Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Growing Pains

Last night I watched Elia Kazan's 1945 adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I wasn't sure exactly what I'd gotten myself into. Was this a classic movie or not? It wasn't long before I decided on the latter. It was Kazan's debut, and it did seem rather amateurish in a lot of ways: it's a corny and sentimental story steeped in poverty, misery, family love and goodwill and it seemed rather calculated for easy audience appeal. But it also, eventually, got to me; while a lot of the story seemed kind of shallow and uninspired in the way it was mounted, somewhere along the middle it gained something approaching texture.

The story, based on the popular and well-regarded book by Betty Smith, is about a struggling Irish American family in the early years of the 20th Century. The mom, Katie, played by Dorothy McGuire, is practical and tough; the father, Johnny, played by James Dunn is a drinker and dreamer, making his living as a singing waiter. The couple have two children: Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), who idolizes her father and wants always to think the best of him, and their young son Neely.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Johnny and Francie. Where Katie never sees the point of any endeavor that doesn't bring another penny into the house, Johnny encourages Francie (whom he fondly calls "prima donna") to dream big and think big; her encourages her intellectual pursuits (such as reading her way through the local library) and finangles his way into getting her into a new school.

There's a tenderness to seeing this little girl putting so much of her love and faith in a father who is clearly a loser who will never amount to anything, but that's also the problem with it, because it never feels genuine. It feels packaged, and Dunn's portrayal -- a good-natured, bowler-hatted dipso who spouts old jokes and wanders around singing "Molly Malone" -- is the kind of caricature for which Oscar nominations (and wins, in his case) are made.

It's all very boring stuff until the middle, when Katie learns that she's pregnant and tells Johnny that Francie will have to drop out of school and go to work to make ends meet. What starts as a movie about a happy but poor family that always makes it through sheer force of goodwill becomes a story about the hard choices involved in holding a family together, as Johnny's optimism crashes against Katie's brutal realism. As the layers of the family peel away, and Francie faces off against the loss of Johnny and the domination of Katie, the movie suddenly gains the kind of raw life and intensity Kazan brought to A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.

Not a great film by a long shot, but not bad as apprentice work.

The screenplay, by the way, was co-authored by the short story writer Tess Slesinger.

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