Category Archives: Review

Junior Miss by Sally Benson

I’m from St. Louis, so I grew up hearing Sally Benson’s name every so often.  I’ve never met anyone who’d read her short stories, and I never read anything by her in school.  That’s a shame, because she writes better short stories than most I read in high school.

In the past year I’ve read Benson’s Junior Miss and Meet Me in St. Louis.  It could be that I’ve seen the film adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis too many times, or that I found stories that followed one character stronger than those that covered an entire family, but I feel that the Junior Miss collection is superior.

Junior Miss
By Sally Benson
Published 1941 by Random House
214 pages
Book-of-the-Month Club selection in May 1941

JM Cover

One-Sentence Summary: Judy Graves experiences the ups and downs of being caught between her girlhood and her teenage years in New York City in 12 funny short stories.

Jacket

Jacket

How I Found It: About two years ago, I was at a used bookstore that has a fantastic selection of old hardbacks.  I have a list of books and authors I check whenever I’m in a used bookstore.  When I got to Sally Benson, I found Junior Miss.  I had been hoping to find Meet Me in St. Louis, but that book isn’t always easy to find in the city of St. Louis, and there is something so romantic about finding a long-sought book in a store rather than by ordering it online.  I bought Junior Miss and finally gave it a try this past summer.  I read it in one day.  I considered slowing down to make it last longer, but I was having too good a time seeing Judy get herself into all sorts of situations.

The Setting:  New York City, c. 1940, in and around the apartment of a middle class family.

page 120

page 120

The Characters:  Judy Graves is a mature child or an immature young adult.  She has a good nature and struggles between holding on to her childhood and embracing adolescence.  Lois is Judy’s older sister and considers herself very grown up.  Their parents are kind but often baffled by raising daughters.  Fuffy Adams is Judy’s best friend and makes appearances in many of the stories.

The Best Thing: What moves me about Junior Miss is its sensitivity.  Being a young teen in late 1930s New York was not so different from my 1990s experience in a Midwestern suburb.  In “The Best Things Come in Small Packages,” the Christmas story, Judy goes from excitedly viewing the tree, to tearing up when remembering her pet who passed away in the past year, to contentedly getting presents she expected because she asked for them, to stealing a few minutes from family time to visit with her best friend—and compare their near-identical gifts.  It could be a description one of my Christmases.

In another story (“Les Temps Perdus”), Judy discovers that she had a pirate ancestor and writes an essay for school entitled “I Am Partially Pirate.”  Few of the stories really stand out- they’re all good.

The Worst Thing: It’s the bookworm’s cliché, but I’m sorry Junior Miss wasn’t longer, or that Benson didn’t write a sequel book about Judy’s college years.  It would have been funny to see Judy and Fuffy going off to live in a dormitory and getting into all sorts of sticky situations. 

Of Note: The title refers to the first of the stories in which the Graves family goes shopping.  Much to Judy’s dismay, she is too big to fit in a beautiful coat from the children’s department.  She resists shopping in the Junior Miss section because she wants the coat so much.

The name of the candy Junior Mints is a play on Junior Miss, and is noted on the back of each box.

Availability: Junior Miss is out of print, but used copies are available for 1 cent.

The Author: Sally Benson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1897.  Her family moved to New York City when she was a child.  Benson published 99 short stories in The New Yorker.  Only the two compilations mentioned above were published in book form; one must subscribe to the New Yorker to have access to the others.

Junior Miss was a Broadway play from 1941-1943, a radio show starring Shirley Temple in 1942, and was adapted for film in 1945, the year after Meet Me in St. Louis was released.  There was another Junior Miss radio series in the late 1940s that starred Barbara Whiting, who played Fuffy, Judy’s best friend, in the film.

After these successes, Benson had a career as a screenwriter, adapting Shadow of a Doubt, Viva Las Vegas, The Singing Nun, and others.  She was nominated for an Oscar for her 1946 screenplay Anna and the King of Siam (starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison).  She died in 1972 in California.

A book on Benson’s life and work by Dr. Maryellen Keefe will be released this year by SUNY Press.  I’m looking forward to the release of Quiet Little Affairs: The Life and Fiction of Sally Benson and will review it on this blog as soon as I get a copy.

