A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Century Fox * Directed by Elia Kazan * Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (Adapted from
the novel of the same name by Betty Smith) * Produced by Louis D. Lighton * Original Music by Alfred
Newman * Cinematography by Leon Shamroy * Film Editing by Dorothy Spencer * Art Direction by
Lyle R. Wheeler * Set Decoration by Thomas Little * Costume Design by Bonnie Cashin
Cast: Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Peggy
Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Ted Donaldson (Neeley Nolan), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), James
Gleason (McGarrity), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough)
On the Saturday that begins Elia Kazan’s
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel of the same name (1943)—thirteen-year-old Francie Nolan
(Peggy Ann Garner) laments as workmen cut down the titular tree that stands outside her
Her mother, Katie Nolan (Dorothy MacGuire), at first acknowledges the tree’s former
beauty, but then dismisses Francie’s affection for the foliage: “A tree ain’t gonna put no pennies
in the bank.”
Later that afternoon, when Francie shows her father Johnny Nolan (James Dunn)
the remains of her favored tree, Johnny reassures his beloved daughter:
“Don’t tell me that tree
is gonna lay down and die that easily. Look at that tree. See where it’s coming from.
outta that cement! […] Why, they could cut that old tree right down to the ground and a root
would push up someplace else from the cement.”
Katie and Johnny’s conflicting perspectives of
the tree are emblematic of their marital problems—Katie’s frugality repeatedly clashes with
Johnny’s idealism throughout the film.
Still, Johnny’s comforting words to his daughter situate
the tree as literary motif, symbolic of the Nolan family, as it too grows and develops (from youth
to maturity, from rigidly logical to emotional, etc.) despite adversity in both the book and the
While the point-of-view of Smith’s novel is in third person limited (with emphasis on the inner
thoughts of Francie and occasionally on those of Katie, as well), the point-of-view of Kazan’s
film is largely omniscient.
The audience’s “all knowing,” unbiased perspective of the events in
the film allows for not only identification with multiple characters but also the ability to
recognize the setting, Brooklyn, as a character as well.
Much of the unique vibrancy of the
neighborhood is included in Smith’s novel: Smith, much like Francie, grew up in Williamsburg,
Brooklyn at the turn of the century.
Moreover, Kazan purportedly elected to direct
Grows in Brooklyn
, his first film after a number of studio offers, because of his affinity for and
familiarity with the subject matter—the immigrant lower classes on the streets of New York
(where he famously worked with the Group Theater).