so many other films with children. They are equal scene partners, fellow actresses in an intimate world of their own, masterfully surfing each other’s waves. In this scene, they create tsunamis. And they hardly move.
Katie and Johnny Nolan love each other, but lament over each other’s faults, and brood over their own. McGuire will not let her children call Dunn drunk, telling them instead to refer to him as “sick.” But she tells Dunn bluntly that she cannot depend on him. She complains to her sister that she wishes she did not love Dunn so much, confesses how much she bitterly regrets the course her life has taken. But when Mr. Dunn tips his rakish derby to every neighbor and makes courtly bows to every old maid in the hall, McGuire follows him with her eyes, marveling over the magic he spreads.
She is anxious over criticisms by her mother and her sister that she has grown hard and heartless over the years in her struggle to survive. McGuire is hurt, and even frightened at becoming a harsh embodiment of the harsh life she has known.
(This reminds me a bit of Alexandra’s mournful defense at being called hard by her resentful and weaker brothers in Willa Cather’s novel, “O Pioneers.” She counters, “I never meant to be hard. Conditions were hard. Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn't choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take even a vine and cut it back again and again, it grows hard, like a tree.")
Still, it is her protectiveness for her children as much as her bitterness over her husband’s failures that makes her exclaim, “My kids is gonna be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.”
They read a chapter from the Bible and from Shakespeare every night, and when her son balks, she insists that education will help them get a good job. Her immigrant mother exhorts them to continue reading, but not just for the opportunities that education will give them, but reminds McGuire sternly it is for “the thing inside of us. You don’t think well about this.” She remonstrates her daughter for being so neglectful of feeding the soul, and McGuire shoots the humbled glance of a chastised daughter, then drops her eyes back to her darning. McGuire is always scrubbing, cooking or occupied in some manner with her hands as she speaks. She rarely has a line where she is not doing something.
A pivotal scene, and one of the film’s best, is when Dunn returns home to find his family has moved upstairs to a smaller, cheaper apartment. The little dying girl has passed away, and when he wistfully offers the comment that at least the little girl had a pretty dress, McGuire rebuffs him with the disdainful criticism of the girl’s pauper’s grave as a trade for the dress.
There is a piano in their new apartment, left by the tenant (played by Adeline DeWalt Reynolds, discussed in this past blog post ) who could not afford to have it moved. Dunn sits down and plays and sings the old Scots love song “Annie Laurie”, trance-like, almost as a kind of funeral dirge for the neighbor girl. McGuire watches, charmed, and her expression softens. When she attempts to compliment him, he angrily ignores her and plays on, singing another chorus with heartfelt belligerence. Rebuffed by his unspoken criticism of her as she was by her mother’s remonstrance for her lack of soulfulness, McGuire resentfully seeks comfort in the tin can coin bank, which she hammers into the floor of their new apartment. She pounds over his song with a stroke of independence and bitterness.
In such a manner, the movie is lyrical, and perhaps this is what discomforts director Mr. Kazan, in his complaint that the film was not realistic enough. But there is sometimes a poetic aspect to even our most wretched experiences, probably having to do with those gossamer qualities we call being human. It does not mean there is an absence of realism. It means only that there is more to reality than cold hard facts.
Francie’s new teacher, played by Ruth Nelson, provides her with the key to balancing her father’s lovely pipedreams with her mother’s somber practicality, and that is to turn her fanciful exaggerations, or sometimes outright lies, into stories. She has a gift for writing, and in this way Francie will be able to express herself, take purposeful flight to her imagination, and possibly earn a living, too.
“Pipedreamers can be very lovable people, but they don’t help anyone, not even themselves,” the teacher tells her, and it begins to dawn on Garner that her father is such a person.
