Monday, August 14, 2023

Random Harvest: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Greer Garson.

Some films suffer from their reputation. Citizen Kane, for example, has been so mummified as "one of the greatest films ever made" (at least until Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse overtook it in the pantheon of cinematic triumphs) that people forget that Citizen Kane is also a really good movie. I feared the same thing about Random Harvest, a movie held as one of the greatest love stories that I worried it would not live up to its reputation. At long last, I took the plunge and found that the rumors are all true. Random Harvest is a beautiful love story, with two exceptional performances that move the audience. 

A shell-shocked and amnesiac World War I veteran slips out of the asylum he's been in ever since he was transported back to Britain in the celebrations of the Armistice. Coming across him in his confusion is Paula (Greer Garson), a dance hall girl with a traveling troupe. She takes pity on him and begins to nurse him back to health. Soon, the man she calls "Smithy" (Ronald Colman) starts gaining confidence, but not his memory.

Eventually, they fall in love and marry, shortly afterwards blessed with a son. Smithy begins a writing career and becomes successful, so much so that he is asked to interview for a permanent position in a Liverpool newspaper. While Paula recovers from her difficult pregnancy, Smithy goes on his own, taking his luggage and the key to their cottage. In Liverpool, he meets with a car accident. This accident simultaneously revives his old memories as Charles Rainier and erases the last three years of his life with Paula.

Now back in the Rainier family fold and having inherited both the family business and the estate of Random Hall, he assumes his place in business. His step-niece Kitty (Susan Peters) openly flirts with her "uncle" and he soon is charmed enough to squire her around town. As he becomes an industry tycoon, he finds himself relying more and more on his loyal secretary, the widow Miss Hanson. Miss Hanson was married but her husband and young son died, leaving her alone.

Miss Hanson is also Paula. She recognized him from a newspaper photograph after he disappeared and managed to get close to him. As Charles has no memory of his life between his World War I experience and the Liverpool accident, he would not remember Paula. Every so often though, he plays with the key he had with him on the day of the accident. What is that key? Will Charles and Kitty marry? Will Paula manage to get Charles to remember Smithy? Will Paula and Smithy end up reaping their Random Harvest

Random Harvest is a quiet film, and that quietness is what makes it so moving. There are no big dramatic moments or chances for hysterics. In fact, apart from an early moment where Paula is entertaining the audience with a slightly randy Scottish-centric song and dance, Random Harvest is pretty gentle and tender. That is exactly what Random Harvest should be, as the movie is focused on the tragedy that our lovebirds experience. 

Random Harvest has four elements that make it the beautiful love story that it is. The performances from Colman and Garson are just beautiful. Colman's demeanor changes from the halting, hesitant, almost fearful Smithy to the strong, confident and secure Charles. Colman uses his beautiful voice to show the difference between pre-and post-amnesia. When he is Smithy, he stumbles over words, looks unsteady and confused. Once he falls in love with Paula, we see him a joyful man. After his accident, we see the confident figure that Charles was. Each transformation works in an exceptional performance. Colman has a wonderful silent performance when he stares off into the distance while listening to the hymn O Perfect Love while selecting songs for his impending wedding. As he and Peters stare at each other, they do not have to say anything. All that is needed to be said is done with their looks. 

Garson has a harder task because she does not change. Showing a surprisingly lighthearted side when singing about her bonny Daisy, Garson is deeply moving in the film. As "Miss Hanson", Paula repeats her story of how her child died to Charles. The heartbreak of both reliving this painful moment and telling the oblivious father that his child is dead while controlling herself is so clear in Garson's face. In her caring for Smithy and her inability to reveal herself to Charles Rainier, Garson simply gets to the viewer emotionally. 

The third element is director Mervin LeRoy. Using the Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis adaptation of James Hitlon's novel, he not only directs his actors to these moving performances but also uses subtext to reveal story. That scene where Charles and Kitty look at each other and realize that Charles is in love with someone he cannot remember is so beautifully directed. "I am so nearly the one," Kitty observes, a painful admission to herself and him that while he would make a good husband, his heart belongs to a woman he does not know. Near the end, as Charles' memory of his three years comes slowly back, we see Garson's face emerge from a fog. It is a beautiful and intelligent moment of symbolism of Charles' own fog lifting to reveal the true love of his life, who happens to be his own wife.

Finally, Herbert Stothart's score fits so well into Random Harvest. It lifts the moments of love and loss, echoing the tragedy and triumph of this O Perfect Love. 

One must have a heart of stone not to get at the least misty-eyed at the tragic circumstances of the Charles/Smithy and Paula romance. Greer Garson and Ronald Colman work so well together in Random Harvest. If there are some complaints, it might be that Colman might have been too old to play Smithy/Charles (he was 51 at the time to Garson's 37). The film at a bit long at a little over two hours may also be a tough watch for some; on the whole though, Random Harvest will still move the viewer with its story of love found, lost and found.  


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