A heartbreaking emotional story of a 2nd generation Irish immigrant family struggling in near squalor in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Though it's a still a revered novel, it's perhaps most significant for being Elia Kazan's first feature film, which brings to bear his distinct working class and socialist sensabilities.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Peggy Ann Garner, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan, Ted Donaldson
By Alan Bacchus
Dorothy McGuire play Katie Nolan, a mother of 2. With her artist/husband Johnny (James Dunn) continually on the road and bringing back little money, she is forced to bring up the kids all by herself. Her kids recognize the struggle and have even taken to petty theft and scheming to bring home more money. Kazan empathizes with the kids, and their ability to cheat and steal are portrayed as admirable traits of social and economic self-preservation.
Financial challenges on the family provide the external conflict. And within the family dynamic between Katie, Johnny and their kids simmers a cauldron of internalized anger. When Johnny comes home he’s welcomed with such warmth, Katie comes to resent it. Her husband's genuine joie de vivre and carefree outlook fuels Katie's strong and sad self-loathing.
Like Frank Capra's You Can’t Take it With You, another fine film about family, Kazan’s fundamental conundrum for his characters is the difference between financial stability and true emotional happiness. Johnny, at his core, is an optimistic and loving person, but he's also a drunk, who in reality was unable to take care of his kids. So is Katie’s hardline way of life the right way to raise her family? Kazan is pretty clear the latter outlook of life is the way to go.
In fact, Kazan, an immigrant himself, also went on to make the epic immigration film America America. With A Tree Grows in Brooklyn he portrays even greater levels of sympathy and understanding of the immigrant experience. The title makes for a wonderful metaphor for the American dream. While in Europe the well rooted class system acts as a barrier, in America, through shear hard work, anyone can rise over obstacles and grow through concrete to become a tree.