Ranking: #68/111

Director: Elia Kazan (USA)

Genre: Social Drama

This is a stunning debut feature film and period piece by one of cinema’s greatest story-tellers, Elia Kazan. It recreates the hardship of financial struggle for an American-Irish family in a neighbourhood of Brooklyn in 1912. Such is the young director’s attention to detail in the mise-en-scène, and such is animated acting, that the viewer is transported back into the spirit of the time and place portrayed in the film. The viewer also becomes a fly on the wall observing the increasingly fraught household of the Nolans, whose charming, but hapless, patriarch, Johnny Nolan, is a waiter unable to earn enough to support his family. Yet, what he lacks in money, he makes up for in the grandeur of his daydreams, in endless, sunny optimism and in love for his family. Sadly, he’s an alcoholic who wastes what little money he earns and causes embarrassment to his family when he sometimes returns home drunk in broad daylight.

A powerful atmosphere of emotional intensity and strife slowly builds up. The film has plenty of both charm and pathos.  When a tree is cut down outside the window of their tenement building, it seems to make their lives even more oppressive. Johnny promises his beloved daughter, Francie, whom he affectionately nicknames “Prima Donna”, that they can grow another tree.

When Johnny’s wife, Katie, becomes oppressed by their financial woes, the Grandmother tells her “You have forgotten to think with your heart”. She has become cold, in stark contrast to her husband’s warm-hearted charisma. When she becomes pregnant, the economic pressure mounts even further, creating more tension in an already strained household and marriage.

Johnny contracts pneumonia after looking for work and going on a drinking binge, and dies. His flawed life and love for his family is summed in the telling comment: “He had nothing to give but himself.”

The main theme is that realism is the right approach to life, as opposed to the kind of denialism represented by the well-meaning, but delusional, day dreams of the father (“When my ship comes sailing in” is one of his favourite sayings).

Kazan steers a path to the Golden Mean through the two extremes represented by each of the parents: the hard-nosed, disciplined, hard-working ethic of the mother, which eventually leads to her becoming heartless, and the lackadaisical bonhomie of the genial Johnny Nolan. Katie admits near the end, “I didn’t mean to be so hard.”  While Johnny was unable to change his character, Katie is transformed through the grim events of the story and she’s able to face the future, with her new baby, with a wry smile.

In 2010, this heart-warming film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.