Stream On: ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’—by nature or grace?

By on October 5, 2023

Elia Kazan (A Face in the Crowd), called by The New York Times “one of the most honored and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history,” was born in Greece but grew up in New Rochelle, New York, just north of New York City. In 1945 he directed his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from the novel by Chapel Hill’s Betty Smith (who had a cottage here in Nags Head). Betty Smith was born in Brooklyn in 1896 and would have been roughly the same age as her protagonist Francie Nolan.


/Amazon /Not streaming /YouTube /🍅95%🍿91% /Trailer /1945 /PG

“And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it.” (Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)

In 1912, little Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, helps her poor family scrape by when she can by selling scrap copper with her brother Neeley (Ted Donaldson) for pennies. Her mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) is a hard-working housewife who scrubs the floors of her tenement building and collects rags for sale to a scrap fabric dealer in order to provide for her family.

Francie’s father Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) is a happy-go-lucky, charming man who dreams his way through life. When he works it’s as a singing waiter. He is the apple of Francie’s eye: she loves her father madly. He’s also an alcoholic.

When he makes his entrance it’s into the family kitchen: He’s dressed to the nines for a job tonight, and Francie is there. He’s in a great mood, drinking coffee and singing for her. He has big dreams: after this job he’ll have enough in tips to parlay into some real money at the track. He asks Francie, “What’s the wish you wish the most when our ship comes sailin’ in?”

“Well, it already came true.” “What is it?” “Well … I wished that when you came home today, you wouldn’t be … sick.”

Francie’s mother is hard-working, long-suffering and tense. Her mother’s sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell), is a sassy, free-spirited woman who has recently married for the third time. (In the novel, she hasn’t bothered to divorce her earlier husbands. In the movie, she tells her sister that “seven years is a long time to wait—and I waited.” Apparently her husbands have serially abandoned her.) “All I know is it can’t be wrong or I wouldn’t feel like I do about it.”

Francies’ grandmother says Katie has “forgotten how to think with her heart.”

In school, Francie, hearing the Keats poem quoted above (Keats was an opium addict), asks her teacher, “If a man—I mean—somebody spent all his time trying to be like that—no matter what else he did, then it would be alright? Wouldn’t it?” Her teacher replies “I’m afraid I don’t understand a thing you’re saying, Francis.”

A tree that grows outside of the tenement provides the main metaphor for the film. Francie loves to look at it from the tenement window, but she’s devastated when a city worker comes and trims it back. Her dad tells her that the pruning is necessary for the tree’s growth and that it’ll grow back—eventually.

I can’t help but think that the novel or this film was one of Terrence Malick’s inspirations for his magnum opus The Tree of Life, in which the way of grace, as seen in one of the protagonist’s parents, contrasts but complements the way of nature, exemplified by the other parent, as life goes on.

The 1943 novel was one of the most popular Armed Services Edition books shipped to American military service personnel for free during World War II. Betty Smith said that she received ten times more fan mail from soldiers than she did from civilians. The film was widely praised; James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner won academy awards. Leonard Maltin called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “perfect in every detail.”

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


Barnhill Contracting Company will receive sealed proposals for Manns Harbor – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-8), Kitty Hawk – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-9), Manteo – Youth Center on January 09, 2024. Times to be given on via addendum #01. See the following SCOPE OF WORK: BP 100 – General Trades, BP 105 – Final Cleaning, BP 205 – Demolition, BP 390 – Turnkey Concrete, BP 400 – Turnkey Masonry, BP 500 – Turnkey Structural Steel & Misc. Steel, BP 505 – Light Gauge Metal Trusses, BP 740 – Roofing, BP750 – Siding, BP 790 – Caulking/Sealants, BP 800 – Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware/Toilet Specialties/Accessories/Division 10, BP 840 – Curtainwall/Storefront/Glass/Glazing, BP 925 – Drywall/Framing, BP 960 – Resilient Flooring/Carpet/Base/Epoxy, BP 980 – Acoustical Ceilings, BP 990 – Painting and Wall Coverings, BP 1230 – Finish Carpentry and Casework, BP 1250 – Window Treatments, BP 2100 – Fire Protection, BP 2200 – Plumbing, BP 2300 – HVAC, BP 2600 – Electrical, BP 3100 – Earthwork/Turnkey Site, BP 3213- Site Concrete, BP 3290 – Landscaping. Scopes of work may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager.

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