The Green Promise
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The 4-H Club, a youth organization administered through the extension service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, might not seem like compelling subject matter for a motion picture but in 1949 an unlikely combination of talents came together to make a dramatic film entitled The Green Promise. The story of Papa Matthews, a widower with four children attempting to run a successful farm after losing the previous one, the real focus of the movie was Susan, the youngest daughter who is eager to join the local 4-H club and raise baby lambs. Papa is against it though and his stubborn nature and outmoded ideas about farming almost lead him to lose his new home until an accident puts him out of commission and Deborah, his oldest daughter, takes charge of the farm, making a success of it.
Unseen for years due to copyright restrictions, The Green Promise (1949) was the result of a collaboration between a wealthy Texas oilman from Houston, Glenn McCarthy, actor Robert Paige, a leading man of B movies, and Monty Collins, a screenwriter and former gag writer for silent two-reeler comedies. McCarthy wanted to break into movies as a producer of "wholesome entertainment" and Paige and Collins had a script (penned by Collins) that combined family values along with an endorsement for 4-H clubs. McCarthy knew that his friend, Howard Hughes, was interested in distributing family entertainment through his studio RKO and pitched him the project. The Green Promise was given the green light and William D. Russell, a friend of Collins, was brought on to direct the film and Paige claimed a key role for himself.
The rest of the casting was a more elaborate affair and started with Diana Lynn who was chosen to play Deborah. Then she broke her arm after ten days of shooting and had to be replaced by Marguerite Chapman. Prior to this, an extensive national talent hunt was conducted at 4-H clubs around the country with one of the finalists, ten-year-old Jessie La Duke from Mt. Vernon, Indiana, winning the supporting role of Jessie Wexford after a successful screen test in Hollywood. Walter Brennan, a three time Oscar® winner as Best Supporting Actor was given the role of the grouchy, mean-spirited father and fifteen-year old actors Connie Marshall and Ted Donaldson, were assigned parts as the two middle children, Abigail and Phineas, respectively. The big casting coup, however, was young Natalie Wood, a popular child actress who had stolen moviegoers' hearts with her charming performance in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) two years earlier. Wood was under contract to 20th-Century-Fox at the time but was loaned out to RKO for the movie.
The Green Promise was filmed around the Feather River in California, near Sacramento, with additional scenes shot on the Monogram Studios lot. Initially budgeted at a modest cost with a short shooting schedule, the film ended up going over budget and deadline due to the replacement of Diana Lynn. On the set, Natalie Wood was given the star treatment and co-star Chapman observed that Natalie's over-protective mother, "was with her constantly. There wasn't any interaction personally, not at all. The moment she finished a scene, she was gone." She also noted that Natalie "had this little pet Chihuahua and it ate at the dining table, and that was a bit off-putting to some of us. They'd put it up and it would be licking stuff off the plate."
While The Green Promise was more of a showcase for Natalie Wood than any other cast member and gave her plenty of dramatic moments, including numerous crying scenes, co-star Ted Donaldson felt she preferred the quieter moments of the film such as the scene where she tenderly caresses her pet lambs. "That's probably the freest, most open, most Natalie expressing who she was, at those moments," he recalled. "I remember a certain kind of glow, and giving over to the moment with them. That was a very genuine thing." Of course, Natalie's big moment in the film is the climactic thunderstorm scene in which she races to rescue her pet lambs and is almost swept off a bridge into raging waters below. The bridge scene, which was filmed the last week of production, didn't proceed as expected. According to Suzanne Finstad's biography Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, the dangerous stunt almost ended tragically. "When I was halfway across," Natalie said later, "somebody pulled the lever prematurely and I was thrown into the water." She managed to catch hold of the collapsing bridge, clinging to the edge as the current pulled her in the direction of the waterfall. "My mother leaped forward crying, my child!" Natalie later told a reporter, "and the director said, 'Keep the cameras rolling! Keep the mother back!' Natalie's left wrist was broken and she nearly drowned. "I don't even remember them fishing me out." "It was so traumatic for her," observes her later confidant, Marc Crowley. "She'd been lied to, for one thing. And then there she was, fearful of her life." At the moment the accident occurred, the camera captured the expression of sheer terror on Natalie's face and that shot remains in the finished film. The incident was kept a secret from the press and Natalie's mother didn't threaten the producers with a lawsuit because she believed if you sued a studio, you were blacklisted in the industry and would never work again. Still, the incident left Wood with a pathological fear of water that would haunt her the rest of her life.
The Green Promise had its world premiere at the annual 4-H Congress in Chicago on December 2, 1948. Producer McCarthy also held a premiere in his hometown of Houston at the Shamrock Hotel which was attended by numerous celebrities who traveled from Hollywood for the event on McCarthy's private train; among them were Robert Stack, Dorothy Lamour, Sonja Henie, Robert Ryan, Van Heflin and Pat O'Brien. The film's reception by critics and moviegoers was decidedly less spectacular with The New York Times review typical of the general consensus: "The Green Promise...represents a fair sampling of tall, green cinematic corn...The few bright spots in the picture are generated by the animated interest of youngsters as they turn their energies to fruitful domestic and social pursuits through various 4-H club enterprises. The scenery is clean and refreshing, too, as most of the picture unfolds in farming country enclosed by lush timberland. Natalie Wood, youngest of the smallfry thespians, is a fetching little lass with a look that is full of poignant appeal."
While The Green Promise was not a hit for RKO and sent Glenn McCarthy back to his oilwells, abandoning any future plans as a film producer, it was a personal triumph for Natalie Wood whose performance was singled out by most critics. She would continue her reign as a child star for several more years before transitioning into young adult roles in 1955 with such films as Rebel Without a Cause and One Desire.
Producers: Monty F. Collins, Robert Paige
Director: William D. Russell
Screenplay: Monty F. Collins
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Art Direction: Martin Obzina
Music: Rudy Schrager
Film Editing: Richard Farrell
Cast: Marguerite Chapman (Deborah Matthews), Walter Brennan (Mr. Matthews), Robert Paige (David Barkley), Natalie Wood (Susan Anastasia Matthews), Ted Donaldson (Phineas Matthews), Connie Marshall (Abigail Matthews), Robert Ellis (Peter 'Buzz' Wexford), Jeanne LaDuke (Jessie Wexford), Irving Bacon (Julius Larkins), Milburn Stone (Rev. Jim Benton), Geraldine Wall (Mrs. Wexford).
by Jeff Stafford
Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert
Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad