“You’re a funny kid — full of all them things, kind of like your pop.”
A bright young girl (Peggy Ann Garner) in early 20th century Brooklyn idealizes her alcoholic father (James Dunn), whose inability to provide a steady income for his family causes enormous stress for his more practical wife (Dorothy McGuire).
Elia Kazan’s directorial debut was this lyrical adaptation of Betty Smith’s best-selling autobiographical novel, starring child-actor Peggy Ann Garner, who won an honorary juvenile Oscar that year in a role she seems born to play. Garner perfectly captures the range of emotions experienced by young Francie Nolan, including ambivalence towards her stern but loving mother, Katie (McGuire in one of her earliest significant roles); annoyance towards her carefree younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson); intense desire for academic success (leading her to proactively pick out a better school for herself); and an abiding adoration for her hard-drinking father, Johnny — portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by James Dunn, whose own struggles with alcoholism allowed him to empathize deeply with his character. Kazan’s gift for working with actors is in clear evidence throughout the film, as he pulls fine performances from his entire cast (including Joan Blondell as Francie’s oft-married Aunt Sissy).
Smith’s novel is divided into five “books”, shifting back and forth in time to tell the back-story of how Johnny and Katie met, and following Francie into young adulthood; thankfully, the film only attempts to cover one segment of the book, when Francie is 11 years old. The screenplay is gently episodic, portraying key memories from Francie’s youth: wandering wide-eyed through the five-and-dime; dragging home an enormous Christmas tree; witnessing how hard her mother works as a cleaner to support their family; and, in an especially notable scene, helping her mother during the early stages of childbirth (portrayed in a surprisingly realistic manner for the time). One could quibble that Johnny’s debilitating alcoholism is presented in far too tame a fashion — this is no Angela’s Ashes — but I think the choice is a fair one, given that it allows us to empathize more easily with Johnny, and reflects Francie’s own fond memories of her deeply troubled father.
Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the story, beware of a fairly major spoiler that tends to pop up when reading about the film online.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan
- James Dunn as Johnny Nolan
- Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan
- Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy
- Excellent attention to period detail
- Fine cinematography
Yes, as an Oscar-winning classic with noteworthy performances. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.