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Children In Films Blogathon: Peggy Ann Garner and “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”

May 26, 2013

This is my entry in the “Children In Films” Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

As far back as I’ve been able to trace (as I once had to do for a school project), I’m completely Irish-American on both sides of my family. And yet it wasn’t really something that I thought about a lot when I was growing up. There were certain things that I noticed, of course, like the fact my father had a couple of records of Irish-American songs that he loved to play and sing along with, both at parties and when we were alone (it’s important to remember how Irish-American music is very different from Irish music). Or how there was a cultural conflict between the Irish and Italians that was joked about but never discussed (brought home most forcefully during my uncle’s second wedding when the wedding photographer, arranging us for a family photograph, put me next to my aunt’s then-husband, only for my mom to exclaim, “You can’t do that! He’s Italian!”). And, of course, I took to potatoes, considered an Irish staple, and still love eating them, as well as corned beef and soda bread (never a fan of cabbage, though). Still, it wasn’t until I went to college and, in my junior year, took a course in Irish history that I became interested in Ireland (though strangely enough, not my family history there), both from the history perspective and the cultural perspective. For the latter, it wasn’t so much with novels (though I inherited from my father some James Joyce novels, which I enjoyed, and own several by Roddy Doyle) or plays as with music (The Chieftains, U2, Van Morrison) and, of course, movies. There have been plenty of Irish-themed movies I’ve enjoyed, from the sentimental (The Quiet ManWaking Ned Devine) to the harder-edged (Odd Man OutIn the Name of the Father). However, when it comes to exploring the Irish-American experience, the one movie that stands above all others, for me, is Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, made in 1945, and starring, among others, Peggy Ann Garner.

Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) with her beloved father Johnny (James Dunn).

Garner was only 13 when the movie came out, but she had already had some roles in some major movies, such as Carole Lombard’s daughter in In Name Only, one half of a brother-sister pair helped by Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper (Roddy McDowell played the brother, and ironically, he and Garner were paired together two years later as childhood sweethearts in The Keys of the Kingdom), and the younger version of the title character in Jane Eyre. Still, her role in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was her biggest to date, and yet she’s able to handle it with poise and ability equal to those of her older, more experienced co-stars.

While Smith’s original novel spans several years, the movie concentrates on one year in the life of Francie Nolan (Garner), and her family, set in early 1900’s Brooklyn. Her father Johnny (James Dunn) is a singing waiter, but doesn’t get much work from it and spends a lot of time drinking (as it wouldn’t be mentioned in the culture when the story was set, or in movies in general until The Lost Weekend came out later in the year, you only hear the word “alcoholism” once, but it’s pretty clear that’s what’s going on). It’s up to her mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) to earn enough money to put food on the table, as she does by washing the floors of the tenement they live in. Francie obeys Katie, but doesn’t love her like she does Johnny (in the novel, it’s shown Francie was never the favorite of Katie’s like her younger brother Neely (Ted Donaldson) was, but that’s only barely implied here). While often drunk, Johnny, at least from Francie’s point of view, is never mean, is always able to entertain people (we see his ability to sing upon his entrance when he’s singing “Cockles and Mussels”, a traditional Irish folk song, while walking up to the apartment) and make them feel good (unlike Katie, he’s able to spot when a sickly neighborhood girl is wearing a new dress). And when Francie wants to transfer to another school (she was going to the same one as Neely, but felt stifled), it’s Johnny who comes up with the idea of pretending Francie is living with a relative closer to the school so she can go. Francie also resents Katie because of her estrangement from her sister Sissy (Joan Blondell); Sissy has gone through a string of husbands (and calls them all “Steve”, even though her latest husband’s name is Bill (John Alexander)) and is an incurable flirt, and Katie is afraid of Sissy shaming the rest of the family as much as Johnny has with his drinking. But when tragedy strikes, Francie has to reevaluate her relationship with Katie.

Katie (Dorothy McGuire) gives Francie and Neely (Ted Donaldson) last-minute instructions.

