A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell and Peggy Ann Garner
Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell and Peggy Ann Garner

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' is a moving family film about the early life of a young Irish-American girl in turn of the century New York. It was made in 1945 and was the first movie directed by Elia Kazan. The film stars James Dunn, Dorothy McGuire and Joan Blondell with Peggy Ann Garner giving an unforgettable performance as 13 year old Francie Nolan, for which she won a special Academy Juvenile Award. James Dunn was also successful, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was selected by the Library of Congress in 2010 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The movie was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Betty Smith, first published in 1943 and whose movie rights were purchased pre-publication, and after a bidding war with other studios, by Twentieth Century Fox. The screenplay is faithful to the original story although leaving out much detail.

The film describes the life of a poor Irish immigrant family, the Nolans, in early twentieth century New York. The father, played by James Dunn, though likeable, is an alcoholic dreamer and the family is marshalled, very ably by the mother, Katie, played by Dorothy McGuire. There is an actual tree in the yard of the family apartment but more importantly, the metaphorical tree is young Francie and it is her development, the spreading of the 'branches' of her life, on which the movie concentrates. Katie's sister is the lively, and slightly notorious, Aunt Sissy, wonderfully played by the beautiful Joan Blondell. When the father dies from pneumonia family loyalties are tested and ultimately strengthened.

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' features some brilliant acting, particularly from Peggy Ann Garner whose performance as Francie Nolan, the central developing character could not be bettered. The role of the endearing, alcoholic father is well acted by James Dunn and Dorothy Maguire, as the mother, is quite exceptional. The characters of remaining family members are also well drawn and well acted, particularly Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy, and Ted Donaldson as Francie's brother, Neely.

Elia Kazan was an unknown director when he brought this to the screen but there are unmistakeable signs of his directorial genius contained within the movie. He uses a light touch in bringing his characters to life. We never feel the director is intruding. His pacing and the intensity of the film is just right.

Main Cast

Dorothy McGuire ... Katie Nolan
Joan Blondell ... Sissy Edwards
James Dunn ... Johnny Nolan
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


Director ... Elia Kazan
Producer ... Louis D. Lighton
Screenplay ... Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger
Based on the book ... A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Music ... Alfred Newman
Cinematography ... Leon Shamroy
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date ... February 28, 1945
Running time ... 128 minutes

Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Supporting Actor ... James Dunn
Juvenile Award ... Peggy Ann Garner
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay ...Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger