Twentieth Century American Family Literature: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and A Raisin in the Sun

A melodrama is a film which attract the feelings of its audience, on a greater level than the basic “drama” genre. The characters of a melodrama are typically stereotyped and overstated to show something about the culture of the times, making their traits illustrations of the writer’s ideas on society. Both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) and A Raisin in the Sun (1961) are family melodramas of the classical and postclassical periods, respectively. There are three main aspects which were altered, or rather developed, from 1945 to 1961 which alter the qualities of the melodrama category: historic context, conventions and icons. Therefore, while the general understanding of the category stays the very same, and while the themes within the 2 movies are extremely similar, the elements alter according to the attitudes of the times and the advancement of societal issues, or certainly their progressive nature.

Prior to analysing and comparing the category which connects these 2 movies, it is essential to note the periods in which they were set and made, and the social buildings behind both their main styles and their characters’ actions. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was made in 1945, the year in which the Second World War ended. Nevertheless, the story is set between the years of 1900 and 1918, the last four of which would have taken place during the First World War. Bordwell and Thompson highlight features characteristic of classical Hollywood movie theater. These consist of functions such as the “narrative kind”, instructions of “focus” on main character, “a process of modification”, motivations of a mental nature, and finally “closure” (Bordwell and Thompson, 98). A Tree Grows in Booklyn clearly shows all of these attributes, as gone over later on. A Raisin in the Sun was made sixteen years after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1965, when the classical period had actually ended and the post classical duration was concerning an end. The post-classical period started right after the 2nd World War and ended, in 1962. It was characterised by its experimental and transitional nature, as its position in the film-period time-line was the next step towards the Modernist Duration.

The modification from classical to post-classical was an outcome of the progression in sophistication of both “developer and consumer” (Casper, Lecture) of the film, and the innovations utilized to create it. According to Casper with Edwards in Introduction to Movie Reader, there were various kinds of experimentation that took place within this period such as using “category as a vehicle”, “fond memories”, “topical accommodation”, among others (Casper with Edwards, 308). Due to the cultural distinctions of the times in which these films were made, it is no surprise that the methods which the themes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Raisin in the Sun are shown, and the melodrama genre which they fall under, are relatively different. In Truth Tv, Melodrama, and the Great Economic Downturn, Susan Schuyler states that “melodrama fluidly adapt to altering public tastes, borrowing tropes and methods from varied dramatic categories” (Schuyler, 44). The expression “fluidly adapted” supports the concept that melodramas focus on real concerns, their characters caricatures of the guys and ladies of the time in which they are based, a technique of talking about our ever-changing society through entertainment.

The disputes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Raisin in the Sun lie in the aspirations of the primary characters and money. The dreams that both Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) and Walter Lee Young (Sidney Poitier) have are simple dreams. However, the intro of more powerful stories in the post-classical age changes the method which the Family Melodrama genre is depicted, as societal issues are enhanced through the presentations of the characters. Francie Nolan is a young girl who desires become a writer, and Walter Lee Young is a guy who imagines buying a home which he can be happy with. Both of these aspirations are relatable, and would be attainable if these two families did not reside in hardship. However, the distinctions between the dreams can be discussed by the cultural context which surrounds these 2 stories. Francie Nolan’s dream is one which need to be accomplished by hard work, and determination versus all odds, such as her alcoholic daddy Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) who passes away at the height of her motivation. Francie is not supported by her household till the very end of the film as her mom depends on bed and informs her that she is sorry for not reading her structures: “I ain’t read any of your structures. It’s on my conscience”, (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945) Francie’s scenario could have been applied to young people from any culture with a similar class background.

In contrast, A Raisin in the Sun presses the borders of the Household Melodrama category by supplying an alternate culture to the traditional Hollywood household portrayal, by utilizing an African American household. Thompson and Chappell argue that “In culturally affected resources, the culture is not important to the underlying message of the movie, however it has a distinct result on the message and viewers’ responses to it … African American culture distinctively influences the messages communicated” (Thompson and Chappell, 223). The dynamic of the dreams in A Raisin in the Sun is various to that in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn since Francie’s ambitions are more personal, while Walter has problem with his individual dreams and dreams of his member of the family, and the choices which he must make for his being successful generation. Since the Young household are African American, and undergo bias and racism, the decision that Walter ultimately makes is connected the unity of the family against the white people who try to oppress them: “And we have actually chosen to move into our home due to the fact that my dad– my daddy– he made it for us brick by brick” (A Raisin in the Sun, 1961). In this method, the Household Melodrama genre advances as a stronger narrative is introduced. A narrative is, according to Bordwell and Thompson, “a type of filmic organization in which the parts connect to one another through a series of causally related events taking place in time and area” (Bordwell and Thompson, G-4). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a clear story, a beginning, middle and end which all add to the Bildungsroman nature of its plot. However, the stronger narrative happens in A Raisin in the Sun, as the Melodrama gets its drama through occasions which are connected by the ethical concern of the house that Walter wishes to move into. In this method, through the sign of the house, A Raisin in the Sun remarks more on society, and is less focused on the specific characters, however instead uses them as a car to enhance its melodramatic qualities.

