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In 1943, a film crew from Twentieth Century-Fox arrived in Santa Rosa, California, to shoot the feature Happy Land, starring Don Ameche and Frances Dee. One of the locals to win a bit part in the movie was five-year-old Natasha Gurdin. She made such an impression on the director, Irving Pichel, that a couple of years later he phoned her mother from Hollywood. He was preparing a new movie called Tomorrow is Forever and needed a young girl for a major part - would Natasha be able to come down for a screen test?
Even though Pichel had promised only a test, nothing more, Natasha's mother packed up the family and moved to Hollywood, where Natasha promptly flunked the screen test by not crying on cue. That didn't dismay Mom, however. She marched into Pichel's office at Fox and charmed him into giving her daughter another chance. This time Natasha was coached beforehand to remember the sight of her dying dog, and sure enough, the tears flowed and she got the part. The only problem was her name. Pichel didn't like it, so following in the great tradition of Hollywood stardom, he gave her a new one. "Natasha" became "Natalie," and "Gurdin" became "Wood" (after Pichel's good friend, director Sam Wood). Natalie Wood was born.
Young Natalie's part was a good one - playing the adopted daughter of Orson Welles's character, no less. The grand weepie of a story finds Welles and Claudette Colbert getting married just before Welles goes off to fight WWI. He is wounded and disfigured, and rather than return home to his wife and new son this way, he chooses to be reported as dead, settling down in Austria under a new identity. Colbert, overcome with loneliness, eventually remarries (her new husband is played by George Brent). Many years later Welles re-enters her life, accompanied by adopted war orphan Natalie Wood, and old feelings arise. Like so many melodramas of the time, the story may be preposterous, but it is lent compassion and sensitivity by a talented cast and crew. (The story had been used before for The Man from Yesterday , also starring Colbert.)
Orson Welles at this point of his career was actually much more interested in the political column he was writing for the New York Post than he was in movies, and he was even contemplating running for office. He announced that his Hollywood work would be limited to acting in one picture a year. In other words, acting was simply a means for a paycheck. Nonetheless, he turned in a fine, sensitive performance here, complete with a convincing Austrian accent. Natalie Wood later recalled, "People said Orson Welles was overpowering and theatrical, but I found him most kind."
But it was the elegant Claudette Colbert who really made an impression on Wood and Richard Long (who played her son), coaching and encouraging them constantly. Wood remembered, "Claudette was the one who was really wonderful - so kind and maternal, such a loving woman. I always felt sad somehow that in real life, for whatever reason it was, Claudette never became a mother, for she had so much to give that way. Maybe it was her actual childlessness that made her so exceptionally sensitive and empathetic when she worked with children."
Richard Long echoed these sentiments. "I was just out of high school, seventeen years old and scared as hell. Tomorrow is Forever was my first picture, and playing Claudette's son was the break of my life. Of course I was green and awkward, and I know she sensed my hesitancies and doubts. I always felt that in the complicated scenes I had to do with her that she was playing back specially to me, her eyes willing ease and encouragement. I know I played off her eyes, often. Claudette was a woman of great dignity, and for all her warmth, had a kind of charming reserve."
The lives of both child stars would end in tragedy. Long married a beautiful young actress, Suzan Ball, who died at age 22 from cancer. Long himself died of a heart condition in 1974, at age 47. A few years later Wood drowned in a Catalina boating accident at age 43. Colbert, who at the time of Wood's death was appearing on Broadway, remarked sadly, "Dick, poor Dick, and now our little Natalie. Both of them gone so young and here I am." Colbert would live until 1996, reaching the ripe old age of 92.
Director Irving Pichel (pronounced "Peekle"), an actor himself, here took the voice role of a radio commentator. He remained very close friends with Natalie and her mother and directed Natalie once more, in The Bride Wore Boots (1946).
Producer: David Lewis
Director: Irving Pichel
Screenplay: Gwen Bristow (story), Lenore J. Coffee
Cinematography: Joseph Valentine
Film Editing: Ernest Nims
Art Direction: Wiard Ihnen
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Claudette Colbert (Elizabeth Hamilton), Orson Welles (John Andrew MacDonald/Erik Kessler), George Brent (Lawrence Hamilton), Lucile Watson (Aunt Jessica Hamilton), Richard Long (John Andrew Hamilton), Natalie Wood (Margaret Ludwig).
by Jeremy Arnold