Sunday, October 1, 2017

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' a Powerful Story Still


Whenever I think of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—the book or movie—I think of my late pal, Alice Crosby. She was born October 2, 1922.  A life-long movie fan, Alice was born the same year as one of her favorites, Doris Day.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s slice-of-life story of a hard-working mother, hard-drinking father, and their poverty-stricken family, as told through a dreamy-eyed young girl, stuck with Alice. Also an Irish Catholic, Alice grew up in Depression-era Detroit under similar tough circumstances.

My friend Alice as a teenager.
I knew of the gist of Betty Smith’s novel and had Alice’s beat up copy for years, but never put it on my reading list until I got my MFA in creative writing a few years ago. Even though we had a love of old movies in common, Alice and I never watched 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was never intentional, but now I wish we had, to hear her thoughts on the story versus her own upbringing.

I love how someone’s personal story can affect so many different people. Director Elia Kazan’s first take on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was that it was too sentimental. Then Kazan realized how close the story was to that of his own immigrant family. In The Glass Castle, when Jeannette Walls writes about her wild card of a drinking dad, she cites Tree as a childhood favorite. In my family, my mother suffered a similar family dynamic, a drunken father who pulled disappearing acts, except he wasn’t a good man, like Tree’s Johnny Nolan or Alice’s father.

How ironic that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was made at 20th Century Fox. All the studios in Hollywood’s golden era peddled nostalgia and fantasy, but Fox had the market cornered on gaudy and gooey Technicolor turn of the century musicals. While warm-hearted, the story of the Nolan family is a surprisingly straightforward look at the poor people of early 20th century New York City. I wasn’t surprised to find that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first written as a memoir. An editor asked author Betty Smith to rewrite it as a novel—today, with the trend toward memoirs, it would be the exact opposite story. The book still has a strong ring of truth, much like another story of a girl and her father, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joan Blondell, right, as Sissie, in a heart to heart with Dorothy McGuire's Katie.
The cast is terrific in Tree. Dorothy McGuire, a naturally pretty actress, never minded deglamourizing herself for a role. As hardworking and increasingly hardhearted cleaning woman Katie Nolan, McGuire has one of her best roles. One of the most touching scenes is when Katie’s sister gently tells her she’s becoming hard. Carrying the burden of poverty can do that, though Alice told me her mother Della was always a gentle woman, no matter how dire their circumstances.

Peggy Ann Garner and James Dunn as daughter and father.
James Dunn was cunningly cast by director Kazan as the feckless father, Johnny Nolan. Like the character, Dunn was handsome, charming, and an alcoholic. Dunn is effortless, going from gaiety to hopelessness, as the singing waiter who loves his family but can’t help going on benders. Alice never had anything bad to say about her father, despite his drinking and disappearing—though she admitted the family was frantic when one of his benders stretched into weeks.

Joan Blondell made her segue into character parts as Katie’s sister, flirtatious Sissy. Blondell’s best qualities fit this good-hearted broad; she’s warm, natural, and appealing. The often grim story of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is given its levity from Blondell’s breezy presence.

Lloyd Nolan gives a great supporting turn as McShane, the neighborhood cop with a soft spot for Katie. Nolan, with that instantly recognizable voice, was always a bracing presence on screen. As the strong cop with a sweet side, Nolan is one of those character actors who should have been given more chances as a leading man, along the lines of Bogart or Cagney.

Peggy Ann Garner in a heart-tugging moment as Francie Nolan.
Peggy Ann Garner got a well-deserved special Oscar for her heartrending turn as the sad-eyed, yet plucky girl who yearns to be a writer. Francie has a great curiosity about the world, though often bewildered by its harsh realities. Garner has the role that runs the gamut of emotions, and she hits all the right notes.

The scenes between Garner and Dunn, as daughter and father, are the film’s highlights. Johnny’s final disappearance—desperately looking for work upon finding out Katie’s pregnant—and his subsequent death, are painfully moving: the funeral, where Francie stands apart from her family; the grueling birth scene, with Francie and her mother reconciling; or when Francie graduates from the school her father helped her get in to. That bouquet scene…flowers on the daughter’s desk, delivered by Aunt Sissy, but paid for by her late father, with the card in his handwriting…sigh. Your heart would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Francie’s cathartic tears.

Throughout the movie, every time I saw Garner’s Francie reading or writing on the fire escape, I thought of Alice as a child. Alice once told me that she had to stay on her family’s front porch, where her mother or brothers could keep a protective eye on her. With a laugh, she said they did their job a little too well! Alice surely wasn’t out on the streets with her brothers, catching Christmas trees, like Francie and brother Neeley.

