Sunday, May 2, 2010

Random Harvest (1942): Rule Britannia…On the MGM Lot

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.


  1. OH RUPERT! wonderful review! best review. You knew I was going to say that when you review my favorite movie of all time and on my birthday even. lol. You did a beautiful job and I am yes, going to watch it. ok, I hate to say, you did stump me. I said rupert won't stump me on this one. I did not know by the way my favorite actor was up for this role first...spencer tracy. Greer is my favorite actress of all time and when you talked about her in this movie you did her justice and ronald too. :) awesome

  2. I am a HUGE admirer of Tracy, but I cannot fathom seeing him in this film. It just wouldn't work. Not really his type film. Wonderfully done, Rupert.

  3. Yes. One could accuse this movie of sentimentality, and surely the plot is laden with dubious contrivance. Yet. There is magic. It would almost seem as though Garson and Colman had left part of their souls on celluloid here, so strong is their luminous presence. When I first saw this on vhs, my ladyfriend, who is not so much a staunch Colman fan as I am, commented after the movie that she felt Colman had made a ghostly visitation to us while we were watching...There's a bit of almost otherworldly power to this film, I believe...

  4. I agree Thomas! Although a lifelong classic movie fan, I only saw Random Harvest for the first time a few years ago and was just blown away by it!

  5. I adored this film. I can't imagine Spencer Tracy as Smithy/Charles Rainier at all because the film is so quintessentially "English." I watched this with my mother, and we groaned often when Paula was hired to work as Charles's secretary and then married him, and he still didn't remember her! The book is also very, very good, but it's written a bit like a mystery in that you don't know Paula the actress is the "Mrs. Rainier" the narrator meets.

  6. I just saw this for the first time the other day, amazing! so glad i finally got to see it, I love how they kept the cast english, adds that authenticity.
    Such devotion from Greer's character, a pretty incredible story, beautifully told.

  7. It's a long while since I've seen this, but I've always remembered it - enjoyed reading your review, which makes me want to see it again. One of Colman's greatest roles, and he and Garson make a great combination.

  8. This is a first rate example of how great acting can sell weak writing. (Magnificent Obsession is another example). They just get into it and revel in the plot contrivances. There are so many great scenes, where you think Greer will break through to him and she hesitates or fails. I agree that Peters doesn't seem to belong on the same screen with these two.

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  10. Random Harvest is one of my all time favorite movies. I don't know how many times I've seen it. Never knew about Susan Peters, very sad. Gaffers say there are some actors that are inner lit and need less lighting Greer Garson was one of them.



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