Traditional film type, methods and patterns altered from the 1940s to the 1960s, as provided in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Raisin in the Sun. The classical era was one which is known for its studio system, which relied on big studios such as 20th Century Fox Studios for its shooting locations. As seen in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the settings of the classical age Hollywood films were sophisticated and pricey. It is easy to see that this movie was shot in a professional studio, due to the visible cam angles and lighting used in its scenes. For instance, the shots of the staircase in much of the scenes would have needed installed electronic cameras in order to reveal the height of the space. This is a sign of the focus of family in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The addition of the various floors and levels in your house assists to catch the focus on the Nolan household as a whole. The 3 point lighting utilized develops beautiful pictures of all the characters, highlighting the significance of private character development in the plot. In Behind the Silver Screen Series: Cinematography, Keating and Cagle argue that in the classical duration, lighting was utilized to “mainly to recommend three-dimensionality, to distinguish stars, and to provide glamour” (Keating and Cagle, 40) 3 point lighting consists of back-light, fill light, and key light which shines directly on the topic– to “to attain the wanted portraiture” (Keating and Cagle, 40). The surrounding lights enabled the visual prioritisation of the most essential subjects. Keating and Cagle argue that “Paired with an encouraging director and an appropriate script, cinematographers pushed the classical envelope and explore convention” (Keating and Cagle, 61). This development and experimentation was driven by economic and social change. After the financial boom which happened after The second world war in the 1940s, “1947 initiated a sharp financial decrease for the motion image market”, and “the studios slashed their overhead” (Keating and Cagle, 60). This lack of cash is evident in the way that A Raisin in the Sun was recorded. Most of the movie takes place in the small apartment of the Young household, venturing away from this place periodically for plot-related functions. The more easy set of this film assists the audience to focus more on the historical and social context of its story.

Without the elaborate settings, and the gorgeous portraiture that is displayed in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Raisin in the Sun relies more heavily on the value of the building of society at the time in which it was set. According to Keating and Cagle, in the post-classical period, “cinematographers started to blend the visual markers of newsreel credibility with different stylistic choices that likewise indicated realism, much of which deemphasized glamour”(Keating and Cagle, 65). This heightened sense of realism can be seen in A Raisin in the Sun as the streamlined setting contributes to the realistic nature of the plot. It focuses on the genuine issue of bigotry in America in the 1950s, and the battle of immigrants to progress in society, and their aim to challenge the apparently overwhelming immobility of the class system. Due to the fact that it does not focus as heavily on the development of the private character, as carried out in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Raisin in the Sun reveals the development of the household melodrama genre as it becomes a “bourgeois catastrophe, reliant upon an awareness of the existence of society” (Keith Grant, 73). The dispute that the Young household deals with highlights their culture being introduced into Hollywood movie, and the unified action of African Americans towards sensations of white supremacy. The decision Walter needs to make in between pride and money, involves his entire household. The Youngs seem a representation, and an inspirational sign for African American families in 1950s America as Walter selects to withstand social normalities and injustice. In this way, the iconography of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Raisin in the Sun differ because A Raisin in the Sun aims to produce icons out of its characters, for the purpose of discussing the racism previously mentioned, while the significance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is less apparent, as it is more standardised and can be commonly understood without the requirement for background historical knowledge. It is, as put by Judith E. Smith, “a plotless story, in the way that life itself never seems to provide much in the standard notions of plot” (Smith, 42).

Family melodrama is an ever-evolving category as it undergoes changes that take place within society. Therefore, the modifications to this category are tough to expect, however in the future are interesting to study with the advantage of historic hindsight. Cultural changes and societal issues manifest and present themselves in the contrast of movies such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Raisin in the Sun. In the words of Barry Keith Grant, “The case of melodrama is considerable because of its centrality and extreme versatility in the history of movie theater” (Keith Grant, 232).