110. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (USA 1945)

The travails of a working class family in early 1900s New York

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy Maguire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan

Novel: Betty Smith

Music: Alfred Newman

Cinematography: Leon Shamroy

Moderately Interesting Fact: Producer Louis D. Lighton didn't want actor James Dunn to play piss artist with a heart of gold Johnny Nolan because Dunn was in fact  was a well-known (occasionally functioning) alcoholic. However, Dunn's lovely, affecting performance won him the Academy Award.


In the same manner that listening to Joy Division can be an ordeal, watching A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is at times, hard work. Both band and film ultimately provide an uplifting experience, but there is much pain along the way before cathartic release is reached.

The Nolan family are second generation Irish immigrants living in a tiny set of rooms in the eponymous borough of the title. There are a few light hearted moments along the way, but never did any family suffer like the Nolans. Admittedly, this is not the in your face, soil eating poverty of Angela's Ashes, but the Nolans' emotional distress and thwarted ambitions are writ large in Kazan's debut film.

James Dunn plays father of the family Johnny Nolan, an alcoholic bar room crooner (I think that's why he's referred to as the 'Brooklyn Thrush', although I doubt if his genital hygiene is any better than your usual turn of the century lush). Johnny loves his kids with a passion, but like Viz's thirsty family man Eight Ace, he can't help himself when there's a choice between his familial duties and a seventy hour sesh on the sauce.

Judy Bowker-alike Dorothy Maguire  plays Katie Nolan, a delicate but hard working mother who can't stop herself being impregnated by her ageing, ne'er do well husband Johnny.

The best performance of all however, comes from Peggy Ann Garner, as Francie Nolan, a young teenage girl who dreams of academic success. Garner won a special Oscar for her performance and well she deserved it. F*** me, though, does this wee girlie suffer in this film. Imagine Liv Ullman in any Bergman film, crossed with Michael Bryant in The Roads to Freedom* and topped (so to speak) with Gilb's 'Alone Again Naturally' and you're half way there.

Good performances from Lloyd Nolan (as the cop with the heart of gold) and Joan Blondell (as the tart with a heart of gold) complement the outstanding performances of the main players. Blondell claimed that there was a scene where the Nolan kids find a tin full of spent johnnies and it was up to her character to explain their function in a true family context. Doesn't sound very likely, does it?

The cinematography is often outstanding and the beautifully realised A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is nowhere near as saccharine as its much vaunted contemporary, It's a Wonderful Life.

A superb film.


*The BBC has all of the master tapes of this programme; I wish they would repeat it.