A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
seen online via YouTube
Out of the Past is a wonderful little classic film blog that I've been enjoying of late, and recently Raquelle, the writer, did a piece about a new Elia Kazan box set containing all his films. My interest in Kazan was sparked by the recent Martin Scorsese documentary A Letter to Elia. I'd seen Kazan's best known films, of course - Streetcar, Waterfront - but I never got a full appreciation of the man until I saw the Scorsese film, and after seeing Raquelle appraise this beautiful-looking box set, it got me in the mood to seek out some of his other stuff.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had me riveted from start to finish, partly due to the relatively quick pace and partly due to the great sensitivity shown in presenting the lives of this turn-of-the-century working class Brooklyn family. I could see elements of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which would come out four years after the movie (and six years after the book). Indeed, Tree feels very theatrical; it doesn't stray far from the street the Nolans live on and their apartment building.
The only criticism I can offer is that this has the feel of an immigrant family's story, and yet the ethnicity of the Nolans seems incidental almost to the point of irrelevance, and for a turn-of-the-century story, that strikes me as a bit false. Nolan is an Irish name, and the Irish were victims of racial prejudice during this period in American history, so even if Johnny Nolan was a friend to all in his neighborhood, I can't believe he never encountered any racism. By contrast, Katie's mother speaks with some kind of thick accent (which means Johnny married outside his own "kind" - something that definitely would not have gone unnoticed). Since this is set in Williamsburg, I'm willing to bet she's Polish, but no one ever says for sure. I found it a bit odd that the Nolans seemed so culturally homogenic given the time and place they live in. Still, the story and the acting was so compelling that it didn't matter.
Maybe I'd feel slightly differently about Kazan the filmmaker if I had lived through the 50s and had seen the damage the Communist witch-hunt had inflicted. I dunno. It's hard for me to hold a grudge against the guy for naming names, since that time was so long before I was born. Scorsese, though, he grew up during that time. The reality of what Kazan did is more immediate to someone like him, and yet he can not only put that aside, he can praise Kazan as a great and influential filmmaker and tell people about his movies.
Separating the artist from the art is not easy, but if the art is good enough, I think it's not only necessary but vital. Artists aren't supposed to be role models. We just do our thing, and if history judges us one way or the other, then so be it. I'm glad that Scorsese, and other people like him, keep Kazan's films alive, because in the end, the films are what matter most.