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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945)


Starring: Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Lloyd Nolan and Peggy Ann Garner
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: U
Release Date: 22 July 2019

Though this movie is based on a hugely successful best selling novel, one that endeared itself to soldiers in combat, the public and Broadway audiences, it is gone to us today. By three generations. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I advocate for the timelessness of art, the value intrinsic to art that is not disqualified for failing to be au courant. An uphill task, Sisyphean, where the backslide is always stronger than reaching the peak of appreciation. To argue for the value of the ‘old’ is to be told you’re old, just a geezer maundering about ‘the good old days.’ Intervening generations enjoy such cruelty, X-ers, Millennials and post Mills get downright giddy with the opportunity. I know I did when I was a young Besserwisser or ‘know-it-all’. Like most things there is a Dylan lyric that fits: ‘I was so much older then, but I’m younger than that now.’ Ahem… where was I?

Thus the contortions begin, to talk about a traditional drama of family, childhood blooming, hardship, poverty and the inspiration of betterment. Poverty exists today in every nation, even rich privileged ones but it gets scant attention. From the fifties to the eighties, inner city desperation could be found in films and they would be touted as brave, important and courageous, maybe even given awards, then politely swept aside for more stories of capers, coppers, calamity and creepy creatures. If you can’t land a picture on one of these runways, you’re dead, kid, get yourself buried. The exceptions make us happy. The young Vito section of Godfather Part II (1974), City of God (2002), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Straight Outta Compton (2015), Clockers (1995), Roma (2018), Kill the Irishman (2011), and not to forget pictures like Menace II Society (1993), New Jack City (1991), and the British realist films of the sixties. Kitchen sink dramas, where the plumbing shows or ash can drama where there is no kitchen sink and the impoverished live in the ash can. These have always been a hard sell, unless the artist didn’t give a damn about selling it, just getting it out there, like Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) the ultimate unflinching view of poverty on the screen. (

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is too traditional to make entry into the above list. Poverty grinds down on a young tween, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) and her Mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire), Father, Johnny (James Dunn) and little brother, Neely (Ted Donaldson). The Nolans live in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 1900s and Johnny lives too much in the bottle. Katie scrubs floors for pennies, a nickel is a prize and ten cents are mentioned once as a stunning achievement. Katie guards the coins in a tin can bank nailed to the floor until they become dollars. Francie is a dreamer and a reader, the little girl who reads everything in the library whether she understands it or not. She doesn’t know she is a nascent writer until an alert teacher tells her. Her mother has never read the essays for which she shines but her father, a dreamer like Francie, has read them all.

Things get better, things get worse, all gleepy and weepy as Clockwork’s Alex might say. This is a heartstrings story. But it won’t work for most people today because it’s considered syrupy, traditional and worst of all, sentimental. (Eureka even confesses to that word in its press release.) That said, then, why see it instead of the umpteenth super power character in leotards, cape and codpiece? If that’s your cinematic buffet, then there’s no reason. Let it go. Let it all go.

For film connoisseurs, though, this is Elia Kazan’s first directorial effort of note. He was the fair haired boy of the New York stage and this was his jump to the Hollywood pony. He would go on to be the ace of the town in the early fifties with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955).

Kazan’s cinematographer is Leon Shamroy who would next deliver the lucent coloratura of the ultimate femme fatale darkness movie with the angelic Gene Tierney no less in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and go on to be entrusted with the first film in Cinemascope in 1953, The Robe, onward to Cleopatra (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Shamroy is synonymous with confident control and there are bursts of camera choreography in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn which never let us forget he was a brilliant choice for Kazan’s debut on the soundstage of history.

Next is Dorothy McGuire, Katie, the ultimate mother. McGuire was known already for her admirable nature, her sincerity, her naturalistic honesty and emotive truthfulness. She always did her own makeup, never studied acting, just hurled herself into the moment and believed in instinct over intellect. She was the mother everyone should have. Norman Lloyd, who knew her well, says, in the well researched extras, it was no act.

From 1945 to 1947 McGuire had five star role successes that would glow on anyone’s resumé. Before being Katie Nolan she had scored well in The Enchanted Cottage (1945) where she went from homely to beautiful in the subjective blink of the eye because the facially disfigured war vet, Robert Young, found her so and she the same with him because of the love they experienced in the secluded cottage. After A Tree Grows In Brooklyn she played a mute house servant who is being stalked by a serial killer who likes to murder women with physical differences or ‘afflictions.’ Her only dialogue is the last line in The Spiral Staircase (1946) when she traumatically breaks through her particular psychological (uhhh… movie psychological) blockage and blurts into the Bakelite wall phone: ‘1..8..9… Doctor Parry…come…it’s I, Helen.’ One of the most famous lines of dialogue in all movie history and the only one she had in the picture. The other two winners in this quintet is the post war vets-with-problems romance Till the End of Time (1946) with Guy Madison and Robert Mitchum and one of the best studies on anti-Semitism ever, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) with Gregory Peck and John Garfield. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is, I believe, her greatest acting among all these great films which makes it her greatest work ever.

James Dunn hit his peak with this picture. He always worked in film and television afterward but on Oscar night he took home the Award for best supporting actor. Young Peggy Ann Garner had some later success but never like this. She won for best juvenile actor and that night tucked her Oscar right beside herself in bed.

Kazan believed casting was more than fifty percent of directing. I said this once at a film forum and the director Jim Wynorski got up out of his chair (yes, out of his effing chair I say) to dispute and harangue me. Nowhere near fifty percent, he expounded, (expletives deleted). I’ve changed my mind since then, Jimbo. It’s ninety percent. Elia Kazan would agree.

The 1080p transfer on Blu-ray from a 4k scan of original elements is exquisite. Eureka has preserved this classic for generations to come, generations who care about the timeless art of film.


John Huff

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