The wonderful cast of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner received Oscars, but except for a best screenplay nomination, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn received no other nods. This seems odd, since Tree was a highly anticipated movie, based on a huge bestseller. A look at the various posters shows that Fox sold the movie on the strength of the book. The movie was popular enough, yet all you have to do is look at what was tops at the box office that year and compare it to that year’s Oscar nominations. They’re pretty much one and the same—typical of the era. While the best picture nominees The Lost Weekend and Mildred Pierce still stand as classics, fluff like The Bells of St. Mary’s, Spellbound, and Anchors Away—really? And McGuire shouldn’t have had to wait until her ’47 reunion with Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement for her first nomination. Though Joan Crawford rightly won Best Actress for Mildred Pierce, the rest of the nominees were merely popular stars in glossy vehicles. Twentieth Century Fox threw their studio votes to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, which compared to McGuire’s real character and acting, seems laughable today. For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn holds up beautifully, far more realistic than most films from the ‘40s. I just re-read the book and am again surprised by its frank look at early 1900’s NYC. Betty Smith creates a loving, but realistic look at bygone era.

As for Alice, the ‘40s and ‘50s was her heyday as a movie-goer. Late in her life, Alice told me, that as a teenager, she daydreamed of being a movie star. I was caught off-guard at the time, and remember thinking, “Thank God you didn’t!” Alice certainly had the face, figure, and personality to get into movies, but she was also far too sweet to have survived Hollywood.

Alice Crosby in one of her most memorable roles: Mother.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s Francie is obviously based on the author, Betty Smith. Well, my pal Alice grew up to be a wife, housewife, mother, and later, a waitress. That last role is how I met her, when I first moved to Traverse City, MI, working at the same restaurant. Alice had moved up there from Detroit, after her second divorce, for a fresh start and to be near her two sons. In true movie fashion, when Alice was pulling out of Detroit with her belongings, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was on a movie marquee.

Alice in her Lana Turner phase.
We became fast friends, though she was nearly my grandmothers’ age. And we remained the best of friends until she died. On countless evenings at her home, we talked about everything, but often family, films, and the past. A big idol from her youth was Lana Turner. Alice sometimes adopted Lana’s blonde hair, tan, and white outfits ala The Postman Always Rings Twice for Michigan summers. Alice once told me that as a young mother, she and her next door neighbor had a routine: They would clean their houses and tend their yards during the day. After getting dinner going, they’d both put on swimsuits and sun in the backyard. While their kids were playing, they’d chat and relax. Then they’d get ready for their husbands’ arrival. Alice would give the boys a bath, then she’d shower, and everyone put on fresh outfits. Dinner almost done, the husband almost home. I remembered smiling when Alice told me that she’d take a look around her house and yard, then at the boys and herself—everything and everyone looking great—and feel good about her life. It seemed kind of frivolous to me. Later, walking home, I thought about what Alice’s childhood was like. She wasn’t telling a silly story. Alice was recalling her gratitude for when life was good.
A Life magazine advertisement for 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.' The studio heavily promoted the book to sell the film.

7 comments:

  1. I need to watch this with adult eyes. When I was a kid there was a remake with Pamela Fullen. Thanks for this great review, you sparked my interest and love Joan Blondell.

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    1. It's still a lovely story and one of the few forties movies that doesn't feel dated. The entire cast is terrific. And I vaguely remember the mid-70s remake, with Cliff Robertson and Diane Baker, with Pamela as the little girl. There was talk in the late '80s of a remake with pals Michelle Pfeiffer as Katie and Cher as Sissy! In the book, both sisters had black hair and sparkling dark eyes : ) But I love McGuire in this, and Joan Blondell is a bright light in this! Cheers, Rick

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  2. Long time lurker, first time commenter. What a sweet tribute to your friend Alice this is, and it piqued my interest in the movie as well. Thank you for this write up.

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    1. Hi, Thanks for your comment! Alice was the best, as Jackie Gleason used to say. You can follow me too, on my blog if you like. Check it out. Thanks, Rick

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  3. Lovely write up for a film I've never seen (although it was a favorite of my older sister), and a very sweet remembrance of your friend. I liked how you compared aspects of the film with memories of your friend, making me feel that perhaps I should give this film a long-overdue look. Thanks!

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  4. Thank you, and I still have that copy of my friend's "Tree" around here somewhere!
    Cheers,
    Rick

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