A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“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.

What’s the Definition of a Movie Star?

I’m sure there are movie critics who have their own takes on this question.  I’ve never thought much about who the “real” movie stars were because what I was interested in was which were the good movies.  But recently I’ve been watching some old movies that were not in the top 100 movies of all time.  In fact, some of them were pretty bad.  The plots were hackneyed and the scripts were poorly written and some of the actors and actresses were pretty awful.

You might ask why I would do this.  It’s a combination of things.  Firstly, they were on Turner Classic Movies and I get that channel on my cable television subscription.  But the other reason is that I’ve just seen the good movies so often I need a break.  Even a great movie can be worn out by too frequent viewing.  So, I’ve been watching some stinkers.

I recorded a couple of movies with William Powell that I’d never heard of.  One was called “Lawyer Man” that also starred Joan Blondell.  It’s an early film from 1932 and the plot includes all kinds of stereotypical plot elements, dialog and characters that fairly scream “B” movie.  I wouldn’t recommend this movie highly although it was amusing because of the leads.

But what was obvious to me was that William Powell was a movie star.  And what that means is that regardless of the role or movie William Powell is in, he’s William Powell.  Whether he’s a lawyer or a private detective or a doctor or a stockbroker or a down on his luck everyman, he’s, unmistakably, the same person.  The persona that Powell had created is what the producers and directors wanted from him in all his films.  In one film he might be a hobo, in another a rich nobleman but in both cases, these were just the vicissitudes of life and they didn’t change his character.

This differs from a real actor like Lawrence Olivier.  When he plays Henry V, he’s a gallant hero.  When he plays Richard III, he’s a heartless monster.  And when he’s Hamlet he’s a lost soul.  Olivier becomes what the part requires.  But when we’re looking to spend an hour with a witty, pleasant, intelligent man we’d rather have William Powell.  He’ll work his way through the plot and whenever he’s on the screen we’ll be pleased.  The character William Powell plays is the man you’d wish was sitting next to you on a long train ride.  He’ll have stories to tell and probably has a deck of cards in his coat pocket and when his wife or girlfriend shows up, she’ll be a smart cute funny dame.  And if an armed robber shows up in the railway car Powell will manage to knock him out and tie him up with no apparent effort.

The movie stars I can think of were all of the sort that produced a character.  Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant always played the same part with slight differences to align with the plot and character details.  But they almost never were cast against type.  Of course, these were the pictures they made once they had reached star status.  As journeymen they had to take whatever roles they were given.  You can see this transition in someone like Humphrey Bogart.  When he started out, he had to play a lot of vicious gangsters and there was very little nuance in these roles.  But once he had done the Maltese Falcon, he was allowed to find his “type.”  He became the tough guy with a brain.  And at that point audiences knew what to expect from Bogey.

As I said, I generally am looking for a movie with a good plot and decent acting.  But there is something to be said for trying to match a movie to a mood.  If I need to relax and enjoy a reuben sandwich and a cold drink I’ll probably want a Western with John Wayne or Gary Cooper.  And If I need my spirits lifted, I’ll watch a Jimmy Stewart film or a W.C. Fields farce.  But if I’m ever homesick for the New York City that used to exist, I’ll look for a William Powell movie.  And maybe it never really existed but with William Powell to walk you through it will feel like home.  At least to me.

The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 5 Episode 24 – What’s in the Box

Joe Britt (played by the irascible William Demarest) is a New York City cab driver.  He and his wife Phyllis (played by the always entertaining Joan Blondell) are thoroughly sick and tired of being married to each other.  She is always accusing him of running around on her behind her back and he constantly complains about her cooking and bad attitude.

On the night in question, Joe has just finished his dinner that he said tasted like corrugated plastic and Phyllis tells him it was that way because he was so late coming home from running around with some floozy.  Meanwhile the television repairman (played by the always loopy Sterling Holloway) is busy in the living room plying his trade.  Joe comes in and accuses him of padding the bill and in general being a crook.  The repairman smiles and tells him that the tv is now fixed and that there won’t be any charge.

Joe starts watching the wrestling match but suddenly the picture changes to a recent scene in Joe’s life where he is talking to some woman, he’s having an affair with.  Joe is shocked and tells Phyllis there’s something wrong with the tv and she has to call the repairman back to fix it.  While she is back in the kitchen Joe turns the set on again and this time, he sees the earlier scene between himself and Phyllis where he complained about the dinner.  As Joe continues to complain about the television set Phyllis begins to think that Joe is seriously ill and she calls a doctor.

When Joe looks at the tv again he sees a scene where he and Phyllis have physical brawl with him pushing her down and her smashing a ceramic sculpture over his head.  Finally, after more blows are exchanged Joe punches Phyllis in the face and she flies backward and out the window to the pavement several floors below.  Joe collapses in stunned disbelief and Phyllis helps him to bed.

The doctor attends to Joe and afterward tells Phyllis that Joe is hallucinating and she should get him to a psychiatrist.  When he leaves Joe calls Phyllis to his bedside and begins to tell her about his affair and declares his love for Phyllis.  She flies into a rage and berates him and packs her clothes to leave.  While this is happening, Joe sees another scene on the tv.  He sees himself in a law court being sentenced to death for killing Phyllis.  When he sees this, he once again collapses to the floor but instead of pitying him Phyllis mocks him over and over, laughing hysterically that it must be his floozy he sees on the screen.

Joe snaps.  He punches his hand through the tv picture tube and with bleeding knuckles he recreates his assault on Phyllis that we saw earlier on the tv.  And sure enough, she ends up falling out the window to her death.  In the final scene the police and neighbors crowd into his apartment and Joe is arrested and hauled away.  As he is leaving the tv repairman shows up and asks Joe to recommend his service to others.

I love this episode.  It’s wonderfully absurd and contains marvelously over the top overacting by some real old pros.  The War of the Sexes at its level best.  A-.