Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945): A Cast Member Remembers

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  (1945) is on tonight on TCM at 8pm ET. In the past, I've written about this film several times on this blog, particularly when assessing the gifted Dorothy McGuire, but the intensity of the film's impact came back to me as I read the words below.

The following is a verbatim transcription of an interview I read with Ted Donaldson who played Neeley in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) based on Betty Smith's novel. This passage was found in Growing Up on the Set: Interviews With 39 Former Child Actors of Classic Film and Television by Tom Goldrup, Jim Goldrup, which was published by McFarland in  2002. Ted Donaldson recalled the events surrounding the filming this way when he and his cast mates began working with first-time film director Elia Kazan:

"Kazan sat us around a huge oaken table that you could imagine the Vikings having a banquet on. He sat at the head of the table and talked about the script, and for three days he established the relationships of the Nolan family. We read the script. We read it again and worked on the different scenes, and on the fourth day of we started shooting. And it was not only the relationships, but the place. The atmosphere, the furniture. Early in the film Peggy Ann Garner and I come into the kitchen. We had come upstairs with pails of water, and Dorothy McGuire is at the sink washing dishes. Years later I was stunned by it when I watched it on television, I thought, 'By God, I know that sink, we know what that floor feels like, we lived there. This is our place.' That's something you sense more in a stage performance because it is alive.

"I think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the greatest pieces of ensemble acting in the history of American film. Peggy Ann Garner's performance as Francie Nolan was one of the tow or three greatest child performances ever given. I have always liked Dorothy McGuire, but I think her Katie Nolan was the best thing she ever did on film. Joan Blondell was always terrific, but this film gave her a chance to show a much more vulnerable side, and she really rose to the occasion. She really makes me cry in this film. James Dunn won the Oscar for best supporting actor. It was a beautiful performance. It was the role of his life. The scene in which he sings 'Annie Laurie,' Francie and Neeley are very affected by their father singing that, and so is Katie because she hears heim, comes in from another room, stands at the doorway and recalls older times, times of more promise. There is a big closeup of Johnny singing that breaks your heart. It was the first time that I have ever heard this song. I've got to say that the expression you see on Peggy Ann's face and mine--we kept within the confines of the scene and the characters but that was Peggy and me reacting to James Dunn singing 'Annie Laurie.' We were supposed to be terribly moved by it. And we were. But we were affected as Peggy and as Ted. I'd never quite had that experience before.

"Yes, we were good. Damn right we were good. But that was Kazan. And that's why he produced a film--apart from Leon Shamroy's gorgeous black-and-white photography--where from the first frame on you are back in 1912. You are absolutely there all the way through and it never falters, not for a second. That is why it is a very beautiful and satisfying film."


An earlier post on Dorothy McGuire's career can be seen here:

Dorothy McGuire's Quiet Power


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This is terrific. I love his assessment of this film, both personal and emotional, and yet he is able to view it from a professional's eye. His comment on the "Annie Laurie" scene is very moving. One of my favorite scenes in the film. Top notch cast, all around. Too bad Kazan was dissatisfied with the film. It's a gem.

Caftan Woman said...

The film goes right to my heart (and tear ducts) and I will never be ashamed of the emotions after reading Ted's account of the filming. Thanks so very much.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks for your comments, Jacqueline & Patricia. This film is so powerful, it was remarkable to read how deeply it affected the people involved. I can only watch it occasionally but it was so fresh when I saw it again the other night thanks to discovering Ted Donaldson's own feelings about it. What a privilege it was to read his observations.

Page said...

Thanks so much for sharing Ted Donaldson's reflections of such a wonderful film. I agree about Dorothy's performance. All actors contributed to what was such a touching film. Donaldson sharing his own experiences just adds to it.
Have a great week!

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Page. Readers should know that this commenter is the force behind an interesting blog that is a cheerfully irreverent valentine to classic cinema called My Love of Old Hollywood


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