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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(1945)


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The opening title card reads "Twentieth Century-Fox presents Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The screen rights to Smith's novel became the focus of a bidding war among several studios before the book was even published, according to a June 24, 1943 Hollywood Reporter news item. Twentieth Century-Fox obtained the rights to the best-seller for $55,000, and intended to star Alice Faye as "Katie Nolan," according to later Hollywood Reporter news items. When Faye proved unavailable, Gene Tierney was tested for the role. On March 31, 1944, Hollywood Reporter stated that actors "not officially announced but strongly rumored for roles" included Mary Anderson, Jeanne Crain and Fred MacMurray. The studio carried out an extensive search for an actor to play "Johnny Nolan," and on December 16, 1943, Hollywood Reporter noted that Phil Regan was the "leading contender." James Dunn, who won the role in the film, was signed in April 1944, and a Hollywood Reporter news item commented that "Dunn was tested twice, once at the beginning of the search, and again after all other possibilities had been abandoned and it was certain no top box office name would be available." Dorothy McGuire, who was only thirteen years older than Peggy Ann Garner at the time of filming, was borrowed from David O. Selznick's company for the production. Ted Donaldson was borrowed from Columbia, and John Alexander was borrowed from Warner Bros.
       A May 19, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item described one of the film's sets as "the most elaborate and, mechanically speaking, costly set to be used" on the studio's lot in several years. A full stage was taken up with the four-story replica of the Nolans' Brooklyn tenement house, and in one scene, "the cameras [were to] work on elevators to capture action in sequence on all of the floors during one take."
       According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA initially refused to approve the screenplay due to "the bigamous characterization of Sissy." The PCA also disapproved of the light tone taken by the characters toward Sissy's marital escapades, and on April 26, 1944, suggested that the portrayal of Sissy as a much-married woman would be acceptable if it were clearly established that her previous husbands had died before she remarried. On May 4, 1944, the PCA approved the script, although the Office did issue further warnings that Sissy's "false philosophy" regarding the nature of love and marriage should be toned down.
       Smith's book and the film were the subjects of libel lawsuits brought by Smith's cousin, Sadie Grandner. Grandner alleged that Smith based the character of "Aunt Sissy" on her, but with malicious and slanderous implications upon her character, and that following the book and film's release, she had become the object of scorn and ridicule by her acquaintances. According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Grandner filed suit against Smith and her publishing company first, before the film was produced. The studio, worried that she would hold them liable as well, deliberately "toned down" the portrayal of Sissy. The legal records reveal that in February 1946, Grandner, who filed suit against the studio under the name Sadie Kandler, dropped her claim in exchange for $1,500. The disposition of her suit against Smith and the publishing company is not known.
       A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which benefitted the Naval Aid Auxiliary with its gala West Coast premiere, was first seen by U.S. troops in Manila, according to a February 7, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item. The picture garnered much critical praise and excellent box office receipts, and marked the dramatic film debut of director Elia Kazan, a renowned stage director who had previously worked on two film documentaries. When Kazan came to Hollywood for the production, he was accompanied by Nicholas Ray, with whom he had worked on the stage. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the first film on which Ray worked, and he also makes a brief appearance in the picture as a bakery clerk. Although some modern sources list Ray as Kazan's assistant director, studio legal records credit him as a dialogue director. According to one modern source, Ray aided Alfred Newman in preparing the film's musical score. The picture marked a return to production by producer Louis D. Lighton, who had not personally supervised a film since the 1939 M-G-M film Lucky Night. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a personal triumph for Dunn, whose superb notices helped revitalize his career. Garner and Nolan also received much praise, and critics commented warmly on McGuire's transition from the childlike bride in the 1943 Twentieth Century-Fox production Claudia to the hardworking "Katie Nolan." The film was named one of the ten best films of the year by Film Daily, the National Board of Review, Time and New York Times. The picture also received an Academy Award nomination for Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis' screenplay. The screenplay was Slesinger's last, however, as she died on February 21, 1945. Slesinger and Davis were married and frequently worked together. Dunn was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Garner received a special Oscar as "the outstanding child performer of 1945." According to a June 3, 1945 New York Times article, the picture was among "the first selections for inclusion in the film section of the Library of Congress." The article quotes acting librarian Dr. Luther H. Evans as saying that "the chief purpose of the library in its film selections was to preserve those 'which faithfully record...the contemporary life and tastes and preferences of the American people.'"
       On April 28, 1949, Dunn appeared with Claudia Marshall in The Hallmark Playhouse's radio broadcast of the story. Smith cowrote a musical play version of her novel with George Abbott, and it opened in New York on April 19, 1951, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Arthur Schwartz. Joan Blondell also starred as "Sissy" in the road company version of the musical play, which opened on October 9, 1952. In 1974, the NBC network broadcast a television film based on Slesinger and Davis' adaptation of the novel, also entitled A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The 1974 production was directed by Joseph Hardy and starred Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker and James Olson.