The Film
Junior Miss
Released 1945
94 minutes
Black and white
Directed by George Seaton
Produced by 20th Century Fox

Differences: While not drastically different, this movie isn’t overly faithful to the book.  Like Meet Me in St. Louis, Junior Miss required some restructuring in order to have a linear plot rather than 12 separate episodes.  A storyline of Judy playing matchmaker, and getting in all sorts of trouble as a result, is added.  The big theme of the book—Judy is an awkward tween divided between things of childhood and the allure of young womanhood—is intact.

Cast: Peggy Ann Garner, Stephen Dunne, Allyn Joslyn, Faye Marlowe, Mona Freeman, Sylvia Field, Barbara Whiting, and Scotty Beckett.  Of the cast, Peggy Ann Garner and Barbara Whiting stand out.

Clips: You can watch the first minutes of the movie on Youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69y1Th4HMNA

Availability: Many classics have been released in the last couple of years, and not just the big names and award-winners.  A DVD of Junior Miss was released last year.  No special features, but good sound and picture quality.

Recommendations

The Book: The highest recommendation.  This is the perfect book to read before bed because each of the twelve stories is fairly short.  I bought copies as gifts for friends and family.

The Movie: Recommended.

Next month: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett


Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

The Novel

Dragonwyck
By Anya Seton
Published 1944 by Houghton Mifflin
255 pages

Dragonwyck Cover Page

One-Sentence Summary: Miranda Wells falls in love with and marries a rich landowner, but finds her ideals and her life in danger as she comes to know her husband.

How I Found It: Library bookfair.

The Setting: The setting makes this book unique.

Dragonwyck Author's Note

Beginning in 1629, Dutch settlers who moved to the American colonies and brought at least fifty families with them were granted deeded tracts of land along major rivers.  These lands were called patroonships and the men who such lands were called patroons.  Patroons had similar rights as lords in feudal times.  The Revolutionary War decreased their rights, but tenant farmers were made to pay exorbitant rents on lands that they had no option to purchase.   In 1839, the Anti-Rent War/Anti-Rent Movement commenced, lasting until 1852, affecting politics and leading to the downfall of tenant farms.  You can read more about patroonships on Wikipedia.

Dragonwyck’s antagonist Nicholas Van Ryn is a patroon in the 1830s.  Times are changing and farmers are beginning to fight for their rights.  He does not care about the problems faced by the farmers and is in denial that a revolution is on the way.

I had never heard of patroons before reading Dragonwyck, which appears to be the most (and only?) prominent novel to deal with this situation.

Add to this a gothic mansion at a large river estate and you’ve got a great place for a novel of historical fiction!

The Narrative: Third person limited from Miranda’s point of view.

Dragonwyck paragraph

The Story: Miranda Wells leaves her father’s farm in Connecticut to work as a companion for the child of prominent, prosperous relations, the Van Ryns, at their Hudson Valley estate, Dragonwyck.  Though warned by her father not to become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle and to stay true to her Christian upbringing, Miranda can’t help but fall in love with Dragonwyck, and with the married, moody Nicholas Van Ryn.  Upon the sudden death of his wife, Nicholas confesses mutual love and admiration, and it seems that they will live happily ever after.  With more than half of the novel remaining, this is not to be.

The Characters: The main character is Miranda Wells, a country girl who is dissatisfied with her life and all the marriage prospects in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Nicholas Van Ryn believes himself to be infallible and as powerful as a monarch in his kingdom of Dragonwyck.  Dr. Jeff Turner cares about his poorest and richest patients without being too good to be true.  Thrown in are spooky household staff, a haunting, and some of history’s notables, including Edgar Allan Poe.

Themes: spiritual and religious conflict, the journey from youth to maturity, ghosts, revolution, depression.

The Best: Miranda was a very well-developed character.  Her desire to leave a small town and experience the benefits offered by high society was as realistic as how she recoils from her life as the despised lady of the manor who is forced to conform to a hateful way of life.

