SUBJECTS — U.S./1913 – 1929, Diversity & New York;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Education; Families in Crisis; Father/Daughter; Grieving;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring.

AGE: 9+; No MPAA Rating;

Drama; 1945; 128 minutes; B & W.

Read the Book, Too! This movie is based on the classic novel of the same name. It is a traditional favorite for assignment to classes at the junior high and middle school level.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


The scene is an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn before the First World War. Katie Nolan’s husband is an alcoholic singing bartender who drinks up most of his earnings. They have two children, a daughter and a son. Katie scrubs floors and saves pennies. The film is the story of how this besieged family survives and how the daughter is given an education so that she can have a better life than her parents. The film, adapted from the novel by Betty Smith, is poignantly sad but ultimately uplifting.


Selected Awards:

1946 Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Dunn); 1946 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Screenplay.

Featured Actors:

Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Ted Donaldson, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason and Peggy Ann Garner.


Elia Kazan.


“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” shows the ravaging effects of alcoholism on a family and the struggle of a poor Irish immigrant family to provide for its children.




Before you watch the film, review the section on Alcoholism and tell this information to your child. Then ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If you can think of any examples of people with “co-dependent behavior” who your child knows, describe the situation in terms of addiction/co-dependence.

TeachWithMovies.org recommends that every child in any family in which there is any history of heavy drinking or alcohol abuse be taken to an open AA meeting beginning at the age of 12 or 13. This should be repeated every year or so. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Try to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety. Tell the kids that if they ever have trouble with alcohol, the twelve steps of AA are a way that they can avoid the destructive effects of alcoholism. For more information, see Handout on Alcohol and How it Affects Us.


As of the 2000 Census, some 30.5 million Americans traced their ancestry to Ireland. Descendents of Irish immigrants makes up 10.8% of the population. Before 1820, most of the Irish immigrants to the U.S. were Scots-Irish Presbyterians from Ulster. Five million immigrants from Ireland came to the U.S. after 1820, three-quarters of them Catholic. More than one million Irish people emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. to avoid the effects of the Great Potato Famine of 1845 – 1850. Most of the Irish immigrants were unskilled and poorly educated. They were subject to widespread discrimination. However, by the late 19th, century many Irish immigrants and their children had become skilled workers and their wealth and influence increased.

Irish Americans played significant roles in the revolutions that created the Irish Free State in 1921. (Eamon de Valera, the Irish revolutionary leader and the first prime minister of Ireland, was born in New York and at least initially, was a U.S. citizen.) Irish Americans also participated in the founding of the Republic of Ireland in 1945. The recent peace process in Northern Ireland was brokered by George Mitchell, former Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

Irish Americans have played a significant role in American cultural and political life. They have been the dominant force in the American Catholic Church. They have made important contributions to American politics, literature, music and journalism.

Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of New York City. The area was first settled by the Dutch in 1636 and named “Breucklen” after a city in Holland. The Battle of Long Island, in which the British defeated the Americans and took control of New York, was fought in Brooklyn. Ferry service to Manhattan began in 1814 and the Brooklyn Bridge was opened in 1883. These events fed dramatic increases in the population of the city. Brooklyn became a borough of New York City in 1898.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease that is not caused by a germ or a virus but by the chemical and psychological reaction of the individual to the drug. An alcoholic will structure his or her life around easy access to alcohol. The compulsion to drink influences and usually controls an alcoholic’s choice of associates and activities. A person in the grip of alcoholism, like Johnny Nolan in the film, is helpless to prevent drinking from interfering with his responsibilities to work and to family. Some alcoholics are bingers, with intermittent periods of sobriety. Some alcoholics drink regularly. Others pull themselves together for certain periods of time (sometimes years) and stop drinking, only to return to the drug later. True alcoholism is always progressive, with death from alcohol poisoning, physical deterioration and resulting illness, or alcohol-induced accident, being the end result. Sustained recovery from alcoholism (abstinence from drinking) is most successfully achieved through Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 step programs.

Alcoholism weakens and destroys the body. Alcoholics are particularly susceptible to pneumonia, the illness that killed Johnny Nolan. This was a more severe problem before the advent of antibiotics than it is today.

Attendance at an open AA meeting is an excellent extra-credit activity. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Tell the kids to ask permission to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety.

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See Handout on Alcohol and How it Affects Us.


1. Did the mother’s love for her husband get in the way of her ability to defend the family from the effects of his alcoholism?


2. Is it true that Johnny Nolan “never hurt anybody”?


3. Did the father really care for his children if he would drink up the money they needed for food?



4. What was the role of education in this family?


5. Why did Francie Nolan read so obsessively?



6. Did Francie Nolan have a realistic view of her father?



7. Would you have grieved when the father died if you had been in this family?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


1. The father’s alcoholism made it impossible for him to meet his responsibilities to his family. Was this a moral failing or an illness or both?



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

[See “Alcoholism and Drug Abuse” section above.]



The novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is highly recommended for conveying a vivid picture of the lives of young immigrants and fascinating nuggets of information such as the origins of Halloween in this country.

This Learning Guide was last updated on April 10, 2010.

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