This was Kazan’s first film (he had previously directed a documentary short), and in later years, he tended to downgrade the film as being overly theatrical. It is true that the film would have benefited had Kazan been able to shoot on location (it was made on one of the backlots at 20th Century Fox), but otherwise, I think he’s being much too harsh. Kazan and cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who also shot such films as Leave Her to HeavenThe Girl Can’t Help It and the original Planet of the Apes) aren’t afraid to use low-light photography, especially in the scenes at night, and while the camera movement is relatively simple (except for a scene that starts from outside the Nolan’s window and moves into the apartment), nothing is held for too long or too short a time. Though the film was shot on a set, Kazan does make this feel like a real city, with the hustle, bustle, dirt and grime that implies (Art director Lyle Wheeler and production/set designer Thomas Little also deserve credit). And though except for the music (Johnny also sings “Annie Laurie” to the family in one scene) and some of the accents, there’s nothing explicitly Irish shown in the movie, it feels authentic to the Irish-American experience, particularly in the fact there are certain subjects you don’t talk about it public, and how territorial everyone was (only one part of the movie feels false; that no one is seen going to church). Kazan, an immigrant himself, no doubt was able to draw on his own experiences to recreate the world Smith depicts of Irish immigrants and their children, and if it occasionally becomes too sentimental (as when Katie’s mother talks of why she came to America), it feels heartfelt.

Aside from the main cast and a few of the major supporting actors – such as James Gleason as McGarrity, owner of the bar Johnny frequents, and Ruth Nelson as Miss McDonough, Francie’s teacher at her new school – Kazan fills the movie with non-actors, all of whom contribute to the authenticity of the atmosphere (future director Nicholas Ray, who also assisted as a dialogue director, shows up briefly as a bakery clerk). And while screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger (veteran screenwriter Anita Loos also did some uncredited work on the dialogue) condensed the novel, filming maybe two-fifths of it (the story of Johnny and Katie’s early relationship gets condensed to a late-night dinner with the family and a talk between Katie and Sissie). Finally, the rest of the cast is very good. This was only McGuire’s third feature film (another very good movie she did, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, came out later in the year), but while she does look a little to-the-manor-born, she’s completely convincing as someone who’s stopped dreaming because they’re afraid of everything falling apart. Dunn in real life had battled alcoholism, so all of his scenes ring true. Blondell is of course reliably good as Sissy, not only in being a flirt, but also showing she’s much smarter and tougher than she may appear. And Lloyd Nolan is touching as McShane, the neighborhood beat cop who is silently in love with Katie. But the main reason the movie works so well is the skill Kazan showed with the child actors, Donaldson and especially Garner.

Francie giving her life’s philosophy to the librarian.

Francie is someone who knows there’s a better life out there, and wants it, yet it’s not a selfish desire. She’s genuinely curious about the world and the knowledge to be gained from it (she tells the flabbergasted librarian she wants to read straight through the alphabet). This is why she wanted to change schools, because she felt her old school didn’t satisfy that urge, and this is why, while Neely would rather do anything than read the Bible and Shakespeare at night (their grandmother makes them do it, because she says it’ll help them advance), Francie takes to it diligently. She also has good manners (as she shows when she goes to a five-and-dime store), is reliable (which is why Katie allows her to stay when Mr. Barker (Charles Halton), the insurance man, comes by), and is a bit of a romantic (as when she parrots Sissy’s ideas about love). You can see why Johnny gives her the affectionate nickname of “Prima donna”, even though she’s in no way spoiled. Yet, at the same time, she is wise to the streets, thinking nothing of pushing another kid aside so Neely can grab some scrap metal, or holding her place in line when a street vendor (B.S. Pully) is giving away Christmas trees to anyone who can catch them when he throws them. She gets into the usual sibling rivalry with Neely – when the two of them are talking about Sissy getting married again and why, it soon degenerates into “Boys (Girls) don’t know anything”, she’s annoyed when she has to go without new shoes so Neely won’t, and she bosses him around by calling for him with the line, “Mama said” – but she’s also fiercely protective of him. She’s even more protective of Johnny, as seen when he comes home stumbling drunk while the other kids rag on him (only Officer McShane is able to pry her away, assuring her he’ll get Johnny home all right). Finally, while Kazan doesn’t dwell on this at all, you can tell Francie is somewhat wise to what being a girl means in society. There’s a junkman (J. Farrell MacDonald) Neely and Francie, along with many of the other neighborhood kids, go to to sell scrap parts to for cash by the pound, and Neely makes Francie go in because the junkman will let her cut in line, and if she stays after he gives her the money, he gives her an extra penny “for being a good girl”, as well as a pinch on the cheek. The look on Francie’s face after he pinches her suggests she’s not entirely comfortable with the routine.

