Cast & Crew
During the early part of the century, in the Irish-American section of Brooklyn, the poor Nolan family struggles to make ends meet in their tenement flat. Johnny Nolan, an infrequently employed singing waiter, is an alcoholic whose jovial, impractical nature is the delight and despair of his hard-working wife Katie, who serves as the tenement's scrubwoman. Their two children, the ever-hungry Neeley and the wistful, teenaged Francie, help Katie by selling rags. Francie idolizes her father, who encourages her to daydream about better times to come. One afternoon, Francie notices with dismay that the tree growing in the tenement courtyard is being ruthlessly trimmed. She is distracted, however, by the arrival of insurance agent Barker, who collects Katie's weekly premiums. Barker, a notorious gossip, reveals that Katie's sister Sissy has married for the third time. Katie is furious but the children are delighted that they will have another uncle Bill, for Sissy always calls her husbands Bill. Later that evening, Johnny comes home and learns from Francie that "their" tree has been cut. Johnny assures her that the tree will grow back in the spring, then leaves for a job singing at a wedding. When Sissy arrives soon after for a visit, Katie castigates her for marrying again without obtaining a divorce from her last husband. The earthy Sissy protests that she waited for seven years before re-marrying, and insists that she really loves her new man, who is a milkman named Steve Edwards. Sissy then joins the children on the sidewalk, and when a neighborhood woman complains about the Nolans borrowing her daughter's roller skates, police officer McShane breaks up the loud discussion. McShane, who is new to the neighborhood, is charmed by Katie's loveliness, but she is nonplussed by his attraction. Afraid that Sissy is a bad influence on the children, Katie forbids her to visit again. Johnny returns home late that night and is thrilled to see Katie waiting up for him. Francie and Neeley awaken, and Johnny regales them with tales of the wedding. After the children return to bed, Johnny promises Katie that he will make a "fresh start," but the pragmatic Katie knows that nothing will come of his big talk. The next morning, Francie and Neeley are on their way to school when they see the drunken Johnny staggering home. McShane escorts him up the stairs and is stunned to learn that he is Katie's husband. Later, Francie confides in Johnny her dream to attend a nicer school in a better neighborhood. Even though it means lying about their address, Johnny convinces Katie to let Francie go, and Francie becomes a member of Miss McDonough's class at the new school. Soon after, Katie moves the family to a tiny, less expensive apartment on the top floor of the tenement. Believing that Katie made the move out of stinginess, Johnny forlornly sings "Annie Laurie," accompanying himself on a piano left by the former occupant. On Christmas Eve, Miss McDonough encourages Francie to become a writer, and after class is over, Francie and Neeley obtain a leftover tree from a Christmas tree vendor. The children carry their prize home, and the Nolans are joined by Steve and Sissy, whose pregnancy has reconciled her with Katie. Katie confides in Sissy that she is pregnant also, and later that night, tells Johnny. Finally realizing why Katie moved them to the cheaper apartment, Johnny is further crushed when Katie insists that Francie will have to quit school before her graduation from eighth grade, so that she can go to work. Determined to keep Francie in school, Johnny leaves to find a job, but after he has been missing for over a week, Katie begins searching for him. Later, McShane brings her news that Johnny died from pneumonia while looking for work, and at his funeral, many people lament his loss. So grief-stricken that she cannot cry, Francie stoically agrees to work with Neeley in McGarrity's bar after school to help provide for the family. Katie is relieved that Francie can stay in school but is aware that Francie blames her for Johnny's death. After Sissy's baby is born safely in a hospital, Katie asks Francie to remain close by until her time comes, for they cannot afford a hospital. One afternoon, Katie goes into labor, and as Francie comforts her, Katie reveals how much she misses Johnny, and mother and daughter draw closer. They name the baby Annie Laurie, and the little family continues. Graduation day arrives, and while Katie attends Neeley's ceremony at the old school, Sissy goes with Francie. On her desk, Francie discovers a bouquet paid for with money Johnny gave to Sissy before Christmas, and also a card he wrote to her. The gesture finally enables Francie to release her grief, and after a good cry, she receives her diploma with her class. Afterward, the family has ice cream at the drugstore, and a neighborhood boy asks Francie out on her first date. When the Nolans return to their apartment, they find McShane helping Steve babysit Annie Laurie. Sissy and Steve leave, and McShane asks Katie if he can keep company with her, intending to marry her as soon as she feels that a decent interval has passed. Touched by McShane's kindness, Katie agrees, and Francie, as the eldest, also gives her consent. McShane promises to be a good friend to the two oldest children and asks permission to adopt Annie Laurie. When Francie and Neeley go outside to leave the courting couple alone, they remark that while their sister's life will be easier than theirs, she will not have as much fun. Francie then notices that her tree is growing again, just as Johnny promised it would.
Peggy Ann Garner
B. S. Pully
J. Farrell Macdonald
Adeline Dewalt Reynolds
Joseph J. Greene
Harry Harvey Jr.
Nancy June Robinson
Mary Lou Harrington
Sally Ann Brown
Eva Lee Kuney
Ethel May Halls
James B. Carson
Frank E. Hughes
Louis D. Lighton
James Ramsey Murray
Lady John Scott
John Francis Wade
Best Supporting Actor
Best Writing, Screenplay
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
James Dunn won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® in this film, in a portrayal that was not far from his off-screen personality. Dunn had co-starred with Shirley Temple in her first three features, Baby Take a Bow (1934), Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), and Bright Eyes(1934), but with the decline of the musical for Twentieth Century-Fox, he was sent to the B-movie roster, where he gained a reputation for heavy drinking. When he was proposed for the role of Johnny Nolan, Fox executives said no, concerned about the actor's alleged alcoholism. But Darryl Zanuck was persuaded that Dunn was the right person for the role of the Irish singing waiter, and against all advice, he approved the casting. Kazan explains Dunn's rare ability for the part in The Master Director Discusses His Films by Jeff Young:
"He was terrific. I did a smart thing or a good thing with Dunn, something I learned from [Louis] Lighton. In the theater if you needed a guy to play a drunk, you got an actor who probably had some experience with drink, but more importantly someone who you knew was good at playing those kinds of scenes....Jimmy had been run out of movies for drinking. He was largely unemployable and felt ill at ease at the studio. But he was an awfully sweet, nice man, a hell of a guy. When I met him I said, this is it, this is Johnny Nolan, himself. He's full of watery-eyed Irish affection. He's ebullient. He feels guilty. He slinks."
Peggy Ann Garner, who was, according to the New York Times, "Miss Smith's Francie Nolan to the life", earned a special Oscar® as Best Child Actress for a remarkably realistic performance. Kazan's practice was to connect personally with his actors and get to know them well before the shooting began, so that he could "edge them towards the part so that the part becomes them." In her real life, according to Kazan's remembrance in the Young biography, Garner was constantly anxious about her father with whom she enjoyed a close relationship but who was serving in the air force at the time; Kazan encouraged her to use her emotional vulnerability for the part. Kazan also worked to create a personal bond between Garner and Dunn, whose amazing chemistry is the cornerstone of the film's emotional punch:
"I treated him [James Dunn] and Peggy the same way. I also threw them together a lot. I would tell Jimmy about her father being away and how much she missed him. I got him concerned about her. And I would tell her she was important to Jimmy and got her to love Jimmy. I have often tried to create something behind the scenes, that was close to what has to be in the scenes."
Betty Smith's book was a bestseller on its own and the rights became a studio bidding war before it was even published. According to The Hollywood Reporter news items at the time, Twentieth Century-Fox paid $55,000 for it and planned to star Alice Faye as Katie Nolan. Jeanne Crain was also considered for the role and Fred MacMurray for Johnny Nolan. Dorothy McGuire, who did win the part of Katie Nolan, had only one film in release when she was cast - Claudia (1943).
