Johnny (James Dunn) and Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire) are trying to raise a family in the Brooklyn tenements and barely surviving. The story is told through the eyes of their daughter Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) who is coming of age and trying to make sense of her parents as individuals, their relationship and what kind of person she wants to be as she gets older.
I find the adult characters of this story incredibly compelling. First of all, you have the patriarch, Johnny Nolan. He is an alcoholic and doesn't do a good job of providing for the materials his family needs, but does that make him an all bad father? As they say in the film, he gives of himself generously. He inspires his daughter, he listens to her, he helps her with her problems, he is kind and makes her proud he is her father.
At the opposite end you have Katie Nolan. Katie and Johnny love each other, but the stresses of family life puts a definite strain on them. Katie comes off as a woman that has grown hard and questions that in the film. If she is, she has gotten that way because she had to care for her family, work to make money and provide the necessities. While Johnny could be loving because he had the time without work, she felt she never had enough time to sit and give of herself in that way. She grows resentful of her role and also of the love Francie lavishes on her father.
The reason I find these characters so compelling is because I keep asking myself, would I want to be more like Katie Nolan who is the rock of her family (both in good and bad ways) or more like Johnny Nolan who is the life of his family (both in good and bad ways). I can't answer it for myself yet, so I will be pondering this for a while. Obviously a combo of the two is the best answer, but these characters were purposefully made polar opposites for illustrative purposes, I am sure. Betty Smith knew what she was doing when she wrote the novel. :-)
I think the difference is best described with their views about the Gathers family. Flossy Gathers is a young girl who is very sick and probably going to die. Her family makes the decision to stop spending money on funeral insurance for her and instead spend the money on pretty dresses for her to wear. Johnny's feelings are expressed when he sees Flossy in one of her new dresses.
Johnny: "Well, will you look at our beautiful princess tonight in a brand new gown."
Flossy:"It is made out of silk."
Johnny: "Silk? Oh, don't you tell me that. This dress is made out of flower petals and birds wings and a little old piece of cloud. Anybody can tell that."
Flossy beams because of the exchange. Later, when Flossy dies, Katie and Johnny have a fight. Katie thinks it isn't right that her parents were irresponsible by not keeping up the funeral insurance. Flossy will now be buried in Potter's Field since they couldn't pay for a proper burial. Johnny says that at least she enjoyed the pretty dresses while she was alive because he doesn't think she cares where she is buried now.
I think the point of all this is that there isn't a right or wrong answer, but I have to say that it really makes me think about my values in life. I won't give any crucial plot points away, but the end of the film does have Francie and Neely reflecting on how much fun they had "as kids". I didn't have much money as a child either, but I never realized it and I had fun too. Sometimes, money isn't the most important thing in life and this story felt like a good reminder of that.
I want to add in here that I think one of the early unsung heroes of the movie is Joan Blondell as Sissy Edwards. I think people look over the importance of Sissy in the story. She lightens things up and tries to help keep the peace. When she sees the people she loves struggling, she tries to set them on the right path. Joan Blondell plays this part wonderfully with all the warmth and vivaciousness you would expect. I can't help and wonder if she is not a large piece of the tape holding this family together since she can help both Johnny and Katie see the other's point of view. This also illustrates how important other relationships are outside the main family unit and how keeping those relationships alive is beneficial. Again, what is important to us?
I thought this movie was wonderful. The acting is top-notch and Elia Kazan as a director is perfect for this. The story is heart-breaking, yet inspiring at the same time. If you haven't seen this, put it on your list to watch when things are looking bleak. It will help you feel like things really aren't so bad.