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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945

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I had never seen A Tree Grows in Brooklyn before. Perhaps because I had never found Elia Kazan particularly riveting. At least, not until now. His films, even those more justly celebrated, suffer from a kind of excessiveness, which might seem rather paradoxical, given that we are talking about a director who sought formal simplicity. I felt the quest for perfection in his cast’s performance, and a seamless combination of the actors’ presence and that of the camera was something to be admired rather than felt. I know that films such as On the Waterfront or Splendor in the Grass have their own intrinsic power, and take us into a world delineated with great precision, yet they still left me feeling as if I was observing a beautiful sculpture, in which movement seemed crystallized, and the viewer’s role was to inspect it from every angle, to appreciate all its brilliance in detail.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kazan’s film directorial debut, is not very brilliant in terms of its directorial strategies. In his memoirs, the director himself is more interested in discussing his work with the actors, particularly with the young Peggy Ann Garner (who plays Frances) and her relationship with Jimm Dunn (her father in the film) – and in effect the two of them, along with Lloyd Nolan (who plays the part of police officer McShane), rise head and shoulders above the rest. The film, shot entirely within the studio, and released in 1945, is a perfect example of the studio system: in other words, a film instigated and followed through by a producer, who, like an orchestra conductor aiming for the best possible combination, chooses the various components and performers (story,
director, cast, DoP, editor). The producer in question was Louis D. Lighton. One of the older generation (starting out as a scriptwriter in the 1920s), Lighton was well versed in the era’s film world, and had enough know-how to realize what could work in a film adaptation of the Bettie Davis best seller that was the seed for the project. From the novel’s ample narrative material, the film actually only uses the sections about the two children (Frances and Neely) growing up.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn set itself the task of tugging at its audience’s heartstrings, condensing the power of the dramatic material and seasoning it with a great deal of lyricism. The idea of the family is central to the story and this is emphasized by the way the streets outside are used as a kind of backdrop. The tenement building is a place of safety, where everyone knows one another, for better and for worse. The script clearly demarcates roles: the mother is in charge of the house – not just the apartment but of the whole building. Often cleaning the stairs, she knows all the neighbors, and how to deal with them… The father belongs to the outside world, to the streets outside, of which the film only provides glimpses. It is he who takes the daughter to her new school.
It is he who heads for the door when the atmosphere at home gets too much for him. And it is always he who comes a cropper in the outside world, then returns – at times a little the worse for wear (sick, as the children, well schooled by their mother, maintain). Home is the site of control, of economy, of a puritan morality that governs and determines behavior. The street on the other hand is a place for play and mischief, but also offers freedom of initiative. The streets open up possibilities, embodied in the character of Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell), the only one who can move freely between these two worlds. Apart from her – booted out of the house by her sister but welcomed back when she has regained a degree of respectability – it falls to the father to bring a little of the verve and poetry of the streets into the domestic arena. These are brief incursions, always doomed to failure. There is another element, alien to the ethos of the house, that plays an unexpected walk-on role. It comes in the form of a thick book, which the two children are occasionally obliged to read in the evenings. In my view the scene of Francie and Neely bent over Troilus and Cressida is crucial. Not so much, or
not only, because it instigates a wonderful monologue by the aunt about America as the land of liberty, a country where, if they have ability, children can do better than their parents; but because it underscores the theme of language.

Francie does not understand Shakespeare’s language but welcomes it as something fine and beautiful. The stump of the tree that has been cut down in the courtyard (which then grows back), as a metaphor for poetry which might seem redundant but actually makes the world a more wonderful place, is rather obvious. But there is something more going on here. This introduction of another form of language highlights the many different language registers that constitute the narrative. Each character has his or her own language, which conveys where they come from, their character, and their relationship with the world. Furthermore a number of scenes play on a change of linguistic register: Francie talks in one way with her brother, and in another with her mother. The same child, jumping onto the balcony on the building’s top floor to look at the city below, uses different words again….

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a film that relies on words, on their capacity to define – or conceal – something, on their power to transport the narrative to another level. It is words that create reality, just as they do in a stage play. Words that we hear from that wonderful raconteur, the father, and those pronounced by the mother – severe, harsh, but highly pragmatic. It is words that also define the more extreme emotions: such as Francie’s explosion of rage when faced with her mother’s choices – expressed not in simple tears or yelling, but argued via a stream of lucid and biting words. And it is precisely the faith in language and its power to make the world better that shines through the film and gives it a particular luster.

Carlo Chatrian

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