The Worst: Dragonwyck reminds me in some ways of Rachel Field’s All This, and Heaven Too, which I reviewed in December.  Both books take place, at least partly, in New York, both deal with social upheaval, and both feature female characters who are enchanted with a way of life and the male who introduces them to it.

Dragonwyck, unlike All This, deals primarily with imagined characters, but both have cameo appearances by prominent artists of the day.  I sometimes feel like historical fiction is weakened by ordinary characters interacting with notables.  In All This, the acclaimed opera star Rachel and members of the Booth acting family appear, but as the novel is based on historical people and events, this was successfully executed.  In Dragonwyck, the inclusion of several notables in the plot seems forced at times.  At first I was concerned that the meeting between the Van Ryns and Edgar Allan Poe would seem contrived, but the scene plays out well enough.  Still, it was one of my least favorite scenes of the novel.

Of Note: Anya Seton was a popular writer of historical romance, and another of her novels, Foxfire, was adapted for film.

Availability: Available on Kindle and in paperback.


The Movie

Dragonwyck
Released 1946
103 Minutes
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by 20th Century Fox

Review: Dragonwyck is a good movie that largely follows the book, but there are missing scenes.  I’m a little sorry that this one was shot in black in white.  It works that way, but it would have been nice to see the colors at and around Dragonwyck.

Differences: There are typical differences between the book and the movie, but I was impressed by how the film followed the book in terms of mood, character, and plot.

In the movie, almost all of the action takes place at Dragonwyck (it feels like half to two-thirds in the book), and only one scene is in New York City (in the book, the Van Ryns spend an extended amount of time there).  Jeff Turner never visits Greenwich in the movie, but he’s very present throughout the movie at and around Dragonwyck.

The ending is more dramatic in the book, and I am sorry it wasn’t filmed as it was in the book.  Little can be said without giving either ending away, but my interpretation is that the finish of the book was not in compliance with the part of the Hollywood Production Code and had to be changed for a 1940s audience.  I’d love to see a miniseries of Dragonwyck in the accurate manner of HBO’s Mildred Pierce, though perhaps not as lengthy.

Cast: The movie has an all-star cast.  I know that’s common in 1940s movies, but I think listing some of the performers and saying that they are all excellent in Dragonwyck should be adequate:  Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Glenn Langan, Anne Revere, Spring Byington, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan (of M*A*S*H fame).

Awards: I couldn’t find anything about Dragonwyck had been nominated for any awards, which I think is a shame, because it’s as good as its contemporary films.  If you know otherwise, please leave a comment.

The Trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5KiTFHnxn4

A Later Scene (spoilers, but captures the mood):

Availability: Available on DVD as part of Fox Horror Classics Collection, Vol. 2 and on a single-title DVD.

Recommendations

Book: Yes.

Movie: Yes.

Your comments appreciated!

Later this month on Reel Old Reads: Junior Miss by Sally Benson.


Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

I didn’t have a Reel Old Reads post for January because I was busy with editing a much bigger work, my master’s thesis.  Though I’m not done with it quite yet, I should have a little more time to work on this blog and a couple of other projects.

I was rarely a straight-A student, but I always turned in my work and almost always had it in on time.  I am treating this blog the same way.  I’m not skipping January’s post; this is January’s post.  I will have a post for February posted by the end of this month or at the very latest by the early days of March. 

Book Details:

By James M. Cain
Published 1941 by Alfred A. Knopf
288 pages

One Sentence Summary: Ambitious housewife Mildred Pierce becomes a successful entrepreneur, but fails in relationships with men and with her greedy, vindictive daughter.

How I Found It:  Annual library bookfair, but I’d seen the movie long before and first heard of it when watching Mommie Dearest.

The Setting:  Depression-era Los Angeles.

The Narrative: Third person limited.  Cain is a descriptive writer, but his descriptions don’t go on too long.  It makes for a fast read.

The Story: Mildred Pierce is a housewife in her late 20s who makes ends meet by selling cakes and pies while her unemployed husband cheats on her and avoids contributing to the household.  Mildred begins making decisions viewed by those around her to be extreme: kicking her husband out of their house– in a subdivision that bears his name, taking his car because she needs it more than he does, and looking for a job that will keep her daughters– one playful, one snobbish– and herself in their home.  She discovers that housewives are only qualified to be waitresses or housekeepers—servant positions that she always thought herself above.  Eventually she swallows her pride and manages to make her way from waitress to entrepreneur in only a few years.