Bringing all the humanity of the book to the screen proved to be a problem for Hollywood's self-regulating Censorship board. The Production Code Administration (PCA) originally refused to approve the screenplay due to "the bigamous characterization of Sissy". They finally consented, as long as the film firmly established that all her earlier husbands had died or divorced her.
Smith's cousin, Sadie Grandner, filed libel suits against the book and the film, alleging that Smith had based the character of Aunt Sissy on her and that her reputation had suffered as a result. The studio, fearing the suits, reportedly toned down the character's representation, and Grandner settled for $1,500.
Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), who was going through a divorce from Dick Powell during production, is full of affection for Kazan in Matthew Kennedy's biography The Interrupted Family, but spares no kindness for the PCA, which cut a scene where Sissy, who works in a condom factory, tries to explain to the children what one is when they accidentally find it:
"They cut the best scene in the picture, the best scene I ever played and the best piece of acting I have ever done....in the most beautiful writing the author, Betty Smith, did, Sissy tries to explain to the children what the rubber is; not by talking about the actual thing, but about love and life itself. It was very simply done, and all of us players hugged each other spontaneously at the end of the scene. It was marvelous and the Legion of Decency made us take it out. Wasn't that stupid?"
Fox provided Kazan with a generous production budget for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the film's sets were elaborate and costly. A full stage was devoted to a four-story replica of the Nolan's tenement building and the cameras were mounted so they could move the full height of the building to capture action on all floors during the staircase scenes.
When he arrived in Hollywood for the production, Kazan was accompanied by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), with whom he had done stage work. Ray's participation in the film is alternately described as Kazan's assistant or the dialogue director. One source claims that he assisted Alfred E. Newman with the film's musical score.
For Kazan's first feature film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an impressive beginning. It performed well at the box office and received widespread critical acclaim, appearing on a number of lists as one of the top 10 films of the year. In addition to the cast accolades the film earned, the screenplay, penned by husband and wife team Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, was also nominated for an Oscar®. For its powerful cultural merit, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the first films chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress Film Registry.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger; Betty Smith (novel); Anita Loos (uncredited)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Sissy Edwards), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan aka The Brooklyn Thrush), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), James Gleason (McGarrity), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Peggy Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), John Alexander (Steve Edwards), B.S. Pully (Christmas Tree Vendor).
by Emily Soares
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
Kazan was born Elias Kazanjoglou in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on September 7, 1909. In 1913, he immigrated with his parents to New York City, where his father sold rugs for a living. At age 17, Kazan enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduation, he went to Yale University's School of Drama, where he studied musical theater and began acting and directing plays.
In 1932, Kazan joined New York's socialist minded Group Theatre as an actor and assistant manager. At the time, the Group Theatre was the epicenter for radical thought and activity in the arts. Kazan befriended such notable theater personalities as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Clifford Odets. Kazan even joined the Communist party for two years (1934-36), before resigning because of his disillusionment with its leadership.
After his stint in New York, Kazan went to Hollywood, where he found work as an actor in two Warner Brothers films: City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). He made his Broadway debut in 1942, directing Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth with Tallulah Bankhead; Fredric March and Montgomery Clift. It was a huge hit. After that success, it was back to Hollywood, this time as a director for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Kazan's directorial film debut was the poignant A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith's bestseller about tenement life. From the beginning, Kazan proved his talent for enticing natural performances from his actors; James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner both won deserved Oscars for their work in this film.
1947 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Kazan. He notched two huge hits on Broadway: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's All My Sons; co-founded the Actors Studio with Lee Strasburg, a leading proponent of "Method" acting that is still widely practiced today; and two potent treatise on anti-Semitism Boomerang and Gentleman's Agreement, the latter earning Kazan his first Oscar. Kazan's next few films were not among his best, but they were well crafted and interesting: Pinky (1949), the story of a light-skinned black woman who passes for white (hampered by Jeanne Crain in the lead); and Panic in the Streets (1950), a taut thriller about efforts to contain a burgeoning epidemic which was shot entirely on the streets of New Orleans.
