Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “Green Fingers”
For our next stop in this “cavern of canvasses,” we move over to the gardening section and meet an unusual lady. As Rod Serling puts it:
For the horticulturists amongst you, here’s a dandy. A lady who plants things, and then steps back and watches them grow. Roses, rhododendron, tulips. And things never before to be found coming out of the ground — just put in. The subject of this painting has green fingers.
Even the most casual Night Gallery fans tend to remember this one. And how could they not? I mean, you’ve got Elsa Lanchester, decades after she starred as the “Bride of Frankenstein,” playing Lydia Bowen, an elderly woman with an eerily unnatural gift when it comes to gardening.
(Spoilers ahead, naturally, so if you haven’t seen the episode before, you may want to check it out on DVD before coming back.)
We meet Mrs. Bowen as she’s outside her house one day, tending to her numerous plants. In an inspired touch, we hear a harpsichord playing “Greensleeves.” Two cars pull up, and out of the more expensive one steps a wealthy land developer named Michael Saunders, played by character actor Cameron Mitchell (who would later star in Season 3’s “Finnegan’s Flight” with Burgess Meredith). It quickly becomes obvious, as he talks with his assistant, Ernie, that he’s a rather unscrupulous individual determined to get Mrs. Bowen’s land and raze her house for a huge factory he’s building.
In fact, the only reason he’s there, in person, is because Mrs. Bowen has already turned down previous offers for her property. She’s pleasant and hospitable at first, despite his gruff manner, pointing out a couple of her prize specimens. But when he presses her with what he assures her is his final offer, she presses right back, making it perfectly clear that she has absolutely no intention of selling her home — the place where she grew up, where she was married, where her husband died, and where she can happily ply her hobby.
After all, she says, she has green fingers. Everything she plants grows.
He’s been rebuffed, but only for the moment. We then see him outside her property at night, meeting a hitman named Crowley — though for now, he’s only looking for this guy to rough her up a bit to help “persuade” her to sell. The scene changes, and we see the police arriving at Mrs. Bowen’s house. Someone driving by had heard her scream, so they’ve shown up to investigate. There are signs of a struggle — broken flower pots, dirt all over the floor — and a bloody axe. Her assailant had fled in a hurry, only to wind up in a fatal car crash. But where is Mrs. Bowen?
They spy her kneeling in her garden, her bloody left hand wrapped in a hankerchief, her right hand with a trowel, having planted something in the garden. They help her up and to the hospital as she talks quickly of how Crowley showed up, how he’d chopped off some of her fingers, threatening to come back and chop off more if she still refused to sell. Later at the hospital, she dies from the blood loss — and no doubt, the shock.
In the final scene, we see Saunders outside Mrs. Bowen’s house, puffing away on one of his ever-present cigars. Ernie drives up to tell him about how she’s died and asks if he’s there gloating. Saunders admits that he is, though he insists it was Crowley’s fault she died — that he never meant for it to go that far. But he doesn’t seem all that broken up that it has. In fact, he then smiling starts to stroll through her garden, recalling his own mother and how much she loved to plant flowers, when his flashlight reveals a patch of ground — and it’s moving.
As Ernie drives off in disgust, a horrified Saunders realizes it’s a pair of hands coming up through the dirt. Then a head appears. He runs to the fence, scared out of his wits, calling to Ernie to come back. He staggers back to the spot, only to find an empty hole. He looks in it, calling to Mrs. Bowen, then hears her humming from the house. Greensleeves. He enters the house and finds a wide-eyed, vine-and-dirt-covered Mrs. Bowen sitting in her rocking chair.
“Everything I plant grows,” she tells him. “Even me.”
He stumbles outside, aghast, his hair suddenly turned white from the utter shock. He walks over to the fence and addresses the audience:
There you are. You want to hear something? Mama? Anybody? You want to hear the funniest thing? You know, from little acorns, mighty oaks grow. That’s a fact. But do you know what grows from old ladies’ fingers? Hmm? Old ladies!
I can’t say that I’m crazy about that final break-the-fourth-wall moment. I get that we’re supposed to see Saunders as having basically had his mind snapped by this rather macabre scene, but it veers close to being unintentionally comedic. But having him find a reborn Mrs. Bowen is indeed a winning twist ending to an otherwise satisfying episode.
So what seedling, shall we say, did Serling have to work with, and what did he do to help it come to full flower as a Night Gallery episode?
