Sunday, May 2, 2010
English novelist James Hilton was building quite a following with the movie going set in the early 1940’s. Two of his books, Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, were both filmed, very successfully, in the late 30’s, so when his Random Harvest was published in 1941, Hollywood was very quick to beckon. With the film rights going to MGM, one could be sure that the sentimental tale, based during World War I, would get the full gloss treatment, with all stops pulled, and it did just that.
Ronald Colman plays “John Smith”, an amnesiac in World War I England. A victim of shell shock, a pathetic, practically mute case study, who is housed in a county asylum with no home to speak of, no family to call his own. Upon his escape (actually, he merely wanders away into the fog), he drifts into the local town, where he happens upon a pretty dance hall girl named Paula (Greer Garson), who takes a fancy to him. Throwing caution to the wind, she quits her job and takes “Smithy”, the endearing moniker she gives Colman, to live in the country, where he can rest, recuperate and get his bearings. With still no memory of his former life, he falls in love with Paula, marries her and has a child.
Finding he has a knack for writing, he begins to make a little money to support his small brood with articles written for a Liverpool publication. When he is offered a writing job, he heads for Liverpool to discuss the particulars, leaving Paula and Junior in their country cottage. As he arrives in the city, Smithy is struck down by a vehicle. Although physically unharmed, his mental capacity returns to its original state and we find that he is Charles Ranier, a a confident, independent gentleman of wealthy birth. But he now has no memory of his life since he was struck by a shell during the war, several years back. What is to become of Paula and their baby? Where will his life lead from here?
Predictability is definitely not an element of Random Harvest. There are enough plot twists to make Alfred Hitchcock blush, and it is these twists and turns of fate that take this movie beyond merely a sugar coated three hankie tear jerker. That and the great performances by its two leads. Colman, who had started out the decade with less than a bang cinematically, jumped back to the top of the career heap in 1942, with both this picture and Columbia’s The Talk of the Town. He had already successfully treaded water in the James Hilton pond, as had his co-star, he in Lost Horizon (1937) and Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Their pairing in Random Harvest seemed quite natural, though the role of Smithy/Charles Ranier was originally slated for MGM contract star Spencer Tracy. When it was discovered that Colman was available for the part, he was immediately cast.
Young Metro hopeful Susan Peters is showcased as Colman’s youthful admirer, Kitty. Her character goes from a 15 year old schoolgirl to a young lady of the world. Although Peters was nominated for an Oscar for her role in this film, she didn’t seem to have the oomph of some of her MGM ingenue contemporaries , ala Lana Turner or Donna Reed. She seems more comfortable as the naïve schoolgirl than as the more sophisticated young socialite. In real life, her story was an unfortunate one. In January, 1945, little more than a year after her marriage to actor Richard Quine, she was accidentally shot on a hunting trip with her husband. Paralyzed from the waist down, she continued to act but her career never regained momentum and she died at age 31.
As some in Hollywood phrased it, 1942 was the “Year of Greer”. The English actress not only won great acclaim for her role in Random Harvest but won an Academy Award for another of her releases that year, Mrs. Miniver, a role for which she was always identified. With these two performances and her regal and elegant persona, she secured her place as MGM’s Queen of the Lot throughout most of the 1940’s.
With Colman and Garson on hand, MGM had one of the most British films this side of the Atlantic. They were a perfect complement for each other and gave great class to a schmaltzy but completely lovable film. They make this totally unbelievable tale fascinating to watch, and a first rate weepie for sure.