Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A (1945): Kazan’s Feature Debut, Starring James Dunn in Oscar-Winning Performance

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Elia Kazan’s first directing feature is a sentimental if honest family drama, with a strong, Oscar-winning performance from James Dunn as the good-hearted but boozy and irresponsible father.

Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, early this century, the movie conveys the daily struggle of one poor Irish family, the Nolans, to make end meets and live with nobility and dignity.


The family is headed by the matriarch, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), a strong, harsh woman who’s perpetually worried because her amiable loser of husband (Dunn), Johnnie Nolan, a waiter who can’t keep a job long enough to support her and their two children, Neely (Ted Donaldson) and Francie (Peggy Ann Garner)


The lead role is played by the bright youngster Garner, an aspiring writer who frames the yarn, intelligently adapted to the screen by Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger from Betty Smith’s memoir, with her voice-over narration.

The title of the film derives from a tree in the tenement, which withstands the variable climate, harsh winter and the humid summer, perhaps too much of an obvious symbol of the family itself; just like the plant in the African-American drama (and film) “Raisin in the Sun.”


McGuire, then popular after making the popular movie “Claudia,” is well cast as the mother, and so is Peggy, as the eager, wide-eyed adolescent, who aspires for a better life. But the best performance is given by Dunn, then best known for secondary roles in minor films, and also for his heavy drinking off screen.

With a running time of 129 minutes, the movie extends its welcome by at least 20 minutes, and Kazan shows problems with pacing; the movie is a bit tedious and repetitious.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: James Dunn

Screenplay: Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context

Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” the first major Hollywood movie about alcoholism, won the major awards over Hitchcock’s suspense-thriller “Spellbound” and Leo McCarey’s comedy “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” both starring Ingrid Bergman.

The other two nominees were the MGM musical “Anchors Aweigh” and Warner’s noir melodrama “Mildred Pierce,” for which Joan Crawford won the Best Actress for a comeback performance

The most nominated film was “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (8), though it won only one award, for Stephen Dunn’s Sound Recording, perhaps because it was a sequel to “Going My Way,” which swept most of the 1944 Oscars

Ray Milland was one of the few actors to win the Oscar at his first nomination and not to be nominated again, despite giving many reliable performances. e composer Miklos Rozsa, whose specialty was film noir, was nominated in 1945 for three Oscars. The other two were: “A Song to Remember,” on which he collaborated with Morris Stoloff, and “Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” for which he won.