Elia Kazan’s first film is a moving period domestic drama. It took way too long to catch up with this one and I was not disappointed.
The Nolands are a poor family living in a Brooklyn tenament near the turn of the last century. Father Johnny (James Dunn) is a singing waiter who works only between benders. Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) tries to balance out her husband’s dreams and Irish blarney with strict propriety. Daughter Francie is a dreamer too and a lover of knowledge. She is the kind of kid that has to try all the different flavors of soda in alphabetical order. Brother Neeley is all boy and hates school. Katie’s sister Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) has just been married for the umpteenth time as the story starts. No one is exactly sure whether the last marriage was ever dissolved. Sissie is full of life and high spirits. Katie, thinking of the children, bans her from the premises early on.
Francie and Johnny are thick as thieves. He tells her many stories of what will happen when their ship comes in. One day, Francie is walking in the neighborhood and passes a fancy school in the more prosperous quarter. Her own school is a nightmare of rote learning and she longs to go to the new one. Johnny sticks up for her and concocts another address and family for her so she can attend school outside her district. This turns out to be a wise move because Francie blossoms there and is encouraged by her teacher to write.
But all is not well. Johnny continues to get blind drunk. Katie discovers she is pregnant. She determines the only way the family can survive is by moving to a smaller place and putting Francie to work. Things get worse before they get better but these people are survivors and all their trials are eased by lots of genuine love. With Lloyd Nolan as a shy policeman and James Gleason as Johnny’s favorite bartender.
This film is surprisingly unsentimental considering the number of times it made me cry. Francie’s relationship with her father was really touching and so was Dorothy McGuire as a hard-working mother who tries to make things right while alienating all around her. Peggy Ann Garner might be the least affected child actor in movie history. But she is outshone by James Dunn as the father. He is so convincingly broken down and yet you fully understand why people fall in love with him completely. Recommended.
James Dunn won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The film was also nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Peggy Ann Garner won the Juvenile Award for outstanding child actress of 1945.