Mildred’s personal struggles weigh on her.   She falls in love with a socialite who, like her ex-husband, has no work ethic.  Mildred constantly seeks the approval of elder daughter Veda, who is only satisfied when she receives the best that money can buy, and later on, with money alone.

The Characters:  Mildred is a mostly likeable character who twice makes the mistake of marrying a man whose company she enjoys but who is unambitious and financially irresponsible.  Ex-husband Bert is a well-intentioned if clueless parent, and socialite Monty Beragon, who embraces a carefree lifestyle and puts a smile on Mildred’s face.  The standouts are Mildred’s friends, Ida and Mrs. Gessler.

The Best Thing: What stood out to me in this book was that the description of the restaurant business was complicated, realistic and interesting: waitressing from the standpoint of a novice to the economics of baking pies to sell to a restaurant to sell to the process of opening up a new restaurant and growing a chain business.

The Worst Thing: How sad the story is… Makes me want to go and be extra nice to my mother!

Of Note: James M. Cain also wrote the novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Availability:  In paperback at Amazon.com.

MP Cover

The Movie
Released 1945
111 minutes
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Warner Brothers

Review: The film Mildred Pierce is told as a flashback after one of the characters is murdered.  Mildred is being interviewed by a detective and we see where she started began years earlier and how she wound up in that position.

See a trailer here:

Differences:  Vast differences.  Most importantly, the murder plotline is added no one gets murdered in the novel.  Personally, I don’t mind it now that there is a miniseries that is so true to the story.  Without the murder plot, the movie would have lost a lot of its excitement as it had to be tamed down for those protected cinema-attending masses in the 1940s.   Other than typical condensed-for-runtime and edited-for-Production Code changes, Mildred meets lover Monte Beragon when she is buying property for her first restaurant rather than by waiting on him during her last day at her first restaurant job.  Veda works as a singer/dancer after a big fight with Mildred rather than as a singer at places of prestige as in the book.  The younger daughter’s name is changed from Ray to the more feminine and ordinary Kay.

Cast:  Joan Crawford is great as Mildred, and Ann Blyth is a terribly bratty Veda, but Eve Arden gets all the best lines as Ida.  She comments on Monte’s getting involved with Veda: “Don’t look now, Junior, but you’re standing under a brick wall.” “I don’t get it,” Monte says. “You will – when it falls on you.”

Awards:  Joan Crawford won the Oscar for Best Actress (beating out Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, Jennifer Jones in Love Letters and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven).  It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden AND Ann Blyth lost to Anne Revere for National Velvet), Best Cinematography (Ernest Haller lost to Leon Shamroy for Leave Her to Heaven), Best Writing/Screenplay (Ranald MacDougall lost to Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend) and Best Picture (lost to The Lost Weekend).

Of Note: This film revived Crawford’s career.  That fact, along with references to it in Mommie Dearest (based on Joan’s daughter’s memoirs), make it a must-see to any movie fan (in this fan’s opinion).

Availability: Digital format and DVD on Amazon.

 

The Miniseries
Aired March 27, 2011
5 episodes, 336 minutes
HBO

Review:  I was pretty surprised a couple of years ago when I saw a trailer for a new 1930s-set HBO miniseries… and that it turned out to be Mildred Pierce.  I finally saw it last year, weeks after  finishing the novel.  It’s as true to the book as any other book-to-film adaptation I’ve seen.  All of the dialogue especially seemed to have been taken verbatim.

The highlight of the miniseries is its look—hair, costumes, cars, houses.  All of these make the story come alive for an audience who never saw the 1930s in a way that words couldn’t.

My complaint is that the miniseries is too long.  Adapting the fewer than 300 pages into a 2 hour movie would have been a struggle, but 5 hours is excessive.  In making a miniseries so true to the novel, very little fat was cut.  Perhaps it was because I’d read the book just weeks before and everything was so fresh in my mind, but I think a 3-hour Mildred Pierce would have been better.

