Elia Kazan's 1945 film debut, the family drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is not a classic that comes up very often, either in the context of the great director's career highlights or the other great tearjerkers of the era, such as It's a Wonderful Life. Maybe this is due to its opening credits, which are kind of awful, with each word of the title appearing one-by-one and set to music that sounds like it came from a barroom tucked behind a carousel. It's a slightly off-putting introduction to a wonderful movie with an acutely touching script and a standout child performance by Peggy Ann Garner.
Dorothy McGuire stars Katie, the matriarch of a poor family struggling to survive in 1912 Brooklyn. With her hard-drinking but charming husband (James Dunn) better at spinning tales than working, Katie shoulders the burden of scraping a living through odd jobs, the single-handed toil of which has hardened her, creating a rift in her marriage. This tension doesn't go unnoticed by the Nolans' oldest child, Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), who has a precocious intellect that is enamored with her doting father's indulgent and creative optimism.
The plot mechanics of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn are nothing that won't be found in any number of garden variety melodramas — there's a flighty aunt (Joan Blondell) whom Katie fears might be a bad influence on the children; Francie aspires to attend a better school in a wealthier neighborhood; changing family circumstances put extra strain on Katie's ability to hold it together — but Kazan, along with screenwriters Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, adapting Betty Smith's novel, renders the family dynamics with such care and empathy that it's profoundly moving to experience this chapter in their lives. Although coming to film from over a decade of success in the live theater, Kazan wastes no time purging the affectations of stage acting from his work, drawing uniformly fine and delicate performances from all of his actors, especially young Garner, who is magnificent. McGuire, in a necessarily less sympathetic role, is also particularly wonderful because of the barriers she presents between herself, the other actors and the audience, leading to a truly heartbreaking climactic scene. As the Nolan family's situation grows more complicated, Kazan subtly changes the look of the film, capturing more shadows, a sharper darkness, and glimmers of hope outlining silhouettes. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy was in top form that year; although he wasn't nominated for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (or the wonderful State Fair) in 1946, he still won his third Oscar in four years for yet a different movie released later that year, Leave Her to Heaven.
Although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is very much a work grounded in its time and place, it bears significant similarities to another masterwork of world cinema, Satyajit Ray's 1955 Pather Panchali, which features a family a world away but not so different from the Nolans, and a comparison of their common struggles across cultures would make for an interesting and worthwhile double feature.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Bas van Stratum. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #5 / 2398 (100%), where it's his favorite movie out of 141 on the National Film Registry of historically or culturally significant American films. It ranked on my Flickchart at #361 (91%), where it's #94 on my chart of 237 movies on the National Film Registry.