Monday, February 12, 2018

Dorothy's Brooklyn Family

The Nolan family is poor.  Father Johnny (James Dunn) is a singing waiter with a drinking problem, and more imagination than is practical. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) works hard as their building's super to get a few pennies to support the family; while she loves her husband, she has become disillusioned by his dreaming. Son Neely (Ted Donaldson) is a good boy, who can't wait to finish school, while daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) lives for learning - she yearns to be a writer, but is troubled by the increasing animosity between her mother and her adored father. Our film for this week is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Based on the novel by Betty Smith (which celebrated its 75th Anniversary in October of this year) the film is actually one "book" of the five that makes up the 1943 volume. The movie is also the directorial debut of Elia Kazan, and Mr. Kazan pulls no punches in showing the effects of poverty on this simple family. It would have been easy to gloss over the pain of their lives, but we're given an honest portrayal, thanks in no small part to the magnificent cast.

Let's start with James Dunn, who received an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his work in here. According to the TCM article, one of the reasons Dunn was cast was that he had a drinking problem. Kazan felt that having an actor " who probably had some experience with drink" made for a better performance. Dunn brings both dignity and pathos to the role - watch his face in the scene below as he suffers over the consequences of his inability to support his family. Then, compare that to his scene with Francie, as they imagine moving to a neighborhood where she can attend a better school. His love for his child shines from his eyes and you never doubt for a moment that you are seeing Johnny Nolan, not the actor. In the 1930s, Mr. Dunn had been used quite often - he was support to Shirley Temple in four of her films, but by the time he was cast in this film, he had difficulty getting roles, primarily because of his alcohol abuse. After winning the Oscar, he made a few more films, eventually transitioning to television. He died from complications of stomach surgery in 1967, at the age of 65.
It's hard to believe that Dorothy McGuire was not the first choice for Katie - the story was purchased with Alice Faye in mind for the role (and Gene Tierney auditioned for it as well) (AFI catalog). As a poor, uneducated woman who loves her children and husband, but has become stern and introverted as she tries to make ends meet, Ms. McGuire is magnificent. She has no trouble letting us become angry at Katie; at the same time, she allows us to see the young woman who fell in love with Johnny Nolan and his dreaming ways.

Aunt Sissy is arguably one of Joan Blondell's best roles. A brash and affectionate woman, Sissy has been married at least three times, but is not the slightest bit embarrassed by her life choices. Like her sister, Sissy is poor and illiterate (though it's never stated, we don't see Katie read, and she asks her children to read to her. Sissy and her mother also comment that they cannot read, so it seems likely that neither Katie nor Sissy received any education). Her marriages seem to have ended in part due to several miscarriages. But Ms. Blondell brings to Sissy the zest for life that Katie has lost. In his review of the 2016 TCM Film Festival, Scott Halloran reported on Ted Donaldson's appearance. Mr. Donaldson discussed his crush on Ms. Blondell, and the signed photo she gave to him at the film's conclusion - "From Joan 'I'm waiting for you' Blondell." Likely this was a rough shoot for Ms. Blondell, as she was in the middle of her divorce from Dick Powell. She was also upset that a scene, which showed Sissy working in a condom factory was cut from the film. Nevertheless, her performance is spot on, and you like Sissy - both in spite of and because of her cavalier attitude towards life.
As a librarian, I particularly love the scene in which Francie goes to the library. Attempting to read her way through the library, Francie is up to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The librarian is horrified that this child is going to attempt such a difficult book. When she realizes that Francie will not be swayed, the librarian asks her to take, as well, When Knighthood Was in Flower (lest she get a headache thinking of the child "wrestling" her way through the book). You can view the scene here. Equally lovely is Francie's relationship with her teacher, Miss  McDonough (Ruth Nelson) who encourages Francie to consider writing as a career, but who also subtlety cautions her against pipe-dreaming (like her father!)

A trio of remarkable character performances also compliment the film. First, we have Lloyd Nolan as Officer McShane. He's excellent as a lonely police officer who envies the closeness of the Nolan family. James Gleason as McGarrity, the pub owner who cares deeply for Johnny Nolan and who endeavors to assist the family, is exceptional in a very small part. John Alexander as Sissy's exasperated husband, Steve Edwards is also notable. And watch for silent screen star Mae Marsh as one of the Tynmore sisters, and a young Nicholas Ray as a Bakery Clerk.
The heart of the movie is Peggy Ann Garner. As a child with an eager mind, and a heart torn by her parents' troubles, Ms. Garner imbues Francie with a spirit of hope. Her efforts in the film resulted in resulted in her receiving a Oscar in 1946 as outstanding child actor of the year.  Ms. Garner started her film career as Carole Lombard's daughter in In Name Only (1939). She was the young Jane Eyre (1943) and the child Nora in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). As with so many child stars, she had trouble getting film roles as she aged, but worked in real estate to make ends meet between her television roles. She married three times, all ending in divorce, and had one child (Catherine Ann Salmi). Ms. Garner died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 52 in 1984.
A radio version of the play aired on Hollywood Star Time (with Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner) in January of 1947, on Studio One in October 1947 (with Rosemary Rice and Frank Reddig), and again by Hallmark Playhouse in April of 1949 (with Mr. Dunn and Connie Marshall). In 1951, a musical version of the story opened on Broadway, with Shirley Booth as Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell would take over the role for the National Tour). Finally, in 1974, the film was presented on television with Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker and James Olson.

Besides the awards to Mr. Dunn and Ms. Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar (it lost to The Lost Weekend) and was selected by the National Board of Review in 1945 as one of their 10 best films of the year.  The New York Times review was glowing. In 2010, the film was entered into the National Film Registry. It is a magnificent film, and one that you should visit at your earliest convenience.  We'll leave you with the Nolan family moving into their top floor apartment.

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