For a seventh year, old movie buffs trekked to Hollywood for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival April 28 to May 1. The screens of Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian theaters, along with the Cinerama Dome, were lit up with 50 wonderful examples of musicals, dramas and screwball comedies. Poolside screenings were also shown at festival headquarters, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Attending the festival for the first time, I came as a Catholic film enthusiast, not as a professional reviewer. The reason for my attendance was the significant presence of Catholic-themed movies among the festival offerings.
The festival is more than a happy opportunity to enjoy movies in a theater with like-minded strangers; the TCM Film Festival is a university of sorts, a stimulating education in the art of storytelling, acting, musical composition and restoration processes.
There was also a generous blend of hoopla. The major activity on opening night was a screening of “All the President’s Men,” accompanied by a red-carpet ceremony for director Francis Ford Coppola, who left his hand- and footprints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre alongside those of other cinema immortals.
During the April 28 welcoming party, I searched for someone more interested in that evening’s presentation of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” than “All the President’s Men.”
Fortuitously, I encountered Veronica Broderick and her granddaughter, Allison Del Franco, both from New York. Allison, having spent five years working in Hollywood, brought her grandmother to the festival. Veronica, knowing the film well, wanted Allison to see “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
The superbly-written 1942 novel by Betty Smith spans 10 years. The 1945 film, set in 1912, focuses on the lives of Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) and his wife, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), first generation Americans. With 12-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) and 11-year-old Neely (Ted Donaldson) the family lives in grinding poverty in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Katie’s mother, Mary Rommely (Ferike Boros), a native of Austria, lives nearby, as does Katie’s oft-married sister, Sissy Rommely (Joan Blondell). In the novel the Nolans are identified as an Irish Catholic family. Although not made explicit, the film’s Catholic subtext is evident.
Ted Donaldson, 82, the last living cast member, introduced the film with tributes for all coworkers. He told how, in his first directorial turn, Elia Kazan was adamant that the story was supreme, and how Joan Blondell, subject of a 10 year-old’s innocent crush, sweetly wrote that she’d wait for Ted to grow up.
Kazan also insisted in honestly showing destitution: hand-me-down clothing, a baker’s wagon selling three day-old loaves of bread and tinny melodies played on a hurdy-gurdy.
Francie idolizes her father. A singing waiter, Johnny lives on the hope that he’ll be discovered rather than find steady employment. A warm, poetic soul, Johnny loves his wife and family but, as an alcoholic, he often spends nights drinking. So Katie is left to scrub the floors of their tenement and collect rags to provide a meager living.
Both parents place great emphasis on education. Each night they have Francie and Neely read two pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible, not always understanding what they read.
When Neely complains, his visiting grandmother is adamant. With dignified eloquence, she compares life in Austria to that in the America, where education is free. Her grandchildren have the opportunity to rise above their parents’ station in life, something impossible in the Old World. The importance of learning is why, she decrees, the children will continue their reading.
The audience of festival goers broke into spontaneous applause at this declaration of the essence of American magnificence.
Katie learns that she is pregnant with a third child. Too proud to accept charity, she tells Johnny that Francie will have to leave eighth grade before graduating to take out work papers so she can keep money coming in when Katie’s pregnancy prevents her from working.
Johnny is horrified. He finally realizes he has to do something to keep Francie in school.
Here’s where I stop. No spoilers.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a stunningly brilliant motion picture. By turns funny, warm, poignant and heartbreaking, its firm insistence on the strength of a loving family is thoroughly Catholic — and used to be thoroughly American.
Screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger were nominated for an Academy Award. James Dunn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; Peggy Ann Garner was awarded a special Juvenile Oscar.
In 2010, the Library of Congress selected “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Sean M. Wright is an Emmy-nominated writer and author. He presents workshops and Catholic faith formation courses at parishes throughout the archdiocese.