The 1945 film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is based on the 1943 novel by the same name. It is considered by many as a story of a young girl’s coming of age in the early 20th century. The story chronicles the life of a struggling 2nd generation Irish-American family in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
The story begins in 1912 and introduces us to the Nolan family. The primary family members are father Johnny, mother Katie, daughter Francie and son Neeley.
Patriarch Johnny (played by James Dunn) is a dreamer, which is both his greatest strength and weakness. Although well meaning, Johnny is not much of a provider and works occasionally as a singing waiter when his alcoholism doesn’t interfere with his ability to work. He is impractical and indulges his daughter Francie. He sees life through a lens of what might be.
The long suffering mother Katie (played by Dorothy McGuire) works as a cleaning woman in the tenement building in which they live. She supplements her income by saving rags and selling them to a nearby scrap dealer. She is constantly worried about money and the meager existence that she and her husband provide their children. She sees life through a lens of stark reality.
We observe the Nolan family through the lens of daughter Francie (played by Peggy Ann Garner). She is optimistic and clever and is pulled between her father’s wishful thinking and her mother’s pragmatism. Francie knows that only by becoming educated and employed can she shake off the poverty she observes around her every day. Her desire for “something more” puts tension in her relationship with her parents as she wants to attend a public school in a better neighborhood. In an effort of help out her parents, Francie takes on a commanding “big sister” role to her younger brother Neeley.
Other characters include Katie’s sister Sissy (played by Joan Blondell), the three-time married free spirit of the family and Officer McShane (played by Lloyd Nolan) who befriends the family.
In an art-imitates-life twist, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is largely the saga of its author, Betty Smith. Like fictional Francie, Betty Smith grew up in a tenement house in Brooklyn. Her father was a waiter and an alcoholic. She had to quit school before graduating high school because she needed to help support her family. Like Francie, the author desperately wanted to be educated and was an avid reader. And, like the fictional character Sissy, Betty Smith was married three times.
The film earned James Dunn an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Peggy Ann Garner the Academy’s special Juvenile Award. The film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The film also served as the debut for director Elia Kazan who went on to direct other films showcasing contemporary concerns like “On the Waterfront,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”