Differences: It’s been a few months since I’ve seen the miniseries, but I can’t come up with anything to say here.

Cast: The casting is just right.  Guy Pearce as Monty is likable but slappable at the same time.  Kate Winslet is even more Mildred than Joan was, but her American accent sounds to me like she has a cold.  My favorite character Mare Winningham as Ida, Mildred’s coworker and friend.

A trailer is here:

Awards: Mildred Pierce won five Emmys: Best Leading Actress-Miniseries or Television Film (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actor-Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Guy Pearce), Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Movie) Mark Friedberg, Peter Rogness and Ellen Christiansen De Jonge), Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Carter Burwell), and Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special (Laura Rosenthal).  Kate Winslet also won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Availability: Digital format, DVD and Blu-ray available at Amazon.

Recommendations

The Book: Yes.

The Movie: Yes.

The Miniseries: Yes, but not right after reading the book.  If you’re seeing the miniseries first, wait awhile before reading the book.

Next on Reel Old Reads: Dragonwyck by Anya Seton


All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field

All This, and Heaven Too

Published in 1938 by The Macmillan Company.
596 pages.
Top 10 Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller in 1938 (#6) and 1939 (#2).

One Sentence Summary: Governess Henriette Desportes witnesses domestic strife in the household of her employers– strife that leads to a suicide, murder, and contributes to revolution in 19th century France in this true story of surviving the fallout of a scandal.

How I Found It: There’s been an old copy of All This, and Heaven Too in my parents’ house for years.  I assume it was a thrift store selection by my grandmother, who loved dramatic films as much as I do.  I finally read it several months ago and I am so glad I did.

The Author: Rachel Field lived from 1894-1942.  Field wrote the 1930 Newbery awardee (for children’s literature) Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and numerous others, including a winner of the Caldecott Medal for children’s picture books.

The Setting:  Primarily France, and then America, beginning in the 1840s.

The Narrative: First and foremost, please note that this book is historical fiction—and features actual events.

The book begins with a letter of introduction in which the author, Rachel Field, addresses the subject of the novel: her great-aunt, Henriette Desportes.  “Although I never knew you in life, as a child I often cracked butternuts on your tombstone.”  This beautiful letter describes the research that inspired the writing of the book.  “I set down here only what may have happened.  Perhaps I have put words into your mouth that you would never have said.  My thoughts, at best, can never be your thoughts.  I know that, and still I must write them, since you yourself emerge from the web of fact and legend as definite as the spider that clears the intricate maze of its own making.”

The Story: Henriette Desportes is 28 years old when the novel opens in 1841.  She is traveling from England to her homeland of France now English charge is of age and no longer in need of a governess.  Henriette has secured a position teaching a prominent family’s youngest children.  The Duc and Duchesse de Praslin are Catholic; the Duchesse strongly disapproves of Henriette’s Protestant faith.  The children find it easy to love their governess because they are terrified of their mother.

Time and trials make Henriette aware of the strife between the oft-hysterical Duchess and her long-suffering husband.  The Duc often begs Henriette to remain in the household—and eventually develops romantic feelings for her.  Years pass… everyone has a breaking point, including mistreated husbands and the nation of France.

The Themes:  Faith, growth, fortitude, solitude, loneliness, love, passion, individuality.

The Best Thing: The book has romance without being a romance novel.  It’s more the romance provided by setting—say, attending a dance or a fancy party—and the love of a way of life—than love for a particular person.  This is not a love story, yet it has its love scenes.  It’s a story of recovery and growth from the most terrible of circumstances without sacrificing personal identity.  Similarly, it is a novel of faith without being strongly religious or even preachy.

The writing is rich with description without being too wordy:

“Her first impression was of disorder.   The small room seemed overflowing with costumes and baskets of flowers whose fragrance mingled with the scent of powder and pomades.  Then she became aware only of the woman who dominated it.  Rachel lay on a divan wrapped in a cloak of crimson wool.  Under her make-up she looked utterly spent and no flecks of light stirred in the somber darkness of her eyes.  Seen at such close range there was no disguising the worn lines of that face the hollows that showed too prominently at cheeks and throat.  But the full red lips curved into a smile as a long transparent hand was extended in greeting” (pg. 522).

