Friday, September 12, 2014

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)


“Look at that tree. See where it's coming from. Right up outta that cement! Didn't nobody plant it. Didn't ask the cement to grow. It just couldn't help growing so much it just pushed that old cement out of the way.”

            There have been moments in my life that have left an impact. One moment that has had an impact on me is something so simple. I work at a library shelving books. The library receives a lot of donations from people cleaning out their book collections and we sell them for the Friends of the Library. A perk of being an employee I get to take home any donations or discarded books for free. I remember clear as day as though it only happened yesterday and not over a year ago that I walked passed one of the carts and saw a copy of Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I took it only because I had seen a poster for it in Barnes and Noble and figured it had to be a great classic novel. I am a voracious reader and I am currently trying to read as much classic literature as I can (in between doing grad school homework and worrying about life in general). I started reading the book that night. It is a story I will always treasure and love because it gave me hope and encouragement that no matter how hard life is no matter what hardships I go through there will brighter, better days ahead. I will always be thankful to the person who brought A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to be donated. I almost feel I was meant to find it.
            I found out there was a film version of the book through being a Joan Blondell fan. Of course after reading the book and knowing Blondell was in the film I had to see it. The film is one of the best book adaptations I have seen.
            The story is told through the perspective of Francie Nolan (Peggy Anne Gardner) a ten year old girl growing up in turn of the century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She has a younger brother Nealy and they live in a small apartment with their parents Katie and Johnny. Katie is a hard worker and realist while Johnny is an alcoholic, a sometimes singing waiter, and a dreamer. He also loves Francie unconditionally and encourages her dreaming. The family has very little money but they make do and seem to be happy.
            Katie has a mother and a sister named Sissy (Blondell). They come by for little visits. Katie is nothing like her older sister. Sissy has been married countless times and has remarried again but this time, she tells Katie, he is the one. Their mother bought the children a Bible when they were small so they could read from it every night and become smart. Johnny bought them a book of Shakespeare and they read that too every night.
            At Christmas time Katie tells Johnny they are going to have another baby. She cannot depend on him to get a steady job and she plan on taking Francie out of school to work somewhere. Johnny had just gotten Francie into a better school he sees how much she loves school and how it would break her heart to leave. That night he goes out into the cold to look for a job. For weeks Katie cannot find him. A nice beat officer in the neighborhood named McShane comes to the apartment to tell Katie that Johnny has been found dead in a doorway waiting for work. He died from pneumonia not from drinking.
            The family works hard. Francie and Nealy get jobs working at a restaurant where their father used to go. Katie literally works until the day she has the baby.
            A few months later, Francie and Nealy graduate from school. McShane has liked Katie for a while. He asks her to marry him. Francie and Nealy discuss how nice it will be for their baby sister not to have to grow up as they did struggling for everything and having to worry about the small things. Nealy says she will not have as much fun as they did growing up though.
            Now there is a lot more to this film and obviously there is so much more in the book. But the film was great it stayed very close to the book. The ending was a bit different but that was fine it fit very well.
            Joan Blondell was perfect as Sissy. As soon as I found out who she played I knew she would be fantastic and Blondell was the definitely the perfect choice. Blondell always played those tough wisecracking, take-no-crap women in the Pre-Code era and that is how Sissy was only her character set way before Pre-Codes and the 1930s. Although Blondell is not in the film that much this is one of my favorite roles I have seen her in.

            A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is such a wonderful story. I chose to watch the film now because I am having a rough time with money and life at the moment. If these people who lived in the early 1900s in a poor neighborhood and could barely get through their days could survive and eventually be happy then why I can’t I. I needed that reminder to just keep going. Better days are ahead all I have to do is work hard and not lose sight of things. The book and the film came along in my life when I needed them, when I needed a story like this to pick me up and remind me of my goals and also how much my family means to me. I absolutely recommend watching, as well as reading, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is a story that will always stay with you.