Filmmakers have always seemed to love using amnesia as a plot device. There’s nothing like a fish being in water and out of it at the same time. One example of this is the 1943 film, Random Harvest, starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s a movie that genteely declares itself a “prestige picture,” with an important story and important actors.
It’s November 11, 1918, and the First World War has ended. In the town of Melbridge, there’s plenty of celebration going on, and only at the asylum is it quiet. It’s full of soldiers, mostly shell-shock cases, who were discovered with no identification. One of them, a man the staff calls John Smith (Ronald Colman), has amnesia. The head doctor, Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) has been trying to locate John’s parents, but with no luck. It was a common scenario at the end of the war.
John wanders away from the asylum and into town. He’s dazed as it is, but the crowds cheering and singing “Viva La Compagnie” just make it all worse. He stumbles into a little tobacco shop off the main street, and asks for cigarettes. The clerk wants to know what kind, and when John hesitates, she looks unnerved and ducks in the back.
Meanwhile, a young woman, Paula (Greer Garson) comes into the shop, and she knows right away where John’s from. She gives him a gentle hint that the clerk is calling the asylum and he might want to make himself scarce.
Paula and John meet up again out in the street, and the excitement is wearing John out. Not wanting to leave him, Paula invites John to a bar for a drink, and then to the theater where she’s performing. She gives him a seat by her dressing room, and trips off in a very short kilt to sing “She’s My Daisy” to a packed and jubilant house. Unfortunately, she gets back to John to find him passed out on the floor.
Paula puts John up in a room in her hotel, and once he’s recovered, they make plans to go elsewhere, as John can’t face the idea of going back to the asylum. Paula takes him to Dover, and they check into an inn. Separate rooms, of course. John and Paula fall in love and get married. John leans on Paula, who’s nicknamed him, “Smithy,” and tells her, “Never leave me out of your sight, ever.”
The two of them set up house in a cottage, and have a little boy. John publishes some short stories, which nets him a job offer at a paper in Liverpool. Off he goes, leaving Paula with their new baby.
While walking to the newspaper office, John gets hit by a taxi and comes to in a chemist’s shop. Suddenly…he remembers who he is: Charles Rainier. It’s a dizzying prospect, not just from the accident, but because Charles can’t quite believe it’s November 14, 1920.
Charles goes back to his former home at Random Hall in Surrey, where he finds his entire family assembled, as his father has just died and they’re all there for the funeral. The reunion is as surreal for them as it is for Charles, because they were all thinking they’d get a bigger piece of the estate. Now that Charles is back, he gets his share, plus the house. They’re not malicious people, though, and once they get over their shock, are overjoyed to see Charles is alive and well. His new stepniece, Kitty (Susan Peters) has very big eyes for him.
It takes some time for Charles to readjust to life at home again. He goes to Cambridge to finish his degree, and then ensconces himself in the family business. He also keeps on writing to Kitty, who grows up into a beatiful young woman. She knows what she wants, and she wants Charles. Kitty has a touch of barracuda, but for Charles, she fills a void. Once he makes the arrangements with Miss Hansen, he’s going to get married and take a year off.
Ah, yes, Miss Hansen. It’s really Paula, who is working under the name Margaret Hansen. Ever since Smithy disappeared on his trip to Liverpool, she’s tried desperately to find him. She’s had some hardships along the way, but she’s finally tracked her Smithy down. Paula as Margaret is indespensible to Charles, who can’t imagine life without her.
Paula is now between the proverbial rock and hard place. On the advice of Jon, Charles’s former doctor, she doesn’t reveal who she is or the history she and Charles share. The engagement just exacerbates the situation because of the inevitable bigamy angle, and to out herself at this stage would only make her look like a gold-digger and Charles would resent her. To avoid any complications, Paula has John Smith declared legally dead.
Charles has his own cross to bear. He appears to be happy with Kitty, but he can’t let go of the blank spot in his life. He keeps the key to his and Paula’s cottage with him all the time, and has a habit of gripping it thoughtfully in pensive moments. Every now and then he gets a faraway look in his eyes, seeming to be where no one can touch him, especially Kitty.
Kitty knows it, too, but it doesn’t really hit her until they’re at the chapel choosing music for the wedding. One of the possibilities is “O Perfect Love,” which was played at Charles’s wedding to Paula. While he doesn’t make the connection, hearing the hymn takes him back to those lost years. Kitty sees that he’s not really present with her, and is heartbroken. Deep down, though, she knows there’s something that doesn’t fit about their relationship, and breaks it off.
Now Charles begins to actively pursue the mystery of his past. He rushes up to Liverpool, not knowing where to begin. Paula and Charles’s staff are worried about him, so Paula follows him. She suggests checking the hotels for unclaimed luggage, and when they find the suitcase he carried as John Smith, it doesn’t mean anything to him. Paula, however, has to check herself to keep from sharing too much, but she can’t help rubbing the fabric of Smithy’s shirts between her fingers.
Thinking he’s hit a dead end and doomed to be a mental defective, Charles goes back to London. He’s approached about running for Parliament, which he wins with flying colors. Paula figures into things, as she helps him with his campaign. Charles asks her to marry him, but it’s more of a merger than a love match. Still, Paula accepts, to Jon’s chagrin and Charles’ joy. Also still, Charles’ past nags at him, but it’s not for him to unravel until the proper time.
Everything about Random Harvest is full of gravity. The story could have possibly benefitted from some comic relief, but I honestly don’t know where it would have fit in. It’s not fatally heavy, as it does keep the viewer wondering if Charles will ever recognize Paula for who she is. It also may have viewers wondering how long it’s going to take to reach that point.
Garson’s performance is very adept and thoughtful. Her one misstep is the Harry Lauder impression she does early on in the film, because Garson wasn’t a singer by any means. However, her performance also reflects the character, as it shows why Paula tries and fails later on to return to the stage. Other than that, her portrayal is subtly heart-wrenching. More than once Paula’s face contorts with her desire to tell Charles everything, and just in time she reins herself in. It’s only to Jon, the sacrificial lamb of the piece, that she lets the tears flow.
Ronald Colman’s performance is very adept as well, although at fifty-two he seemed a bit old to be believable as a college student who goes off to war. His age works for him later on in the film, but initially it feels awkward. He seems way too old to romance Kitty, who would have only been in her mid-twenties. Then again, Greer Garson herself was thirty-nine in 1943, so she’s not believable herself as a young singer. Together, Colman and Garson work well, but disbelief must be shelved for the duration of the movie.
MGM had a good reason for casting Garson and Colman in Random Harvest, though. 1943 was when the Second World War was at its height, and many of the younger stars were off fighting. Plus, these two actors were sure box-office draws. At the time of its release, Random Harvest did very well, grossing $4 million, or roughly $62.5 million in today’s money.
Of course, the critics didn’t agree with the public. James Agee said he could only recommend the film to those who would enjoy eating Yardley’s shaving soap for breakfast. I’m inclined to agree, but I can’t discount the film entirely. It is an intriguing story, even if it could have been done differently. Random Harvest is a good example of the types of prestige pictures MGM turned out during its heyday, in spite of wartime limitations.
August is going to be a busy month. First of all, these are coming up:
Interested in joining an event or two? These are the people to see:
- Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts
- Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
- Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews
- Chris at Angelman’s Place
- Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema
- Laura at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
Plus, Taking Up Room is going to have its first theme month: Atomic Age August. Every Friday there will be a post dedicated to the America’s part in ushering in a momentous new era, the reverberations of which are still felt today. More fun stuff is in store as well, of course. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!