It’s easy (and sometimes trite) to describe a book or film as “timeless”. However, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn brings us a tale all about the struggles of immigrant life in America, and with the current political climate of a President telling people to go back where they came from, this Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters Of Cinema range couldn’t be more timely, and makes the film feel relevant to our era.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Betty Smith, who was a daughter of first-generation German-Americans living in Brooklyn. Like the heroine in her book, Smith had to quit school in order to help her mother in making ends meet for the family, due to her father being alcoholic and only working on an infrequent basis. The old adage of writing about what you know seems to be something Smith took to heart, as her upbringing and personal experiences formed so much of her work here, with this book ending up being seen as one of the great American novels of the 20th Century.
The adaptation was helmed by first-time film director Elia Kazan, who went on to helm such seminal classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront, and East Of Eden. Although predominantly shot on the Fox backlot, Kazan manages to make the whole piece feel as though it has all been shot on location, as he makes the Brooklyn street scenes feel vibrant and alive, like somewhere people actually live, rather than just a dressed set. It all helps to make Smith’s words come vividly to life, and spring off the page onto the silver screen. This was the first of many features Kazan filmed which focused strongly on social concerns and contemporary issues, and it proved to be a remarkably strong start to his cinematic career.
It’s tempting to see Kazan’s depiction of Brooklyn tenement life just before the Great War as being somewhat sanitised or seen through rose-tinted spectacles, given that some of the rough edges in the story are smoothed over, and the way in which subjects such as poverty, alcoholism and social inequality are presented. However, it’s worth bearing in mind the structures of the Motion Picture Production Code (or ‘Hays Code’), which prevented any movies from showing numerous things on screen, and meant that movie makers had to shy away from openly presenting many of the subjects that A Tree Grows In Brooklyn featured in its original written form.
In response to the sensibilities of the time, we therefore get to see a rather cheerier version of poverty than was actually the case, and although two of the characters become pregnant, we never see so much as a bump; the very act of labour itself involves taking to one’s bed, and lots of towels and hot water being called for. In view of this film being produced during wartime, it’s perhaps understandable for audiences to have needed to see a bit of escapism and nostalgia for a time before there had even been one World War, let alone another. A bit of Disneyfication is, perhaps, totally understandable.
Yet, for all of this, Kazan still manages to get some grittiness and depth, against all the saccharine and tweeness which could potentially overwhelm a piece that came from a lesser director. At the centre of the tale is the relationship that Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) has with each of her parents – Johnny (James Dunn) and Katie (Dorothy McGuire) – as well as the sort of relationship her parents have with each other. Johnny is a drunk, but a dreamer with a heart of gold who dotes upon his loving daughter; Katie has become hard and cynical, her dreams being crushed slowly out of her by the travails of daily life.
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While Johnny does what he can to try and provide for his family, the distance which already exists between him and Katie gets more pronounced throughout the course of the film, to the point where he ends up becoming despondent when he finds out another child is on the way. Francie ends up being taken out of school, and becomes slowly resentful of her mother, building up to a genuinely emotional moment of reconciliation when Katie’s in labour and they manage to have a heart-to-heart, as Katie confesses her regret at how things have turned out between them, ending up in a tearful understanding of each other’s situations, and a healing of the divide.
The tree of the title grows outside of the Nolan family’s building, and as the film opens, Francie is despondent that it gets heavily trimmed back almost to the point of butchery. It comes to symbolise what happens during the course of the film, with the family’s fortunes taking a turn for the better being mirrored by the tree showing a return to life, growing brand new shoots which reflect the new hope which Francie in particular feels to be growing inside her. The tree also shows how something beautiful can grow out of adversity and deprivation, so the tree is very much Francie’s counterpart.
The restoration of the movie is nothing short of stunning, with a 4K scan of the original elements having been carried out, so it looks as crisp and sharp as the day it was first released, if not moreso. The extras are on the lighter side, and the two featurettes come from an earlier DVD release; however, they do give an insight into the making of the film, as well as the career of Dorothy McGuire. We also get an informative commentary track, plus the subsequent 1940s radio adaptation which also starred Peggy Ann Garner and James Dunn.
A very worthy addition to the Masters Of Cinema, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn will undoubtedly grow on you, and is worth a place not just in your heart, but also your Blu-ray collection.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is available now, from Eureka Entertainment.