The screenplay was adapted for radio in 1949 and television in 1974. In 2010, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The film covers several months in the life of the Nolans, an Irish American family living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1912. The film is much shorter than the book, which covers the time from before Francie is born until after she turns 16. The film focuses on the time when Francie is around 13 years old.
Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire) is a hard-working housewife who scrubs the floors of her tenement building and collects rags for sale to a scrap fabric dealer in order to provide for her family. She's married to Johnny Nolan (James Dunn), a happy-go-lucky, charming man who means well but dreams his way through life rather than find steady employment. He is also an alcoholic. On the rare occasions he finds work as a singing waiter, everything he earns usually ends up in his drinking, much to the despair of his disillusioned wife. The couple have two children, 13-year-old Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), who idolizes her father, and 12-year-old Neeley (Cornelius) (Ted Donaldson). Tense and frustrated, Katie is often sharper with the children than she means to be, while Johnny is gentle, generous, and indulgent, especially with Francie.
Katie's sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell), is a sassy, free-spirited woman who has, unbeknownst to her sister, recently remarried for the third time. Katie learns this news not from Sissy herself but from a gossipy insurance agent, Mr. Barker, when he comes by to collect the Nolans' weekly premium. Scandalized and embarrassed, Katie cuts off her relationship with Sissy, which makes the children, who love their wild and wacky aunt, unhappy. Francie is also worried that the building's landlord has cut too many branches off the one tree growing in the tenement's courtyard, which Francie and her father call the Tree of Heaven, and that it may die. But when she points out the altered tree to Johnny, he explains that the cutting back is necessary, and that the tree will grow again.
In the meantime, a police officer new to the neighborhood, Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), encounters Aunt Sissy and the children one afternoon. When he meets the children's mother, he is enchanted by the beautiful Katie. A few days later, however, he learns that Johnny (drunk after an argument with his wife) is Katie's husband, and is devastated to realize Katie is married.
The children's grandmother Rommely (Ferike Boros), often tells them about her immigration to the United States, and how important education is in life. While Neeley isn't interested in books and school, Francie is a bright child who is always reading, thinking about what she reads and observes, and eager to learn. Every night, she reads to the family from the thick book of Shakespeare her grandmother let them buy, even though they don't understand what they read.
One Sunday afternoon, Francie indirectly persuades her father to go for a walk instead of sitting at home. She accompanies him and shows him the school she wants to attend. It's a nicer school in a nearby neighborhood, with wealthier, well dressed students. When he sees how much the better school means to Francie, Johnny "borrows" a home address within the correct district, so that Francie can claim she is eligible to attend. Katie is opposed, but Johnny persuades her to go along with the lie, and in the end, Katie supports her daughter's ambition by tailoring an old dress into one Francie can wear to school. Once she becomes a pupil at the school, Francie impresses her new teacher with her creative writing.
Meanwhile, Katie moves the family into a smaller, cheaper apartment one floor up, angering her husband. Johnny believes she is merely being stingy. In fact she is pregnant and very worried how they will live with another child. Sissy, too, becomes pregnant, and she and Katie reconcile shortly before Christmas. The families celebrate a happy, poignant Christmas together, and later that night Katie tells Johnny she is pregnant. She suggests that Francie drop out of school to work. Since Johnny understands how much being in school means to his daughter he feels desperate to find a job. Despite the fact that it's snowing hard Johnny goes out that night, determined to find work. Instead, he fails to return.
After Johnny has been missing for a week, Officer McShane comes to the apartment to deliver the bad news that Johnny is dead. He died from pneumonia while looking for a job in Manhattan during the terrible January snowstorm. Francie blames her mother for her father's death, but the births of, first, Sissy's baby, and then Katie's, help to ease tensions in the household. To provide the family with extra financial help a sympathetic tavern owner, Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) gives Francie and Neeley after-school jobs.
During Katie's labor, at home because they cannot afford the hospital birth that Sissy had, Francie is her mother's greatest help and comfort. Katie asks Francie to read some of her creative writing essays to her, and confides to her daughter how much she misses Johnny. The shared experience brings mother and daughter closer. When the baby is born, a little girl, Katie names her Annie Laurie after the song Johnny once sang to them.
The following June, both children graduate from their respective schools on the same day. Katie attends Neeley's graduation while Sissy goes to Francie's. Using graduation day money that Johnny gave her for safekeeping back in December, Sissy gives Francie a bouquet of flowers from her father along with a card of congratulation that Johnny wrote himself. Francie, who has bottled her grief in stoic silence for many months, finally breaks down.
After the graduation ceremonies, the family reunites at the ice cream shop to celebrate. While there, some boys who know Neeley come by their table. One teenager in particular is very interested in Francie and asks her to a movie for the next day, her first date.
When the Nolans return home, they find Officer McShane babysitting along with Sissy's husband. He has been waiting to propose to Katie, who accepts. Officer McShane also asks to adopt Annie Laurie and give her his last name. Francie and Neeley think that Annie Laurie's life with McShane as a father will be much easier, but not nearly as much fun.
The film ends as Francie sees the courtyard tree begin to grow again, just as her father said it would.Dorothy McGuire — Katie Nolan
Joan Blondell — Aunt Sissy
James Dunn — Johnny Nolan
Lloyd Nolan — Officer McShane
James Gleason — McGarrity
Ted Donaldson — Neeley Nolan
Peggy Ann Garner — Francie Nolan
Ruth Nelson — Miss McDonough
John Alexander — Steve Edwards
B.S. Pully — Christmas tree vendor
Ferike Boros — Grandma Rommely (uncredited)
James Dunn won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger were nominated for Writing, Adapted Screenplay, and Peggy Ann Garner won the 1945 Academy Juvenile Award.
In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
James Dunn and Connie Marshall starred in a CBS Radio adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that aired April 28, 1949, on The Hallmark Playhouse
The screenplay was adapted for a 1974 NBC television film directed by Joseph Hardy, starring Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker, Pamelyn Ferdin and James Olson.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was released on Region 1 DVD as part of the 20th Century Fox Home Video box set, The Elia Kazan Collection (2010).