Earlier this week, a friend crowd-sourced and asked for some woman-centric coming-of-age films. My first thought was the 1945 film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, based on the book by Betty Smith and made in 1945. The film stars James Dunn, Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner. This was also Greek director Elia Kazan’s first American film.
The film tells the story of the Nolans, an Irish-American family living in the tenement slums of Brooklyn in 1912, mostly through the eyes of their older daughter, Francie (Garner). Her mother, Katie (McGuire), is the one who holds the family together; she works as a ragpicker and scrubs the floors of their tenement house to earn a living. Her father, Jimmy (Dunn), is a happy-go-lucky waiter who has problems holding down a job because of his alcoholism. Katie’s high-spirited sister, Sissy (Blondell), is a favorite of Francie’s and her brother Neeley’s, but Katie disapproves of Sissy’s multiple marriages and divorces. It is while Katie and the children are with Sissy that they meet the soft-spoken Officer MacShane, who is rather taken with Katie. But it is Officer MacShane who brings home a drunken Jimmy, and his heart breaks for the family when he realizes that Jimmy is their husband and father.
Francie shows a great passion and aptitude for writing and learning, and it’s Jimmy who encourages this in her while Katie does her best to remind Francie of the realities of tenement life. Despite Katie’s objections, Jimmy enrolls Francie in a better school in a nicer neighborhood by lying about where they live. Francie blossoms there, and Jimmy is determined that Francie remain in school so that she is able to realize her goals. When Katie discovers she is pregnant again, she and the family move into a cheaper flat in the tenement, and she plans for Francie to quit school to help with the baby while she is at work. Jimmy refuses to let this happen, and he wanders out in the dead of winter during a dangerous snowstorm to try and find work so Francie can remain in school. He disappears for a week, and Officer MacShane finds Jimmy nearly dead of pneumonia. Jimmy succumbs to the illness, leaving his family behind. After some time, though, Officer MacShane begins to court Katie, and he offers to marry her and adopt the baby. Francie realizes that while her father might have failed the family in the past, he did the best he could for them and wanted both of his children to succeed in life. Their mother’s marriage to Officer MacShane, who is much more dependable than Jimmy was, will offer them a better life, but Francie and Neeley will always remember how much their father loved them.
In the film, Francie grows to see that while her father does love her, he is far from perfect, and that despite her mother’s hard exterior, Katie loves her as well, but is also resigned to the life that Francie would have living in poverty. Jimmy knows that he can’t provide the best for his children, but he does the best he can, and Francie sees this. But Francie’s father also did what he could to ensure that she would be able to succeed and that she could realize her dreams. The film also is careful to point out that social class, and even gender, mean better access to things such as education. Katie was ready to make Francie quit school to help take care of the baby because Francie was a girl and that was what was expected of her. She didn’t think that Francie, and not Neeley, might be the one who could make a good life for herself by getting a good education. While things work out well for the family, it is heartbreaking to remember that Jimmy basically sacrificed everything so that Francie would have the opportunities to rise above her social class.