“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” tells the story of the Nolan family. Johnny and Katie and their two school age children Francie and Neeley are a poor family living in Williamsburg Brooklyn and the story takes place close to the turn of the previous century (circa 1900). Johnny is a singing waiter who lives for the day when his ship comes in but mostly, he drinks. Katie makes the money that keeps the family alive by working as a cleaning woman in the tenement building they live in. In several of the scenes we find her on her knees scrubbing the floors and staircases of the building. Francie is a very smart and sensitive girl who wants to read every book in the library and grow up to be a writer. She has a close relationship with her father who favors her love of learning and idealism. This puts her in constant conflict with her level-headed mother who is determined to make her children successful by avoiding the “dreamy ideas” of her husband and teach them to work hard in life. Neeley is a down to earth child of his environment and doesn’t suffer any angst over his downscale existence. He has his mother’s temperament and rolls with the punches.
The movie tracks the downward trajectory of Johnny as he despairs of supporting his family. But the one good thing he does for Francie is fake a move to another neighborhood that allows Francie to attend a much better public school than the one in her own neighborhood. This opens her up to influences that teach her that in addition to enthusiasm a person has to “see the world as it really is.”
When Katie becomes pregnant, she tells Johnny that Francie will have to leave school to work to make up for Katie’s absence while she nurses the infant. Johnny decides to do whatever it takes to save Francie from dropping out of school. On Christmas Eve night he hears his daughter talk about the teacher who said that she must “see the world as it really is.” And that resonates with his situation. He must see himself as he really is. He kisses her good night and walks out into the snow in his threadbare jacket and pants and goes looking for work as a sandhog for the burgeoning subway systems that were tunneling all over New York at that time.
Shortly after New Year Day the local police officer Mr. McShane comes to tell Katie that her husband is in a hospital in Manhattan having collapsed with pneumonia. Shortly after she reaches him, he dies. The funeral opens up Katie’s eyes as hundreds of Johnny’s friends pay their respects. Her astonishment convinces Francie that her mother never understood her father and is a callous person.
Johnny’s friend, the local saloon owner Mr. Garrity, offers to let the two children work after school at his business setting up food for the free lunch. Katie lets slip that she had decided that Francie would have had to quit school. Hearing this Francie becomes truly embittered against her mother and fixes on the fact that letting her finish school had come once again through her father’s influence. She accuses Katie of never having loved Johnny in life.
But the birth of the child at home forces Katie and Francie to bond and allows mother and daughter to see each other’s side of things. With the help from the after-school jobs Francie and Neeley graduate grammar school and Katie predicts that the children will finish out high school too and go on to better than lives than their parents had.
And the movie has several other memorable characters. Sissie who is Katie’s flirtatious sister and the scandal of the neighborhood is on her third husband. Katie loves her but feels she is a bad influence on her children. In each of Sissy’s earlier marriages her pregnancies ended in stillborn babies. But a comment from Francie about the advantages of hospitals as a maternity setting, convinces Sissy to have her child in a hospital. And the hospital uses oxygen to rouse the unresponsive new born. And this probably saves Sissie’s present marriage.
Katie’s mother is a wise old woman who warns Katie against hardening her heart against the good things in life just because they don’t lead to monetary success. And Officer McShane is a friend to Johnny, Katie and the children. In several scenes he provides help to the family. After Johnny’s death, he lets his intentions be known that he would like to court Katie. Katie agrees and at that point even Francie is open to the idea. So, the movie ends with Katie’s family finally able to cope with life in the modern world.
The cast does a phenomenal job. Dorothy McGuire is Katie, Joan Blondell is Sissy, James Dunn is Johnny and Lloyd Nolan is Officer McShane. And even some of the bit parts are memorable and splendidly acted. The sets are evocative of Old Brooklyn and even mention of some of the place names still brings a smile to my face when I hear them in the movie. Elia Kazan directed.
This is Camera Girl’s favorite movie of all time. It speaks to her of families and it exhibits many of the qualities of life in Brooklyn that we still experienced two generations after the Nolan’s time. I also think she identifies herself and me in the Nolans. She as the hard-headed and hard-working woman and me as the ne’er do well but idealistic (and handsome and charming) husband. But the one difference between myself and this Nolan guy is I was born lucky and he was born to fail. But we watch this movie once or twice every year and we always end up feeling good. Highly recommended for hard-working wives and lazy husbands.