Monday 20 July 2015

Elia Kazan's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Based on the novel by Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows an Irish American family lives in Brooklyn during the first two decades of the 20th Century.  The mother, Francie, got pregnant twice as a teenager and is raising her two children.  She is forced to be the main breadwinner as the father, Johnny, who is a singing waiter, cannot hold down a job due to his alcoholism.

The daughter, Francie, escapes from her family's poverty and her father's alcoholism through books.  She sits on the step of the apartment building and looks out the window at the Tree of Heaven, a tree native to China, which grows in vacant lots in New York City.  Francie is quite bright and her father tries to encourage her.  She attends a squalid overcrowded school in Brooklyn, but her father arranges for her to go to a much better school in the city.

Francie's brother, Neeley, has always been the healthy robust one of the two children.  The mother has always considered him to be her favourite, though she tries not to show it.

The mother discovers she is pregnant in 1915 and when the father finds out, he goes into a drunken stupor, dying of alcohol related pneumonia at Christmas time.  An unscrupulous undertaker absconds with the father's life insurance money.  Without money for high school, the two children are forced to find jobs.  Francie works in an artificial flower factory and press clipping office.  Her brother Neeley becomes a talented jazz piano player following in the artistic footsteps of his father.

Francie takes some courses and gets accepted at the University of Michigan.  She is courted by an older man and gets engaged.  Packing up her things to leave the apartment, she spies the Tree of Heaven again.  The tree is just like her family:  despite people's efforts to destroy it, it keeps growing.

The play A Tree Grows in Brooklyn premiered on Broadway in 1945, starring Peggy Ann Garners as Francie, Dorothy McGuires as the mother, James Dunn as the father and Ted Donaldson as the brother.

A scene from the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn courtesy

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