Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Ronald Colman, Greer Garson.
A standard synopsis of Random Harvest will insist it’s a film about amnesia, but don’t you believe it. This wholly absorbing romantic melodrama, a polished product of MGM at its glossiest, is best viewed as a multi-hanky entertainment about the enduring power of endless love. Rarely revived and not generally considered a great film, it remains irresistible, a can-you-believe-it emotional high-wire act that sustains itself against all logic and probability.
Of course, this kind of filmmaking has never been for everyone. Random Harvest received seven Academy Award nominations in 1942, but it didn’t win anything and saw its star, Greer Garson, take home the best actress Oscar for her role in another film, the much feted Mrs. Miniver.
Critics were also divided on the production. Daily Variety was upbeat but the New York Times ’ Bosley Crowther considered it “a strangely empty film.” As late as 1951, J.D. Salinger was mocking key elements of its plot in The Catcher in the Rye, having protagonist Holden Caulfield insist with typical vigor, “It was so putrid I couldn’t take my eyes off it. . . All I can say is, don’t see it if you don’t want to puke all over yourself.”
Audiences at the time, however, showed no such reservations. Random Harvest was the #5 box office hit of the year, bested only by powerhouses like Bambi, Casablanca, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, and it played New York’s mammoth Radio City Music Hall for a record twelve weeks, with the 6,000-seat theater even instituting 7:45 am screenings to meet the crush.
This box office success was not surprising given that the film was adapted from a whopping best-seller—100,000 copies sold in the first six weeks—by the hugely popular novelist James Hilton, whose other credits include the books Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips and whose screenplay for Mrs. Miniver took home an Oscar.
Random Harvest was especially fortunate in the astute pairing of veteran Ronald Colman and relative newcomer Greer Garson. While Colman was celebrated for his mellifluous voice, he’d started in films in 1917 during the silent era and had been a major star for twenty years. Garson, if MGM publicity is to be believed, had only one week left in her studio contract when she was given her very first feature role, in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939).
That success led her to such a flurry of demure parts, including Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and the protagonist in Mrs. Miniver, that it was considered newsworthy that Garson’s Random Harvest role would at one point feature her as a showgirl dancing in an abbreviated kilt. “Star’s Shapely Legs to Be Revealed on Screen” headlined a story that quotes Garson claiming, possibly with a straight face, “it’s pleasant to be able to prove that I have legs after all.”
It is Hilton’s story, however, that is the heart of the matter, and the author was so pleased with this Oscar-nominated adaptation (by Claudine West, George Froeschel, and Arthur Wimperis) that he agreed to read the voice-over that starts the film.
The time is autumn 1918 and, Hilton says mysteriously as the camera moves forward, “our story takes you down this shadowed path.” The destination is England’s Melbridge County Asylum, a grim, remote building that warehouses men whose “minds were shattered by the war that was to end all wars.”
One of the most poignant of these cases is Smith, a British army officer who has absolutely no idea who he is. Rumpled, confused, but killingly handsome, Colman plays this role so beautifully that he makes having misplaced your mind look positively attractive. Though Smith can barely speak, everyone tells him he’s much improved, and the doctor in charge says that all he needs to recover is to get his confidence back.
Everything changes for Smith on the night the war ends. The asylum guards leave their posts to celebrate and he innocently wanders into the town of Melbridge, where his difficulty with speech makes the local tobacconist (MGM veteran Una O’Connor) suspect he is a dangerous inmate on the loose.
Just at that moment, the warm and luminous Paula Ridgefield (Garson), a vivacious showgirl in town with a traveling revue, comes to the rescue. Taking an immediate liking to Smith, whom she takes to calling “Smithy,” she hurries him out of the shop and more or less adopts him. Paula intrepidly finds him a room in her hotel and takes him along as she headlines a rousing version of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” at the local theater.
“I’ve lost my memory, I don’t even know who I am,” Smith confesses, looking truly bewildered. Paula, who has enough life force for both of them, is nothing daunted. “I know who you are,” she replies with enviable spirit. “You’re someone awfully nice.”
Trusting her instincts, Paula is resoluteness itself when Smith’s freedom is jeopardized, leaving her life in the theater and relocating both of them in a tiny, quintessentially English hamlet “at the end of the world.”
Soon enough (maybe it’s all that refreshing country air) Smith has fallen in love as well and proposes marriage. “Never leave me out of your sight again,” he says passionately. “My life began with you. I can’t imagine a future without you.”
Though Paula and Smith think this is their “happily ever after” moment, Random Harvest has other ideas. A lot of them. Smith takes a crack at journalism and shows enough promise that a newspaper in Liverpool asks him to come in for an interview. Smith takes the train to the city for what he assumes will be the briefest of separations, but once he arrives in Liverpool nothing is ever remotely the same again.
It goes without saying that Random Harvest has surprises up its sleeve, but this film contains more eye-widening, credulity-straining plot reversals than you can easily imagine, even when you think you’ve imagined them all. Blessed with as many inside out twists and turns—none of which will be revealed here—as a two-lane road through the Italian Alps, Random Harvest correctly believes that the power of story trumps any and all logical concerns.
Helping us get comfortable with all these feints and dodges is the soothing polish and professionalism of the MGM studio style, which specialized in the smoothest possible entertainments. Director Mervyn LeRoy, who’d made his reputation in incendiary items like Little Caesar, They Won’t Forget, and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in the 1930s, had by this time morphed into an all-around filmmaker at ease in multiple genres. Here he’s supported by the likes of veteran art director Cedric Gibbons and consummate cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, who in the course of a fifty-year career amassed four Oscars and ten nominations.
But more than anything tangible, Random Harvest succeeds because of what it believes in, which is first of all itself. Far from being apologetic about its wild improbabilities, this film embraces them wholeheartedly as an exercise in narrative daring as audacious as any avant-garde adventure.
Random Harvest also believes it’s the birthright of film to appeal to emotion in general and endless love in particular. An unabashed romance, it focuses on the existential correctness of believing unreservedly in love, insisting that nothing, no amount of success, acclaim, or recognition, is meaningful without it. Which is why, when the Saturday Evening Post asked Garson to name her favorite role, she chose not the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver but this one.
“The screen’s main function,” she wrote in 1947, “is to give the world beauty and romance—to make us forget our own troubles for a time and send us out of the theater with a lift of the heart. ‘Random Harvest,’ I like to think, was that sort of picture.” Indeed it was.
Not To Be Missed, Fifty Four Favorites From A Lifetime Of Film 2014, Kenneth Turan, P. 84.