This morning, as a part of my continuing effort to watch 38 films by Friday and clean out the DVR, I watched Random Harvest, a romantic melodrama from 1942.
And when I say that Random Harvest is a melodrama, I’m not exaggerating. During the first hour of the film, I found myself thinking that if Random Harvest were made today, it would probably be a Lifetime movie. By the time the second hour started, I realized that it would actually probably be one of those heavily hyped miniseries that ends up being broadcast on A&E, Bravo, and Lifetime at the same time. This is one of those big, epic stories where, every few minutes, a new plot twist emerges.
When the film opens during the first World War, John Smith (Ronald Colman) is a patient at a British asylum. He knows that he was once a soldier. He knows that he was gassed during a battle. He knows that he’s recovering from extreme shell shock and it’s still a struggle for him to relate to other human beings. He knows that he will probably spend the rest of his life as a patient at the asylum. He also knows that his name is not John Smith. He’s not sure what his real name is because he suffers from amnesia.
One night, a message comes to the asylum. The war has ended! All of the doctor and orderlies go out to celebrate, leaving Smith unguarded. Smith simply walks out of the asylum and eventually makes his way to a nearby town. It’s there that he meets Paula (Greer Garson), a kind-hearted singer who invites Smith to join her traveling theatrical troupe.
Paula and Smith fall in love, end up getting married, and have a child together. Paula encourages Smith to become a writer and eventually, a publisher in Liverpool asks to meet with him. However, when Smith goes to Liverpool, he ends up getting hit by a car. When he regains consciousness, he suddenly knows that his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s rich! However, he no longer remembers that he was once named John Smith, that he’s married to Paula, or that he has a child.
The years pass. Charles returns to his old life of servants, money, and political ambition. His stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters), falls in love with him but Charles, for his part, cannot stop wondering about what happened between getting gassed in World War I and getting hit by that car in Liverpool.
Meanwhile, Paula refuses to believe that Smith had abandoned her. Even after she has him legally declared dead, she continue to believe that he’s out there. And then one day, she sees a picture of Charles Rainier. She also learns that Rainier needs an executive secretary, which just happens to be what Paula does when she’s not singing…
Just from reading that plot, you probably think that Random Harvest is an incredibly silly film, that type that, if it were made today, would star Katharine Heigl and maybe a British guy who had a minor role on Game of Thrones. But, dammit, Random Harvest works! Filmmakers in the 30s and 40s knew how to make this type of melodrama totally compelling and believable. There’s not a hint of snarkiness or cynicism to be found in Random Harvest and, as a result, it feels almost churlish to criticize the plot for being implausible. Sincerity saves this film.
Random Harvest was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to another film starring Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver. However, Garson gave a far better performance in Random Harvest than she did in Miniver. When you watch most of her film today, Greer Garson always comes across as talented but a little boring and obvious in her technique. (She was the Meryl Streep of her day.) In Random Harvest, Garson actually gets to sing and danger and laugh and behave like a human being. After seeing her in Blossoms In The Dust, Mrs. Miniver, and Sunrise at Campobello, watching her performance in Random Harvest is akin to an acting revelation.
Meanwhile, Ronald Colman also does a great work at both Smith and Charles (and they really are two separate characters). Admittedly, Colman does come across as being a little bit too old for the role (and the age difference between him and Susan Peters does add a certain odd subtext to the scenes between Charles and Kitty) but, otherwise, he’s totally and completely credible as the character. When he’s Smith, he speaks in a halting, uncertain tone and he walks like he’s still learning how to put one foot in front of the other. When he becomes Charles, he’s definitely more confident but he still moves like a man who feels as if it’s his duty to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
(I have to admit that I’ve always found it strange that Margaret Mitchell apparently wanted Ronald Colman to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. Watching his performance here, I still could not see Colman as Rhett but he would have made a great Ashley Wilkes.)
The beautiful Susan Peters was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Kitty. Random Harvest was her first major role and she gives such a great and likable performance that it makes it all the more tragic that her career was cut short. Just three years after appearing in Random Harvest, Susan was accidentally shot by her husband. Though she survived, she would never walk again. When she died, at the age of 31 in 1952, the official cause was pneumonia but it was also said that she had stopped eating and drinking and had literally lost the will to live. Whether you love Random Harvest or you think it’s just a silly melodrama, you should watch it just to see Susan Peters’s great performance and to consider what could have been.