ON DVD & BLU-RAY
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Poverty in early 20th century New York
This adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel of the same name is set in Brooklyn during the early 20th century. It focuses on the impoverished Nolan family. James Dunn plays Johnny Nolan, an amiable and essentially good-natured professional singer-for-hire who wants the best for his family but struggles with alcoholism. Dorothy McGuire plays his long-suffering wife Katie, who tries very hard to keep everyone together but finds her loyalty to her husband tested by both his drink-induced shortcomings and her blossoming feelings for a noble local policeman named McShane (Lloyd Nolan).
They have one son named Neeley (Ted Donaldson) and a daughter named Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), the latter of whom is an imaginative and well-read young girl particularly cherished by Johnny. The latter decides to get her into a local school so that she can receive a formal education and, hence, greater chances in life than either himself or Katie have received.
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A worthy drama, if slightly dated in its approach
Director Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning debut is a well-acted, bittersweet affair taking a look at a subject that is all too rarely broached by cinema: that of a family blighted by perpetual poverty and its inevitable impact on their psychological state, relationships and overall wellbeing. Nonetheless, it does have an undeniable undercurrent of hope in the power of imagination, as represented through the metaphor of a tree which grows in the backyard of their tenement, only to be suddenly cut down. As Johnny Nolan tells both Francie and the audience in one pivotal speech:
“Don't tell me that tree is gonna lay down and die that easily. Look at that tree. See where it's coming from. Right up outta that cement! Didn't nobody plant it. Didn't ask the cement to grow. It just couldn't help growing so much it just pushed that old cement out of the way. Now when you bust it with something like that, can't anybody help it, like... like that little ole bird up there. He didn't ask anybody could he sing and he certainly didn't take any lessons. He's so full of singing it just has to bust out someplace. Why they could cut that ole tree right down to the ground and a root would push up someplace else in the cement.”
It was James Dunn who won the Oscar here for his role as a father whose high-spirited demeanour barely conceals an eternal melancholy sadness at his own failure in life. Nonetheless, there are other notable performances in the cast here. Peggy Ann Garner (who was 13 at the time of the film’s release) possesses a maturity and depth that far exceeds her very young age. Dorothy McGuire carries a lot of metaphorical weight throughout as a housewife trying desperately to be a trooper and make the most of their situation. Joan Blondell makes for a bouncier, more carefree counterpart as her onscreen sister.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a little dated in its overall approach, especially in the overly neat manner in which the story ultimately resolves itself. However, that’s certainly not to say that it’s unenjoyable or unsatisfying viewing by any means. Elia Kazan showed a lot of early directorial promise here with his effective use of light and shade as well as his ability to evoke a sense of the spontaneous bustle of Brooklyn street life during the period. It’s a thought-provoking and emotional tale, well worth a viewing.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Elia Kazan
Script: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, based on a novel by Betty Smith
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, Peggy Ann Garner, Ted Donaldson
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Both sound and image are very sharp and clear here.
We get an audio commentary presented by American film historian Richard Schickel with contributions by director Elia Kazan, then-child actor Ted Donaldson and Normal Lloyd. The other extras here include a Making Of, a featurette entitled An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire, a 1946 radio broadcast version of the story and a collector’s booklet featuring writings by Kat Ellinger, Phil Hoad and Philip Kemp.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a fine tale, laced with a mixture of sadness and pure childlike hope. The extras are solid as per usual from Eureka Entertainment.