The loveable old coot screen image that Walter Brennan took to his grave tended to gloss-over his wonderfully villainous turns over the years.
A prototype for what Hollywood would come to revere as “a character actor,” he won three Oscars, with the most memorable of those performances coming in “The Westerner,” where he played the mercurial, mean and corrupt Judge Roy Bean opposite Gary Cooper.
Long before “The Real McCoys” or “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” Brennan wasn’t shy about playing cold-blooded patriarchs (“My Darling Clementine”) along with his usual amusing “sidekicks” (“Meet John Doe,” “To Have and Have Not,” “Red River”).
He brings a bitter, self-destructive edge to “The Green Promise,” a trouble-on-the-farm film intended to preach the virtues of the teach-teens-to-farm-better organization, 4-H. Brennan and little Natalie Wood give the stand-out performances in this indifferent melodrama with a message from director William D. Russell (“Bride for Sale,” “Best of the Badmen”).
The first hint that farmer Matthews isn’t just the chipper, upbeat salt-of-the-Earth he appears to be come in the first scene. He’s a widower with three daughters and a son and all their possessions piled into their truck, “Grapes of Wrath” fashion, come to California to buy another farm.
His banter with the realtor and the local agricultural agent (Robert Paige) tells them that his last farm “blowed away,” but it’s over a decade past The Dust Bowl. He’s not sentimental about leaving it behind, grouses about not missing the neighbors, and intimates that the only reason they have cash to buy another was that insurance his late wife “insisted” they take out.
Oldest daughter Deborah (Marguerite Chapman) tries to interrupt his version of their recent history and his impulse to buy the first farm that the real estate man (Irving Bacon) shows him. “Papa” shuts that down.
But there’s the appearance of “democracy” in this family. He makes a big show of “holding a vote,” with most of the kids (Connie Marshall, Ted Donaldson and little Natalie Wood) easily bullied into “voting” his way.
Practical Debbie frets over his rash decisions, careless debts and prioritizing buying tractor and a pig when they need a milk cow, with three younger children under their roof.
And there’s an arrogant “I know best” streak that keeps him from listening to the agricultural agent’s advice on crops, what land to keep fallow and the perils of cutting a timber stand on the fragile watershed overlooking their fields.
The foreshadowing couldn’t be more obvious.
But that ag agent is persistent, because he’s sweet on Debbie. The preacher (Milburn Stone, later “Doc” on TV’s “Gunsmoke”) might as well be calling Matthews out by name when he talks about man’s flaws and the “green promise” the Almighty makes with the farmer. And the kids just might have a chance of breaking this “ruin another farm” cycle thanks to this club the other farm children in their valley belong to — 4-H.
The “head, hearts, hands and health” ethos of smart farm investments, hard work and good farm practices sparks something in all the kids, but especially in the youngest, Susan (Wood). She’s determined to buy some lambs and raise them for wool and resale profit.
Heedless Papa won’t hear of it, but events conspire to bring this doomed dictatorship into a full fledged family confrontation.
The Monte Collins script lacks much in the way of subtlety, and is so ham-fisted that we’re never sure if what we’re seeing — Agent Barkley’s gruff chewing out of Debbie as a “coward,” for instance — is some reflection of “the way things were back then” (like a child dressing up as a blackfaced “Mammy” for a costume party), or just scriptural clumsiness.
What’s striking about this film decades later is its frank treatment of farmers as flawed folk. The Dust Bowl, partly a product of poor farm practices, wasn’t the distant memory it is now. Film and media treatment of farming as a righteous profession practiced righteously by the righteous these days rarely acknowledges farm debt, land-use issues, ag consolidation, tyrannical Monsanto seed-patenting or anything else as being the least bit the fault of the folks doing the farming. Back then, Hollywood wasn’t shy about showing the flaws of folks set in their ways, looking for shortcuts (DDT) and still losing new generations who wanted easier lives off the land.
Brennan brings a devilish glee to Matthews, a man so hell-bent on doing things his way that he lashes out, self-destructively, just to spite Debbie and the other children.
But “The Green Promise” is chiefly valued today for reminding us of what a remarkable child star young Natasha Zacharenko (Wood) was. “Miracle on 34th Street” was no fluke. She pops off the screen in this film, even today, more “natural” in some scenes than others, but never less than magnetic, sympathetic and real.
Wood became a big star ten years later, after “Rebel Without a Cause” and then “West Side Story.” But she never lived long enough to become the formidable character actress her later years might have turned her into.
Brennan, who experienced a comeback on TV with “McCoys” and “The Guns of Will Sonnet,” and who made his mark in Disney films and sending up his most famous villains in “Support Your Local Sheriff” in his last years, had the career that generations of actors who followed him envied. He excelled in every character part, was always employed, always distinct and honored for that work back then and by film buffs even now, a half century after his death.
Rating: approved, peril
Cast: Walter Brennan, Marguerite Chapman, Robert Paige, Connie Marshall, Ted Donaldson, Robert Ellis, Milburn Stone, Will Wright and Natalie Wood.
Credits: Directed by William D. Russell, scripted by Monte Collins. An RKO release on Tubi, Amazon, other streaming platforms.
Running time: 1:33