Friday, December 18, 2020

Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” glows on the screen

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is an American drama directed by Elia Kazan and starring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, Ted Donaldson, and Peggy Ann Garner as Francie. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Betty Smith.

James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner

The film centers around an impoverished Irish-American family living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. The film’s main focus is on 13-year-old Francie Nolan (Garner) who dreams of a life away from her drab existence and her desire to improve herself through reading all the books in her local library.

Francie’s parents Katie (McGuire) and Johnny (James Dunn) are struggling to make ends meet and raise their children. Johnny is a singing waiter who struggles with alcoholism which is a strain emotionally and financially on the family. Francie is especially affected because she loves her father dearly and yearns for a time when he won’t be “sick” anymore.

Lloyd Nolan, Joan Blondell, Ted Donaldson, Dorothy McGuire,
Peggy Ann Garner, and James Dunn

Elia Kazan (1909 – 2003) was an American director, producer, writer, and actor. He is one of the co-founders of the Actors Studio in 1947 with Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford. Kazan is also one of the most celebrated directors of the theater as well as the movies. Kazan won two Best Director Academy Awards-1947 for Gentleman’s Agreement and 1954 for On the Waterfront—as well as a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1998. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was Kazan’s feature film debut as a director.

Dorothy McGuire (1916 – 2001) was an American theater and film actress. McGuire developed an interest in acting at a young age. At 13, she made her stage debut in A Kiss for Cinderella in Omaha, Nebraska, her hometown. Henry Fonda, also from Omaha, was her costar. As an adult, she achieved fame on Broadway in Claudia (1941 to 1943). In 1943, she starred in the film version with Robert Young that was a huge success. She reunited with Young for The Enchanted Cottage (1945) and replaced Gene Tierney in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). She was nominated for Best Actress in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Some of her other films include Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Trial (1955), and Friendly Persuasion (1956). McGuire made several popular films for Walt Disney including Old Yeller (1957), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and Summer Magic (1963).

Joan Blondell (1906 – 1979) was an American actress who was a top movie star during the 1930s and early 1940s. Later in her career, she became a popular character actress. Some of Blondell’s early films include The Public Enemy (1931), Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934), and Stand-In (1937). Later in her career, she gave notable supporting performances in The Blue Veil (1951), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), and Grease (1978).

James Dunn (1901 – 1967) was an American stage, film, and television actor. He achieved his greatest success early in his career when he signed a contract with Fox. In 1934, Dunn co-starred with Shirley Temple in three films, the most famous of which is probably Bright Eyes. Dunn broke his contract with Fox before it expired and worked as a freelance artist without much success. Like his character Johnny in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Dunn had a drinking problem which impacted his acting career. For his role as the alcoholic father in that film, Dunn won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Peggy Ann Garner (1932 – 1984) was an American child film actress who achieved great fame during the mid-1940s. Garner entered films at age six. By age twelve, she had reached her peak playing the role of Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For her performance in that film, Garner won an Academy Juvenile Award. Garner was memorable as the title character as a young girl in Jane Eyre (1943). After her success in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Garner had starring roles in Nob Hill (1945), Junior Miss (1945), and Home Sweet Homicide (1946). Soon thereafter, Garner was relegated to a supporting player, never able to successfully transition to adult roles. In spite of the lack of film roles, Garner had success on Broadway and appeared on popular television shows including Perry Mason, Combat!, Batman, The Big Valley, and Lou Grant.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn trivia:

  • 20th Century-Fox paid $55,000 dollars for the rights to Betty Smith’s novel before publication.
  • Director Kazan and author Smith were classmates at Yale School of Drama.
  • Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, Mary Anderson, and Jeanne Crain were all considered for the role of Katie Nolan. Tierney actually was set to play Katie but had to drop out due to pregnancy. Tierney and McGuire were best friends in real life.
  • Fred MacMurray campaigned for the role of Johnny Nolan.
  • Nicholas Ray is credited as dialogue director.

To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link below.

To join us on Zoom for a discussion on December 22, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click the link for details and invitation. When you RSVP you will receive an email and link to the discussion.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What was your overall impression of the film?
  2. Did any of you read the novel? How does the film compare?
  3. Did Katie’s love for her husband get in the way of her ability to protect her family from the effects of his alcoholism?
  4. Did Francie have a realistic view of her father?
  5. How did you feel about the way the film concluded?

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