Garner is able to negotiate through all facets of Francie defined above skillfully and naturally, but her best scenes come later in the movie. On Christmas Eve night, Katie tells Johnny she’s pregnant (which is why they moved to a cheaper apartment in the building), and the way it looks, Francie will have to quit school and get a job even though she loves school, because Johnny can’t be relied on for work. Johnny is aghast at this, not just because he was the one who made it possible for Francie to switch schools in the first place, but because he knows how much she loves school. Katie, however, has her mind made up, and Johnny, deflated, goes to Francie’s room to say good night to her. Earlier in the day, when Miss McDonough had an extra pie to give away before school let out, Francie lied and said she wanted the pie for a poor family she knew, when in reality, she wanted it for her and Neely, since they were hungry. Instead of yelling at her, Miss McDonough told her that while imagination was a wonderful thing, especially in writing, there needed to be some truth behind it. As Francie tells a highly-condensed version of this story to Johnny (without telling about the pie, of course), she tells him she wants to be a writer when she grows up (as she had told Neely earlier), and as she’s talking, you can tell from Garner’s face, and her tone, the words her teacher have told her have just begun to hit her on a gut level. It’s no wonder Johnny looks at her and says she has a very bad case of growing up. There’s also great acting here from Dunn, as you know he came in to tell her the news she’d have to quit school, but you can tell from his expression he’s changed his mind about that, and it leads to the fateful decision he makes.

The second great scene of Garner’s, and my favorite scene in the movie, comes near the end, when Katie is in labor, and Neely goes to get Sissy while Francie stays alone with Katie. Earlier in the movie, we saw Katie unburden a little to Sissy about how she wished she didn’t have to be so hard and tough, but this is the scene where she finally lets it all out, apologizing to Francie and wishing she could have been different. It’s a tour-de-force piece of acting by McGuire (one of the reasons why I get choked up every time I see the scene), but just as important to the scene is Francie’s reaction. Francie at first thinks Neely should be there instead of her, as he’s more of a comfort to Katie, but Katie insists it’s Francie who’s the comfort. And there’s a nice little scene when she goes to wet a towel for her mother and Francie stops and quickly prays, “Don’t let her die”. Finally, Katie begs her to read one of the essays (or as they call them, compositions) she’s written at school, and Garner lets you see Francie’s reluctance to bare her soul this way, yet also how she recognizes she needs to do so. It’s a powerful moment.

Garner holds her Oscar for Best Juvenile Performance.

The Academy certainly thought so, as they awarded Garner the best juvenile award for her performance in this film (as well as for the little-seen Junior Miss), beating out Elizabeth Taylor, who had made a splash that year with her first lead role in National Velvet (ironically, Taylor had also appeared with Garner in Jane Eyre). However, unlike Taylor, Garner wasn’t able to make the transition into a star as an adult. She did appear in a few high profile movies after this (Daisy Kenyon, where she played Dana Andrews’ daughter, Bomba, the Jungle Boy, where she played the “Jane” figure, and Black Widow – the 1954 Ginger Rogers/George Raft movie – where she played a murder victim who wasn’t what she appeared to be), but did most of her work on stage and television, and made her living as a real estate broker and then a sales manager of fleet automobiles (she did make one last screen appearance in Robert Altman’s 1978 misfire A Wedding). Still, this one shining moment in Garner’s career remains one of the best child actor performances I’ve ever seen.

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13 Comments
  1. Excellent write-up on one of my favorites child actresses! I just watched her in “Junior Miss” last week for the first time and was CAPTIVATED by her performance. What a cutie-pie too.

  2. Thanks so much for your biography/review! Thoroughly enjoyed it!

  3. Garner’s performance is certainly one for the ages. The movie never fails to move me. Kazan certainly knew what he was doing from the get-go.

  4. She is marvelous in the role of Francie – so real and believable and heartbreaking. She truly brings the character to life and she is unforgettable. Thank you for reminding us how wonderful she was..

  5. The movie made me want to read the book, and yeah, 2/5 sounds about right in terms of the screenplay adaptation. Garner was indeed a revelation in this. It’s a pity she didn’t maintain her success as an adult.

    • Admittedly, it has been a long time since I read the novel; I based the 2/5 figure on what I had read online about it. I’m glad you liked Garner so much here, and I agree it is a pity she wasn’t able to make the transition, but then so few back then could. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Love this movie and the book! Peggy Ann Gardner is one of my favorite child stars and I hate you can’t find her films as easily.
    Poor Peggy had a hard life. I recently read her mother either wouldn’t come home or would take her to strange people’s homes. She confided alot in one of her teachers.
    Great post and thanks for participating!

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