Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With both Gone Girl and Left Behind opening in theaters, we look back on other adaptations of books that went to No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list.
There are tearjerkers, and then there are movies so emotionally effective that they shatter your heart into a million pieces. Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, about a family of four struggling to make ends meet in turn-of-the-century New York, is one for the latter pile—a classic Hollywood weepie with an uncommon sensitivity to the challenges of living hand to mouth. This is a movie that basically begins with its preteen protagonist, Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), getting stopped in a department store because it’s assumed she has no right or reason to be there. “I have money!” she cheerfully replies, referring to the pocket of pennies she and her little brother earned by selling rags. Poverty casts a long shadow over the kids’ present and future; it’s also driven a wedge between their parents, pragmatic breadwinner Katie (Dorothy McGuire) and pie-eyed, alcoholic singer Johnny (James Dunn).
The insights into a hard knock life come largely from the source material, Betty Smith’s 1943 bestseller (and current classroom staple) of the same name. Kazan and his screenwriters make some excisions, doing away with flashbacks to the parents’ courtship and condensing the years-spanning narrative into a few on-screen months. But the tough spirit of the novel survives, thanks in no small part to a pair of incredible performances. As Katie, a woman entrusted with the thankless task of keeping her family afloat, McGuire unveils multiple layers—the mixture of resentment and affection she feels toward her irresponsible husband, apple of her children’s eye. Dunn, meanwhile, manages to capture Johnny’s infectious enthusiasm, while also showing how his failures of character—his weakness for the drink, his blind optimism—drag the family further down. The scene in which Johnny waxes poetic about the good fortune that awaits them, only to be cut off by a wife who’s heard this beautiful empty talk before, is almost too much to bear.
Truthfully, the film operates in a near constant state of heightened emotions; good luck keeping your composure during the moment when Katie finally articulates her marital discontent to her brassy sister (Joan Blondell), or the wrenching Christmas Eve conversation between Francie and Johnny, the latter attempting to prepare his bookworm daughter for the fact that she may have to drop out of school and get a job to help support the clan. In a way, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is like a dramatic exploration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, demonstrating how achievement and self-worth—represented by Johnny’s futile pursuit of the career he wants—are essential to a full and happy life, but also difficult to obtain when every day is a struggle for survival. The movie eventually offers a silver lining to its dark clouds, ending on a note of cautious optimism. By that point, however, no eyes pointed at the screen will be dry. “I feel kind of sad,” Francie says in the last scene. Kind of?
Availability: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library.