It wasn't until he brought Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen that Kazan had a major impact on American cinema. Featuring an explosive Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski, the films' raw sensuality brought a stark and galvanizing realism to cinema that simply hadn't happened before. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) not only earned Kazan another Oscar nod for Best Director, but it made a star out of Brando and earned best acting honors for the rest of the cast: Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.
It was around this time that Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On April 10, 1952, he informed on former associates from the Group Theater, including Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, John Garfield, and Lee and Paula Strasberg. Despite formal protests from many acquaintances from his past, including Odets and Arthur Miller, Kazan remained unapologetic to the end for his actions, and he would remain questioned by social critics for the remainder of his life.
Kazan continued his association with Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), and then in the powerful On the Waterfront (1954), which took eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and a second Best Director Oscar for Kazan. Budd Schulberg's incisive drama about the corruption of longshoremen's unions was the perfect subject matter for Kazan's ever trenchant approach to social consciousness and cinematic naturalism.
Kazan's next effort, based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) featured James Dean in his first major role. Kazan's continued ability to draw such raw, vulnerable performances out of his actors (as exemplified by Dean) drew critical praise from all quarters, and the film still stands today as one of the most searing looks of a family in conflict.
After East of Eden, Kazan would never quite scale the artistic heights of his previous movies, yet he still came up with some first-rate cinema: the steamy, boldly suggestive Baby Doll (1956), with a thumb sucking Carol Baker as a provocative child bride; an early, superior look at populist demagoguery A Face in the Crowd (1957) with Andy Griffith giving the performance of his career as a corrupt media darling; the moving coming-of-age drama Splendor in the Grass (1961) starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; the evocative America, America (1963), based on the experiences of Kazan's own uncle's immigration experience; and his final film The Last Tycoon (1976) an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, which starred Robert De Niro.
Kazan was in retirement for several years, but he made a notorious return to the limelight when in 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decided to give Kazan an honorary Oscar® for lifetime achievement. It was a decision met with vocal protests from aging blacklisted artists as well as younger activists. At the time of the presentation, several audience members would not stand up as a form of protest. Still, Kazan attended the ceremonies, thanked friends and family, avoided political discussion, and went home, a most dignified handling of a very controversial moment. Besides his widow, Frances Rudge, Kazan is survived by his sons, Leo, Marco, and Nicholas, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune (1990); daughters Judy and Katharine; and several grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
Gene Tierney was originally cast as Katie Nolan. When Tierney became pregnant, 'McGuire, Dorothy' was given the role.
Fred MacMurray campaigned for the role of Johnny Nolan and Alice Faye was at one time considered for Aunt Sissy.
The opening title card reads "Twentieth Century-Fox presents Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The screen rights to Smith's novel became the focus of a bidding war among several studios before the book was even published, according to a June 24, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item. Twentieth Century-Fox obtained the rights to the best-seller for $55,000, and intended to star Alice Faye as "Katie Nolan," according to later Hollywood Reporter news items. When Faye proved unavailable, Gene Tierney was tested for the role. On March 31, 1944, Hollywood Reporter stated that actors "not officially announced but strongly rumored for roles" included Mary Anderson, Jeanne Crain and Fred MacMurray. The studio carried out an extensive search for an actor to play "Johnny Nolan," and on December 16, 1943, Hollywood Reporter noted that Phil Regan was the "leading contender." James Dunn, who won the role in the film, was signed in April 1944, and a Hollywood Reporter news item commented that "Dunn was tested twice, once at the beginning of the search, and again after all other possibilities had been abandoned and it was certain no top box office name would be available." Dorothy McGuire, who was only thirteen years older than Peggy Ann Garner at the time of filming, was borrowed from David O. Selznick's company for the production. Ted Donaldson was borrowed from Columbia, and John Alexander was borrowed from Warner Bros.