Another pivotal scene is Christmas night, when McGuire tells Dunn she is pregnant again, and that their daughter will have to quit school to go to work because they cannot continue they way they are with another mouth to feed. Dunn is shattered, horrified that they should deprive school to a child who loves it as much as Francie does. Dunn’s desperate, stuttering agony is heartbreaking, and McGuire’s steely resolve not to lament over the decision is like the way a person rips a band-aid off all at once. From that point Dunn morphs into the granite of his wife, and walks out of the apartment and out of their lives. In a few days, stone cold sober, he will have died of pneumonia looking for a job as a sandhog.
The scenes dealing with his funeral and their grief are finely detailed, and never melodramatic, but subtle and revealing. When Garner hears of her mother’s plan to remove her from school, she also morphs into the granite of Miss McGuire, shooting such looks of hatred at her that it does not seem to be the same child at all who shyly whispered, “My cup runneth over” to her father when he hatched a plan to send her to a better school. It isn’t the same girl. She’s grown up, even before her 8th grade graduation.
When James Gleason, in a lovely brief appearance as the diffident, stammering Irish bartender, hires the Nolan kids to work for him, the money will allow Garner to continue school. (In an age where few children went to secondary school, 8th grade graduation was a big deal. For many, it literally signaled the end of their childhoods.)
The flowers she receives from her now deceased father at graduation, who had arranged while he was still alive that they be sent to her on this day, leads to another memorable scene when Blondell takes the child to the school’s girls’ room to cry in private. All the unspent grief of the previous months erupts into an hysterical crying jag an adult actress would have difficulty conjuring. Young Miss Garner is amazing.
The scene where McGuire squirms uncomfortably on her bed in the throes of labor, having scrubbed the hall stairs literally until the last moment, brings an angry Garner, still struggling with hatred for a mother who seems to have no pity and no affection for her, to McGuire’s bedside to help because she is the only female around. There is no money even for a midwife, let alone a hospital. While her brother is sent to fetch their aunt and grandmother, McGuire’s anxiety over who she is and what she has done to her sensitive daughter battles with her latent grief over her husband’s death.
She still marvels over Dunn’s easy way with people. “Who’ll cry for me like that if I died? I never did a wrong thing in my life, but it ain’t enough!” (the common fate of dull, responsible people who are not appreciated) she wails piteously, and the two discover each other in a way they had not before. McGuire asks the painfully reluctant Garner to read her essay on her father, delighted at her daughter’s talent with words just as she marveled over her husband’s talent for happiness. Garner discovers there are chinks in her mother’s granite façade. She also takes on her mother’s sense of freedom through control when she becomes her mother’s caretaker. She is empowered by the ability to roll up her sleeves and do the unpleasant tasks. All this is accomplished without maudlin confessions or saccharine promises. It’s very raw simplicity hurts and heals at the same time.
For all Katie Nolan’s granite, it is she who notices in a calm moment between contractions that the candle by the bedside is pretty and looks like Christmas. It is she who decides to name the new baby daughter Annie Laurie after the song Dunn sang. It is she, for all her habit of facing hard facts, who insists that the word “alcoholism” be omitted from her husband’s death certificate.
In days of such economic turmoil as we now experience, we might take notice of the tin can coin bank, and how she saves her pennies, against amazing odds, with a soldier’s discipline. Theirs is a world without retirement plans or health insurance, just the hope of a can full of coins if they persevere, and the cushion it will provide if no money comes in for a week or so.
This is, in its lyrical quality, as hard-edged a film as has ever been made about such sad and desperate people. It is a black and white snapshot, nothing sepia-toned or gingerbread about this tale. The only nostalgia present in the film, curiously, is at the very end, when brother and sister talk on the roof of their building. With a gray and smoky Brooklyn at their feet, they discuss how their mother is to marry the kindly cop played by Lloyd Nolan, who will adopt the baby daughter. They acknowledge that Annie Laurie will have it much easier than they did…but that she probably will not have as much fun. They have learned the wild pleasure of living life to its fullest, a perspective which, ironically, security and a full belly do not always lend.
Though they have just graduated eighth grade, they talk of the olden days of their childhood as if they are middle-aged. They are very knowing children by now. There is nothing innocent in that.