Once again, he took a short story — this time by an author named R.C. Cook — with a great idea and fleshed it out very effectively. In Cook’s story, it’s just a widow, working around her garden and marveling at her talent for making things grow. She breaks a twig off an apple tree, plants it … that grows. She asks a fellow gardener for some hothouse plants because she really wants a challenge. Though he’s skeptical she can succeed with them, he does as she asks … and they thrive too. Then there was the piece of firewood that she planted one time on a whim. It took time and patience, but even that started to bloom.
Then she’s cutting her hair one day, and she gets it into her head to plant some strands of it rather than throwing them away. That actually seems to spout as well. Some time goes by, and one day she spies “a small, brown knob covered with a thin grayish slime” in the garden. She’s puzzled until she remembers that it’s the spot where she buried some rabbit bones. The thing continues to grow over time, and then one day it’s gone. Although we hear no more about it, it’s hard not to picture some horrible zombie bunny hoping around somewhere … hopefully so deep in the woods that none of us every encounter it.
And then one day Mrs. Bowen gets tired of a tree that’s been growing too close to the house, crowding her view, and she takes an axe to chop it down. Unfortunately, the forefinger on one of her hands gets in the way, and it gets chopped off. She gets medical attention, and soon enough she’s fine, but then she’s back home and she finds the finger. Gee, what if she planted THAT?
So she does. And her track record of success continues, even if the results now are more unsettling to her as the days go by:
For many days at a time she was too frightened to go and look at the growing thing in the shadows behind her house, but eventually she would have to go, and would stand staring at it with a glaze over her blue eyes. A wrist and an arm had appeared, with the skin wrinkled slightly, like her own, and by the time the cherries blossomed, the crest of a white head had begun to appear, like the top of a large horse mushroom. She would spend hours staring at it, with a terrible fascination. The fear that anyone should see it became an obsession with her. She began to meet the baker at the gate to prevent him from walking up to the house, and she covered the naked head and shoulder over with brown potato sacks. The eyes of the figure were closed, but on the face and the bare shoulders were the wrinkles and freckles that resembled her own in the minutest detail. Night after night she lay tossing in a half stupor of sleep while horrible dreams flashed through her frightened mind.
The day finally comes for this latest “plant” to finish growing, but it doesn’t just disappear like the rabbit did. Oh, no. One day she basically finds her twin in the house. As Cook relates:
There in her chair sat the figure, staring at her. She stood with her back against the door, unable to move. The other did not move either. It was her exact double, from the white hair to the twinkling blue eyes, but clothed, almost demurely, in sacks. The old lady stared at the white thin hands spread out on the arms of the chair. The fingers were complete, whole. Widow Bowen looked up into the eyes again; they looked into hers with a faint mocking smile, as though they could see into the deepest corners of her mind. She was rigid with terror. The blood began to leave her head. A gradual blackness clouded out her sight, and she sank to the floor unconscious.
The story concludes with the nurse visiting Mrs. Bowen and telling her about this terrible discovery that had been made nearby — a body, chopped to pieces and beyond recognition. Her listener acts surprised to hear this, even as the nurse notices Mrs. Bowen’s injured hand is no longer missing a finger. She asks the old lady how her hand is doing. “Oh, beautifully,” she answers. “Everything grows well here. I think I must have green fingers.”
Well, now! There’s a good twist ending for you. So Mrs. Bowen inadvertently created her own doppelgänger, who then murdered and replaced her.
We didn’t exactly get that on Night Gallery. But we still got the shock of her growing herself from her fingers, though Serling couched it in a tale that he instead filled with some real stakes and moral bite. As you can see, Cook had nothing of the pushy land developer, no plans for a factory, no effort to get her off her property by any means. Serling supplied all of that. “Although satisfying as a short story,” Scott Skelton and Jim Benson write in their seminal work on Night Gallery, “it would have made disappointing drama without some external conflict.”
Serling’s screenwriting skills were such that he makes even a secondary character like Ernie three-dimensional — a talent he displayed often throughout his career. It would have been enough for the Bowen and Saunders characters to be the only fully formed ones, but Serling makes Ernie someone with an obvious respect and sympathy for Mrs. Bowen. He’s bemused in the opening scene when he hears his boss being rebuffed by her. He even quietly cheers the fact that she won’t give in. And he’s fed up enough to quit Saunders’s employment in the final scene — and even abandon him to the horror that he has sown and reaped.
Previous “Re-Framing” posts can be found here.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!