A May 19, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item described one of the film's sets as "the most elaborate and, mechanically speaking, costly set to be used" on the studio's lot in several years. A full stage was taken up with the four-story replica of the Nolans' Brooklyn tenement house, and in one scene, "the cameras [were to] work on elevators to capture action in sequence on all of the floors during one take."
According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA initially refused to approve the screenplay due to "the bigamous characterization of Sissy." The PCA also disapproved of the light tone taken by the characters toward Sissy's marital escapades, and on April 26, 1944, suggested that the portrayal of Sissy as a much-married woman would be acceptable if it were clearly established that her previous husbands had died before she remarried. On May 4, 1944, the PCA approved the script, although the Office did issue further warnings that Sissy's "false philosophy" regarding the nature of love and marriage should be toned down.
Smith's book and the film were the subjects of libel lawsuits brought by Smith's cousin, Sadie Grandner. Grandner alleged that Smith based the character of "Aunt Sissy" on her, but with malicious and slanderous implications upon her character, and that following the book and film's release, she had become the object of scorn and ridicule by her acquaintances. According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Grandner filed suit against Smith and her publishing company first, before the film was produced. The studio, worried that she would hold them liable as well, deliberately "toned down" the portrayal of Sissy. The legal records reveal that in February 1946, Grandner, who filed suit against the studio under the name Sadie Kandler, dropped her claim in exchange for $1,500. The disposition of her suit against Smith and the publishing company is not known.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which benefitted the Naval Aid Auxiliary with its gala West Coast premiere, was first seen by U.S. troops in Manila, according to a February 7, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item. The picture garnered much critical praise and excellent box office receipts, and marked the dramatic film debut of director Elia Kazan, a renowned stage director who had previously worked on two film documentaries. When Kazan came to Hollywood for the production, he was accompanied by Nicholas Ray, with whom he had worked on the stage. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the first film on which Ray worked, and he also makes a brief appearance in the picture as a bakery clerk. Although some modern sources list Ray as Kazan's assistant director, studio legal records credit him as a dialogue director. According to one modern source, Ray aided Alfred Newman in preparing the film's musical score. The picture marked a return to production by producer Louis D. Lighton, who had not personally supervised a film since the 1939 M-G-M film Lucky Night. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a personal triumph for Dunn, whose superb notices helped revitalize his career. Garner and Nolan also received much praise, and critics commented warmly on McGuire's transition from the childlike bride in the 1943 Twentieth Century-Fox production Claudia to the hardworking "Katie Nolan." The film was named one of the ten best films of the year by Film Daily, the National Board of Review, Time and New York Times. The picture also received an Academy Award nomination for Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis' screenplay. The screenplay was Slesinger's last, however, as she died on February 21, 1945. Slesinger and Davis were married and frequently worked together. Dunn was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Garner received a special Oscar as "the outstanding child performer of 1945." According to a June 3, 1945 New York Times article, the picture was among "the first selections for inclusion in the film section of the Library of Congress." The article quotes acting librarian Dr. Luther H. Evans as saying that "the chief purpose of the library in its film selections was to preserve those 'which faithfully record...the contemporary life and tastes and preferences of the American people.'"
On April 28, 1949, Dunn appeared with Claudia Marshall in The Hallmark Playhouse's radio broadcast of the story. Smith cowrote a musical play version of her novel with George Abbott, and it opened in New York on April 19, 1951, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Arthur Schwartz. Joan Blondell also starred as "Sissy" in the road company version of the musical play, which opened on October 9, 1952. In 1974, the NBC network broadcast a television film based on Slesinger and Davis' adaptation of the novel, also entitled A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The 1974 production was directed by Joseph Hardy and starred Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker and James Olson.
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States on Video August 25, 1988
Released in United States Winter February 1945
Shot in 73 days in 1944.
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Kazan" November 22 - December 26, 1996.)
Released in United States Winter February 1945
Released in United States on Video August 25, 1988