Saturday, March 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.1: Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 90/A-

Martin Scorsese ends his documentary A Letter to Elia speaking directly to the camera in a wide shot, clearly moved, saying just how personal Elia Kazan’s works were to him, be it as an influence on his aesthetic or as Scorsese as a young boy. Scorsese doesn’t ignore Kazan’s regrettable testimony to the HUAC committee, but he does believe that the event both A. made his films more interesting, and B. should be a secondary concern when considering his work. That’s where I’d fall: Kazan’s legacy will perhaps forever be tarnished by his choices, but it does not change the power of his work, nor its influence and importance. He’s credited for fostering the careers of several early method actors (Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, James Dean, Patricia Neal) and influencing nearly every second generation method actor who followed (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn).

That still doesn’t do him enough credit: he was a consummate stylist, brilliant at blending Hollywood theatrics and new realism in film and theatre. He’s undoubtedly one of the most important directors of theatre and film of his generation. He’s also, incidentally, the reason I first became interested in acting: I saw On the Waterfront as a boy, watched it over and over again, and decided to pursue acting for a career in college. I ended up going a different direction (hint: if you spend more time watching movies than focusing on your craft, choose a different path), but my experiences in theatre helped give me a better understanding of what actors go through and how they approach their roles. I also related to my favorite Kazan films (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden) in the same way that Scorsese did as a teenager- with the intensely felt emotions, the feeling of alienation.

Kazan understood that as well as any director of his time: born a Greek living in Turkey, he and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a boy. He went to college against the wishes of his father, a cotton merchant who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Kazan himself was an outsider at college as well, bookish and shy. He would go on to start a brief career as an actor on the stage before moving on to directing, where he gained fame directing successful plays like The Skin of Our Teeth, One Touch of Venus, and Jacobowsky and the Colonel.    

Soon enough, Hollywood took notice and gave him a chance to direct his first film, an adaptation of Betty Smith’s coming-of-age novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Kazan did not have the control over the film the way he would on later films- he did not have as much involvement in the script, and at least one of the actors (Dorothy McGuire) was selected for him. But the film still feels deeply personal from Kazan, a tale of first-generation Americans working and living through hardship, a tale of generational conflict and the love that drives it, and one of the finest and most personal coming-of-age films ever made.

Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) is a young girl growing up in a poor Irish-American family in Brooklyn. She lives with her plainspoken younger brother Neely (Ted Donaldson), her tough but loving mother Katie (McGuire), and her drunken singer father Johnny (James Dunn). Francie is an intellectually curious young girl, and she wishes to go to a better school for a better education. Francie is torn between her pragmatic survivalist mother and her idealist father, between her dreams to be a writer and the harsh realities of the world, and between childhood and adulthood.

Kazan’s greatest fear as a director was that he would be stuck shooting canned theatre rather than something cinematic. He needn’t have worried: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a lively, unique, assured debut. With few exceptions, the film does not fall into the pitfalls of feeling like it was shot on a studio lot (although it was): Kazan brings a lived-in feeling to the streets, to the cramped tenements the family lives in, to the use of diegetic music rather than a score. The director had a better understanding of film at that point than he gave himself credit, bringing in a sense of 1940s realism taken from John Ford and Orson Welles- deep focus, tough but loving families, and an environment that largely defines who these people are and how far they can go. He also shows intelligence in his use of close-ups and two shots: always focusing on the expressive faces of his actors or contrasting one character falling apart when another tries hard to keep their feelings bottled up. True, he had a lot of help from cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who told an uneasy Kazan to just stage it like he would a play and that he’d help him with the camera. But that Kazan could stage everything so well and trust and learn from Shamroy speaks to his talent as a filmmaker.

Kazan did bring something from theatre, however: his skill directing actors. A pioneer in the American Realism of 1940s and 1950s theatre (Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller would work with him), Kazan sought to bring out the most natural, most deeply felt performances out of his actors. Part of that came from casting actors who he felt had some of their characters’ experiences within themselves and tapping into those deep-rooted feelings. Peggy Ann Garner would win an Honorary Oscar for Best Juvenile Performance for her work here, one of the most natural child performances of the era. Francie has a wonderful mix of her father’s cheer and optimism and her mother’s strength and pragmatism, and Garner is terrific in conveying that balance. Part of that strength comes from Kazan bringing out many of her natural emotions- her real attachment to and fear for a father who was a pilot in the middle of World War II, her frustration with a domineering mother. She’s just perfect for the role.
With her, Kazan tells one of his first tales of youthful alienation. Francie is a smart girl with big dreams to be a writer, but she doesn’t have the chance that some of the more well-off kids might have to indulge her imagination. One memorable crane shot goes through a lively, raucous neighborhood with everyone going about their business outside but ends on Francie, sitting alone reading a book, escaping to another world. Another memorable pair of scenes show the contrast between Francie’s two different schools. In the first, Francie responds to a teacher’s question that students should care more about the meaning in poetry rather than dully learning to beat out meters- she is quickly rebuked. That’s a feeling most intelligent young kids have at some point in their lives, being discouraged for showing a greater curiosity than most. Contrast that with a later scene when she and her father have entered her into a better school: she shows the same imagination around another teacher, who’s far sweeter to her and is willing to give her some direction for her dreams.

