In THE GREEN PROMISE, Walter Brennan is a widowed farmer named Matthews with three daughters and a son. While the era of the film is not firmly set, the family is riding with a real estate agent to look at a farm for sale. Old Matthews mentions that it’s hard to watch everything you worked for dry up and blow away. That would put it in the middle or late thirties during the Dust Bowl of the middle portion of the country. Matthews is a stubborn old man, but had had the foresight to marry a smart woman. They had gotten insurance for the farm disaster something she had insisted they carry. Not a lot, but enough to get started again.
Matthews makes a big thing of the democratic process in his family. They have meetings for the important stuff and vote on them, majority rules. But it becomes apparent from that first meeting in front of the real estate agent over whether to buy the farm or not, that the democratic process Matthews touts is whatever HE wants it to be. The oldest daughter, Deborah(Marguerite Chapman), is hesitant about the farm. Matthews always at every vote calls for what he wants first and then glares at them until he gets his way. There’s the second daughter, Abigail(Connie Marshall), about fifteen, who’s a bit of a suck-up, a tattletale, who always sides with her father. The brother, Phineas(Ted Donaldson), is a weak young man who is easily pressured to vote with Matthews. He always gets his way.
Deborah and her youngest sister, Susan(an eleven year old Natalie Wood), get outvoted at every turn.
At the film’s beginning, another character was introduced when the truck breaks down and county agricultural agent David Barkley(Robert Paige) stops to help. Matthews is sure of the problem and is a bit angry to be proven wrong as Barkley gets it running again. We also see he has a quick interest in Deborah.
The farm is bought and a little money is left over. Another one of those family meetings happens over a tractor. Matthews wants to put their last money as a down payment on one and Deborah wants to rent one instead. Matthews wins. Another happens when little Susan wants to borrow the money to buy two lambs. She has it all worked out: raise them, sell the wool, and milk for cheese, paying off father, then increasing her herd over time. Matthews frames the whole thing as she doesn’t love her family wanting to do something on her own. They all must work together. Of course it gets voted down.
He won’t listen to any of the county agent’s advice about farming techniques. Changing the angles of the rows he’s plowing to promote soil conservation. A big hill of timber overlooking the farm that he wants to cut and sell to pay for the tractor. Barkley shows him a crack where the hill separated once. Granted it was a long time ago, but the trees kept the soil together. Cutting them would weaken the hill and maybe casue it to collapse during a heavy storm.
Matthews pays no attention.
Things change when an accident happens. A cut tree falls on the old man and breaks both his legs. Bedridden, and will be for a long time, Deborah turns to her preacher, Reverend Benton(Milburn Stone), for advice. He’d given a sermon on the dangers, the sin, of not using science to improve out lots. He recommends going to Barkley, which was what she had in mind all along.
She follows all his advice, changing everything her father had been doing. No cutting of trees is the main one. Which doesn’t set well with the old man. Tattletale Abigail had run to him with that bit of information and father and daughter clash over it. Deborah stands up to him and lets him know someone has got to do something or the farm is gone. It doesn’t set well and he sells the timber to a man without her knowledge. When she confronts that man and his crew with chain saws, the man says he will only stop when his money, and a suitable profit, is returned. Matthews takes great glee in telling Deborah that the money was already spent to pay off the tractor.
The 4H Club is prominent in the film. Barkley is one of the adult advisers. They must have had something to do with the movie as ne credit at the beginning says “Introducing 4H girl Jeanne LaDuke. She had a small role as the sister of Susan’s boyfriend, Buzz Wexford(Robert Ellis) and it was obvious from her lines, usually a put down of big brother, she was no actress. Little Susan gets her two lambs when she “borrows” seventy-five dollars from the bank president, obviously a put-up job by Barkley as they go through the formalities of signing a loan agreement, discussing interest, all with Barkley standing in the background with a sly grin on his face.
Barkley and Deborah look over the denuded hill, Everything is gone, even the stumps, something old Matthews had insisted on. He gives her advice on some things that would help. Fences should be put up at several spots across the old crack, a natural feed down to the farm. They should cach some of the bigger chunks if disaster struck and maybe build up a break. The roots should help for awhile.
Things all come to a head the night of the costume party for the 4Hers. At a neighboring farm, the plan is for Barkley to pick Deborah up when he gets back from business and go pick up the kids from the party. But a heavy electrical storm has hit and he gets stuck in the mud, forced to walk in the driving rain. It’s decided that the storm is to rough and the kids will all spend the night at the home of the party. Little Susan is worried about her lambs and sneaks out to save them.
Barkley arrives in the nick of time to find her squatting in the rain, exhausted from trying to carry her two lambs to safety. When he carries then inside, he finds another problem. Old Matthews is alone in the house, Deborah having gone up the hill to see what she can do. He finds her laboring to get mud and rocks into the break in the kland and has to drag her away just before it all collapses.
The farm is in ruins and Mathews realizes to late what his stubbornness about things he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, has cost the family.
But all is not lost as the 4Hers arrive to help with the clean-up.
Not a bad little drama and not nearly as sappy as I thought it might be when I started watching. The script was by Monte Collins and was directed by William D. Russell. It seems to be in the public domain. I saw it on Turner Classic films and a card at the beginning said the print came from The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
For more overlooked films, check outTodd Mason over at his blog, Sweet Freedom.