by Allan Fish
(Jeez, I almost feel strange going back to movies after the weekend’s events, so let’s pick a forties film that tries to offer a ray of hope among the grime)
(USA 1945 128m) DVD2
The Brooklyn Thrush
p Louis D.Lighton d Elia Kazan w Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis novel Betty Smith ph Leon Shamroy ed Dorothy Spencer m Alfred Newman art Lyle Wheeler
Dorothy McGuire (Katie Nolan), James Dunn (Johnny Nolan), Peggy Ann Garner (Francie Nolan), Joan Blondell (Aunt Sissy Edwards), Lloyd Nolan (Officer McShane), Ted Donaldson (Neely Nolan), James Gleason (MacGarrity), John Alexander (Steve Edwards), Ruth Nelson (Miss McDonough), Adeline de Walt Reynolds (Mrs Waters), Mae Marsh, Al Bridge, Charles Halton,
Elia Kazan’s debut film stands as one of the most beloved family sagas of the old Hollywood; a lovingly crafted, detailed, emotional tale of growing up in turn of the century Brooklyn that wrings tears from you like a thumbscrew wrings cries of agony. In its own way, it’s perfect, and yet these days it’s overlooked, and dismissed as a formative work in its director’s canon. Why might this be?
The main reason seems to be that of realism, or the lack thereof. No-one could ever accuse it of truth, and yet could pre-Code Hollywood have depicted the real Brooklyn of the era faithfully; it seems doubtful. Hence they aim rather to capture a the rose-tinted and somewhat flavourful essence of time, with its Tin Pan Alley music, streets on which a Model T Ford have never appeared and slum garrets where everyone, though poor, is a character. Realists will hate it, but it is, after all, an exercise in nostalgia, as indeed it has to be when told through the eyes of a child. However, unlike a similar film, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, which also looked at a time and a place through rose-tinted spectacles, they didn’t make it out to be a sort of mythical paradise when it wasn’t – his Wales having not one jot of truth – rather simply looked at a hell through positive eyes, the eyes of not only its heroine, but her father.
The story, such as it is, follows approximately a year in the lives of the Nolans, living in a tenement building in Brooklyn; the young mother turned hard before her years by her husband’s pipe-dreaming and alcoholism, the latter sinking lower and lower as reality sets in, and particularly their eldest child, daughter Francie, whose life is about to enter the world of realism and leave the dreams of her beloved father behind.
In some ways the visual recreation owes much to the sequences of Cagney and co. as children in the Warner Bros gangster flicks – the Nolans could live just down the block from say the teenage Rocky Sullivan or Tom Powers, Irish-Americans all – but the look here is a touch more detailed and, as such, if not believable, then a real place for all that. Kazan allows his actors centre stage, but is helped by the luminous photography of the great studio veteran Leon Shamroy, the unobtrusive and seamless editing of Dorothy Spencer and the aforementioned sets of Lyle Wheeler. Most intrinsic to the film’s tone, however, must be Alfred Newman’s score, which positively reeks of nostalgia, for both the time and tunes of the era, belted out on barrel organs forever off camera. The tunes, from ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ to Irish folk tunes ‘Cockles and Mussels’, ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Early One Morning’ (the latter conjuring up indelible images of Joss Whedon’s William the Bloody), are so perfectly chosen as to defy criticism; you’ll be humming ‘Oh You Beautiful Doll’ for days afterwards.
At its heart, though, are the cast, with Oscar-winner Dunn never better or more empathetic than as dreamer Johnnie Nolan, Blondell inimitable as the illiterate Aunt Sissy who calls all her men Bill and excellent vignettes from Nolan as the gentle policeman and Gleason as the kindly local patron. Though too young for the role, McGuire is excellent as Katie, hating herself but sticking to her guns when saying “my kids is gonna be something even if I’ve gotta turn into granite myself.” Stand-out, however, has to be the almost angelic Garner, everyone’s ideal daughter, an idealist who’s forced to grow up ahead of her time. If the euphemism of the title may be slightly trite, forgive it, for it’s the sort of film that they just couldn’t make these days. More’s the pity.