Still, the greatest conflict in the film is generational, between Francie and her mother. From the very beginning of the film, there’s a sense that Katie is much more affectionate towards Neely, in part because Neely wants much less out of life. He’s disinterested in school, he doesn’t have the same idealism as Francie, and he just seems to want to lead a normal life. Throughout the film, Katie discourages Francie, demanding at one point that she drop out of school to get work papers and help support the family. Johnny argues with Katie, saying that Neely should do it because he doesn’t care about school, but Katie has made up her mind. It’s indicative of both this particular world’s gender bias (boys should continue with school because, well, they’re boys) and Kazan’s own troubled (but loving) relationship with his father, who similarly discouraged his art and wanted him to go to work rather that college.

But there’s another director Kazan borrows from: Jean Renoir, whose famous saying “Everyone has their reasons” could just as easily be Kazan’s motto (Kazan himself has expressed fondness for this saying). McGuire is excellent as Katie because she shared that tough-minded love and impoverished background. She’s a deeply empathetic character even despite her repression of her feelings- she needs to be the tough one in order to keep the family going. They don’t have their own house,  her husband is a drunk and a hopeless dreamer, her sister (an excellent Joan Blondell) is flighty and often irresponsible, and she’s now pregnant again with another child that’s going to put pressure on the family. She’s forced herself to shut off her natural warmth because she doesn’t know how the family can carry on if she doesn’t force them all to give up their dreams a little bit.

James Dunn won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work as Johnny, one of the most heartbreaking and complicated characters in Kazan’s filmography. Again, Kazan forces the actor to bring something autobiographical to inform the truth of the character- Dunn was a promising young actor whose alcoholism sidetracked his own career. Johnny is a talented singer who just can’t manage to overcome his personal demons and give his family the things he believes they deserve. His frequent proclamation that “things are going to be different” is indicative of the dream he has for his children, likely the first generation born in America. He often shrinks whenever his difficult (if ultimately loving) wife puts down his dreams of fine things for his family and a successful career, but he knows that the one person who best has a chance in bettering herself is Francie. The film’s best scenes are between Dunn and Garner: they speak of their favorite tree being cut down (a great metaphor for Francie’s dreams), and how it can still grow again; they walk through a wealthy neighborhood, where Francie begs her father to enter her into a better school; Johnny insists to his wife, with his daughter at his side, that there “Ain’t much I can give her, but this is one thing she’s gonna have”.

But the best scene in the film comes on Christmas Eve as Katie demands that Francie be taken out of school- they have a new baby, and she needs to pitch in. Johnny walks over to Francie’s room, defeated, trying to tell his daughter (oblivious to the demand at the moment) that she shouldn’t settle on just one thing to be. The tenderness between the two, the closeness in proximity as he sits on her bed, and the brilliant use of close-ups all work to bring Dunn to a new resolve: he’ll give up his own dreams in order to further his daughter’s. He’ll quit singing and drinking and go find a job. This scene helps the film stand out from other dour poverty-set coming-of-age films (cough, Angela’s Ashes)- the father really can change, and his love for his family wins out over his demons. So it’s heartbreaking, then, when we learn that it’s a combination of pneumonia and alcohol withdrawal that kills him as he’s looking for work.

This facilitates the all-important reunion between Francie and Katie, who finally let out everything that they’ve been feeling but repressing over the course of the film- Francie’s anger at her mother’s hard nature, Katie’s regret that she’s been so discouraging of Francie, Francie’s grief over her father’s sickness and eventual death. It’s an intensely cathartic final act from a director who would specialize in these cathartic moments. Kazan would improve on himself in the future- the emotions of the main characters would grow even more intense, the on-location shootings would bring a greater sense of naturalism, and he would have more freedom to develop the films as he wanted. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn shows a talented filmmaker’s first steps towards master-status, and the first of many deeply-felt dramas about flawed but decent people.

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