The Worst Thing: The story continues many years past the climax, and the last few chapters drag a little.

Of Note:  Rachel Field, the novel’s author, was from a talented family.  Her great-grandfather was the well-known American minister David Dudley Field.  Her father was Dr. Matthew Dickinson Field, Jr.  Her great uncles held positions of Supreme Court Justice, clergyman, writer, U.S. Representative, and businessman.  You can read more about their family on Find a Grave.com.

Rachel Field died in 1942, at the age of 47 and only four years after this novel was published.

To Read It: The novel is available on Amazon.com.

The Film

Released in 1940.
Produced by Warner Brothers.
Directed by Anatole Litvak.
142 minutes.
Black and white.

The Best Thing: The movie is a flashback framed in Henriette’s new classroom—her past is discovered by her new pupils and she is forced to tell the story for herself.

The Worst Thing:  Because the bulk of the movie is a flashback, action in later chapters is simplified or skipped altogether.  While this works for a movie, I missed certain scenes from the book.

Differences from the Novel: The movie selects the best events of the book and makes several changes that benefit the medium.

The first is that the story is framed—instead of meeting Henriette as she concludes a journey from England to France, we see her have a disastrous first meeting with her teenage students on her first day as a French teacher in an exclusive New York girls’ school.  The rest of the story is a flashback until the end of the movie when we see the girls react to her story.  It works beautifully, despite many pages being scrapped.

The second change is the introduction of a supporting character from later in the story to Henriette’s journey to France.  Both changes improve the movie into something both believable and watchable in two and a half hours.

Cast: Bette Davis is great as she always is.  Charles Boyer is equally competent as a happy man altered by unhappy circumstances. Richard Nichols played the youngest Praslin child, Reynald.  He was in other classics like Kitty Foyle and Blossoms in the Dust.  He gives a good performance, especially considering he was only about four years old when the movie was filmed.

The standout in the cast is Barbara O’Neil as the hysterical Duchesse.  The scenes that have her berating her husband and dominating her children were just as written in the book.

And Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind; Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis, etc) has a supporting role.

Awards: It received 3 Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress—Barbara O’Neil (lost to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath), Best Black-and-White Cinematography—Ernest Haller (lost to George Barnes for Rebecca) and Best Picture (lost to Selznick International Pictures for Rebecca).

To Watch It:  The DVD is available at Amazon and currently priced at $7.40.

If you’d rather watch a trailer first, view one on Youtube:

It’s a must-see.  Certain scenes from the book, such as Henriette’s introduction to Reynald and Berthe in the presence of their mother, play out perfectly.  And for me, this is the ultimate Bette Davis costume drama.

Your Comments Invited
Share your thoughts below.  Thanks for reading, and have a very merry and safe holiday season!


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Novel

The Details:
Published in 1943 by Harper and Brothers.
493 pages.
Top 10 Publishers Weekly bestseller in 1943 and 1944.

One afternoon when I was 14 years old, I wanted to read something refreshingly different from whatever YA stuff I’d been devouring.  I went to my mother’s room and opened a bright green hardback without a dust jacket.

I wasn’t exactly grabbed by the opening lines, but the writing was perfectly easy to understand:

I took a chance and borrowed it, so beginning my first love of a novel written for adults.  That was 13 years ago and I haven’t returned it yet.

A few years later, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.  I’ve read a number of Oprah’s Book Club selections and I’ve been grateful that it has brought so many readers to the book—readers who weren’t attracted to an old copy.

The Author: Elisabeth Wehner was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1896.  She dropped out of high school, married (becoming Betty Smith), started a family, and then attended the University of Michigan.  She divorced, remarried, and began to make a name for herself as a writer in the early 1940s.  Two of her books were adapted as films.  She died in 1972 at the age of 75.

The Setting:  The tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, c. 1900-1920.

The Narrative: Told in third person omniscient, the novel is divided into five books that switch between two generations of a German-Irish family.

