In his autobiography, A Life, Elia Kazan referred to his directorial debut for the cinema, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as a “sentimental fairytale”. It’s a rather harsh judgement and, watching the film again, a decidedly incorrect one. Certainly, this particular entry in his filmography doesn’t have the cynical misanthropy that would characterise such later efforts as Baby Doll and A Face in the Crowd, but it’s still a dour, downbeat picture, especially when you consider that it is essentially a family film. Adapted from Betty Smith’s novel of the same name it focuses on one such unit “a few decades ago”, yet this is no exercise in easy nostalgia. After all, the head of the family (James Dunn) is an alcoholic and an optimist to boot leaving only empty dreams; his wife (Dorothy McGuire) has become hard as “granite rock” in such circumstances; and promiscuous Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) may be intended as a little light relief, but she’s on her third husband and doesn’t even his name. Their three adult lives are viewed through the childhood experiences of daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), albeit ones that never soften the blows of such an upbringing and render both the good and bad times with an equal level headedness.
Indeed, given such a stance it is easy to forget that this is a Kazan picture. Following A Tree Grows in Brooklyn he made a series of “problem pictures” such as Pinky and Gentleman’s Agreement which, though not bad films, pointed the finger at racism and anti-Semitism with all of the preachiness that you expect from a Hollywood picture made during the late-forties/early-fifties. Thereafter he named names at the HUAC hearings, an event that casts the shadow over the remainder of his career, making it impossible to sit through, say, On the Waterfront or Wild River without trying to tease out meanings, whether they are there or not.
As such A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a pleasing experience insofar as its one of those rare Kazan pictures where you don’t feel as though you are being bullied into taking a position. Instead, we simply relax and focus on his superb handling of the actors, an obvious holdover from his then contemporaneous career as a theatre director. To read the various press releases that appear on the disc as extras is a testament to his obvious talents in this respect. McGuire, for example, was cast completely against type, yet only occasionally does she lapse into unnecessary melodrama. Whilst, the role of Francie was originally to been playing by an adult acting the child, yet Kazan stuck to his guns and held out for Garner despite at the time being best known for her small part as young Jane Eyre in Robert Stevenson’s 1943 adaptation of the classic Brontë novel. It paid off as not only does it add to the intended realism, but also because despite playing what is essentially the lead, the magnitude of the role never seems to phase her. Moreover, there’s a lack of sentimentality and melodrama to her playing, and a downplaying off her cuteness (a role more fully occupied by Ted Nicholson, playing her on-screen brother Neely) which complements the adult performers well. Indeed, there’s a genuine sense that she is part of the family (as opposed to some hideous child actor product of Hollywood) which aids the film immeasurably, for without the family there is no story.
Yet interestingly, despite this obvious focus on the actors, Kazan doesn’t impose a theatricality on the film. He favours an episode approach as opposed to a rigid three act structure - in doing so more favourably capturing the childhood years - but, more importantly, he also doesn’t go the other way and make the film overtly cinematic. Certainly, he adopts a mobile camera technique and never makes the obviously artificial sets seem stagy, but also he never gives the impression that he is going out of his way to impress (as could be expected from a debut feature). Indeed, his is a style, on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at least, that is decidedly calm and unemphatic, one that uses Alfred Newman’s score sparingly and, of course, the actors to the hilt. Admittedly, its not his greatest film work- A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and Wild River are more immediate claimants for that title - but its a welcome DVD release nonetheless and one that will surely please fans of the director.
Though a 20th Century Fox, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is gaining its UK DVD release through Fremantle. Pleasingly, this hasn’t produced a dip in presentation quality and, on the whole, the film comes off surprisingly well. The original Academy ratio has been adhered to and the image has a quite unexpected sharpness considering its age (60 years old at the time of this release). Admittedly, there are occasional signs of edge enhancement and the rare instance of grain and flicker, but these feel like minor concessions especially when expectations shouldn’t be too high. As for the sound, the disc is equally impressive, providing the original mono (over the front the channels) with little in the way of noteworthy difficulties.
Also a surprise for a film of this age is the presence of some worthy extras. Admittedly, the various galleries - which provide an insight into the 1945 press campaign - don’t add up to much, but they are of interest. Firstly, they’ve been lovingly presented by Fremantle, and secondly, it’s fascinating to see just for the film was marketed, especially in the way that it singles out the now largely forgotten James Dunn for attention and uses such quaint phrases as “filmisation” that you never see anymore. Of course, you could argue that the film deserves a little more, but these pieces are welcome nonetheless.
Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The cinematic debut of Elia Kazan, this film may not rank amongst the director's very finest, but is a welcome release nonetheless, especially given its fine presentation.