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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

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Article 1

The Films in Review:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Hermine Rich Isaacs

Theatre Arts  March 1945  page 172-174

When one of Broadway's favorite sons answers the call to Hollywood, the hometown prophets watch his journey to Babylon with mixed emotions. On one had his work in pictures is expected to bear a mark of special distinction by virtue of his lofty origins. On the other, it will be just as well if he does not move too far along filmdom's easy road to fame, nor fall too deeply under the spell of California's balmy weather and mental lassitude. He may be earning a large part of his living in the west, but he should still pay taxes to the sovereign state of New York.

Elia Kazan's trip west this year to direct the movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn should satisfy all observers. He has made a film that is a sure success, and one that marks him as a director of considerable skill; he has found a challenge and an opportunity in pictures that will undoubtedly draw him back from time to time; and meanwhile he has returned to Broadway full of theatre hopes and plans, to pay at least his spiritual taxes in the east.

In the novel of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith has projected the story of Cinderella into the current day. Waving a wand of modern design, she has played light on shadow, converted a pallid corner of existence into a world of wonder and radiant hope. Instead of such old-fashioned props as fairy godmothers, pumpkin coaches and white mice standing in for liveried footmen, she has spun her wonders out of present and attainable instruments of magic: ingenuity and imagination, love and a heart full of song. Her modern Cinderella is Francie Nolan, child of the tenements. Francie, like her fairy-tale counterpart, embodies come of the hopes and fears of everyone; and, like Cinderella, she belongs with a fierce sense of ownership to the millions of readers who have shared her story.

For these reasons it was clear that the person who undertook to play Francie in the movies must be either very young or very brave. Peggy Ann Garner is very young, younger, in fact, that one imagined Francie in the original novel; and yet the miscalculation is undoubtedly the reader's, for this twelve-year-old actress of the wonderstruck eyes, the straight blond hair and the tip-tilted nose, whose ways of intensity are part child and part ageless, has become Francie Nolan as surely as Francie is both Cinderella and a little of you and me. For the role of her mother, Katie, Dorothy McGuire has cast off the skittish mannerisms of Claudia in favor of the curt and economical outlines of a hard-pressed tenement dweller. James Dunn plays the improvident and loveable father, Johnny; Joan Blondell is Aunt Sissy, the eternal bride of loose morals and warm heart; and young Ted Donaldson is Neeley, Francie's young brother, bitter rival and inseparable companion.

His cast assembled, Kazan proceeded to direct in a way more suggestive of theatre than motion-picture methods. He plotted out scenes and motivations with the players before rehearsals began; relationships were established between the actors and each other, the actors and the setting. It has been commonplace to say of theatre directors new to films that they can direct only actors, not pictures. If, however, a director has succeeded in guiding his players through the special and indigenous patterns of the motion-picture scene, he is a long way to the conquest of the new medium. A movie scene is characteristically large and constantly changing; its very changes provide a running commentary on the story and become a positive element in the dramatic structure. The changing scene is the visible result of the moving camera which, well used, is the chief story teller in films.

The scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the Nolan's tenement home and the teeming streets and shops of the neighborhood. From the moment that Francie and Neeley rush out on the family errands they are in contact with their environment. There is a sense that this story proceeds in the midst of a hundred such tales. Backstairs arguments are in progress, children are playing street-games, the junkman is busy with his daily rounds and a street vendor shouts his wares. While conversations go on in the Nolan family kitchen, a neighbor across the courtyard shakes out a mop or hangs wet cloth out to dry. There is music in the air, though the source is often off-screen: a hurdy-gurdy in the street below, a piano next door, a children's chorus singing Christmas carols outside a schoolroom door. Always the Nolans' story is seen in perspective against the bustling life of the community.

In order to give dramatic rise and fall to what was originally no more than a loose assemblage of events in novel form, the scriptwriters, Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, have heightened a conflict-- natured and undependable dreamer, Johnny, and Kate, the determined manager of the tribe. This brings a mawkish air to the part of Johnny, and a sentimental tone to the film as a whole that actually weakens the dramatic structure instead of giving it strength. There is an earthy quality in the writing, however, and in the acting, to rescue the picture from any serious threat at the hands of sentimentality.

Kazan brings to pictures a dynamic and indispensable sense of pace. Time has a different flow in pictures than in theatre, but the need to control it is equally persistent, the means are more numerous, and the rewards in terms of dramatic effect are as great or greater. For the films have a potent device in cutting, which is not available to the theatre man. Furthermore, on the screen there are no false pauses for intermission or change of scene. A skilful [sic] filmmaker can thrust forward the action of one scene with the end of the last; or ease his story along in a gentle lull to prepare for a sharp rise later on. The opening episode of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn plunges the spectator sharply into the midst of the story, and from that moment on it is only in periods of Johnny's decline that the progress of the picture slows down perceptibly without adequate motivation. Thus a dramatic flaw is seen as a fault of pacing and cutting as much as it is of writing.

To those who dread the complete surrender of films to the lush tones of Technicolor, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn should stand as a guarantee of the persistence of the black-and-white picture to the last days of recorded time. For as surely as animal pictures and Betty Grable demand Technicolor for their consumption, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn demands black-and-white. Color could add nothing to this story whose proper palette is the greys and shadows of tenement surroundings and the bright white invasion of the sun that shines, with as much determination as the tree grows, even in Brooklyn.

© 1945 Theatre Arts

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