The Story: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of how home and community environment shape two generations of working class Brooklynites at the turn of the 20th century. The main character is Francie Nolan, the elder child in a Catholic family.  She struggles to survive a sickly childhood and to thrive in a home where she is loved but suffers amidst family dysfunction.  Her mother, Katie, is emotionally aloof and favors her son, though she is ashamed of the preference and tries to mask it.  Francie’s father, Johnny, a singing waiter, is closer to her.  But Johnny is an alcoholic, which is why the family lives in states of poverty and tension.  Yet he understands the value of her dreams and encourages her to follow them.

As Francie and Neeley grow older, they become aware of the conflict between their father’s way of thinking and their mother’s necessary realism, their father’s alcoholism, and how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty.  Despite its serious subject matter, and many tear-jerking moments, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not devoid of humor.

The Characters:  This is a character-driven story, and all of the characters are developed and unique.  An alcoholic father finds it more comfortable to fantasize about being a wealthy star than to hold a job.  A mother has largely sacrificed her own dreams and her belief in dreams to keep her family fed.  A vivacious aunt never keeps a husband for more than a few years because her babies live for only a few hours.  The daughter, when younger, idealizes childhood memories, education, and a nice neighborhood.  Jaded after experiencing loss, struggle, and natural maturation, she is not cynical at the end.

What I like about Francie that she makes the decision not to seek friendships because they are complicated and lead to pain.  Maintaining friendships– and ending them– can be emotionally draining.  Francie seems to have made a decision to conserve her energies to deal with life’s other problems, not understanding that good friendships provide more energy than they consume.  Still, I appreciate a heroine who was alone without being lonely– one who largely was content with her books like many “reader” types are.

The Themes: The fight for survival; coming of age; the American Dream; poverty; alcoholism; mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships; truth and lies; birth, growth, and death.

The Best Thing: The details of urban family life among the poor second and third generation Americans at the turn of the century and after. The various ways neighborhood children are manipulated and victimized.  There are abundant specifics on hygiene (the unsafe lengths to which the mother goes to prevent her children from getting head lice) and frugality (the stress of saving money for years and the heartbreak of having to redirect those funds when an emergency occurs).

The Worst Thing: The book is near-perfect.  It jumps around in time more than most, but this is for the benefit of the narrative.

Of Note: The debut novel of the author, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is definitely the best of her four works, all of which I will review for Reel Old Reads.

To Read It: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and pretty much any other English language bookstore in the world.  There were some illustrations in my edition (1947):

The Film

Oscar Winners: James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Courtesy of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation.

The Details:
Released in 1945.
Produced by 20th Century Fox.
129 minutes.
Black and white.

The Best Thing: The Christmas scenes may be what take this movie from a decent classic movie to a great classic movie.

The Worst Thing:   Changes made in the interest of time.

Differences from the Novel: To do a nearly 500 page book in two hours, many changes were necessary.  Subplots are simplified or eliminated, characters are combined, and the timeline is shortened to about one year.  But it works well, and the major themes of the book remain.

Cast: A young Dorothy McGuire plays the dedicated but edgy mother, Katie.  McGuire was not even 30 years old when the film was made, and she was only 15 years older than the actress playing her daughter.  McGuire is younger than her character, yet plays the part as aged by circumstance.  Peggy Ann Garner is quiet, sensitive, and believable as Francie.  James Dunn makes the father, Johnny, loveable to the children but another burden to bear for the wife.  All of the other performances, from Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy and Ted Donaldson as Neeley down to the bit parts, are perfect.

Courtesy of Reelz.com.

Awards:  Won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (James Dunn).  Nominated for Best Writing/Screenplay (Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger).  Special Academy Juvenile Award (Peggy Ann Garner).

Of Note: Hollywood directorial debut of Elia Kazan, who is best known for On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire.  The Christmas scenes are memorable, and it’s a good movie to watch during the holiday season.

To Watch It:  The movie also airs on Turner Classic Movies periodically, usually around the holidays.  The next showing is December 11, 2012, at 12:30p.m. Eastern.  It’s not to be missed.  It’s also available on DVD.

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