Thursday, December 3, 2015

Emotional Baggage

Film: Random Harvest
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Melodrama has fallen out of favor. Okay, that’s kind of misleading. Melodrama fell out of favor a long, long time ago, but there was a time when movie dramas could almost always be counted on to be highly melodramatic. Take a star-crossed romance, a case of amnesia multiplied by two, and a love that apparently worth living in constant pain for, and you’ve got all of the makings of a melodrama for the ages. In this case, that melodrama is called Random Harvest.

A man called John Smith (Ronald Colman) is living in an asylum in England. He’s in the asylum because he has returned from the First World War shell shocked and without his memory. The shell shock has also made him self-conscious and virtually unable to speak. On the night of the armistice, “Smith” wanders out of the asylum because the guards are too busy celebrating to keep track of him. He’s more or less lost and terrified, and is taken in by a woman calling herself Paula (Greer Garson—the character’s real name is Margaret), which is really just her stage name. She realizes “Smithy” is harmless and decides to add him to the traveling troupe. Eventually, the pair run off and get married.

The two are happy together for a few years, and John Smith starts a career writing for magazines. After a couple of years, he’s contacted by a magazine publisher in Liverpool who wants to hire him. He goes to meet with them, but is struck a glancing blow by a taxi. This accident restores his memory of his earlier life but completely erases the last three years. So, John Smith is completely gone, replaced by Charles Rainier, heir to a fading fortune. His memories of Paula/Margaret appear gone forever, with her not knowing what has happened to her vanished husband.

Reunited with his family, Charles takes over the business and puts it on a paying basis again. He also attracts the attention of Kitty (Susan Peters, who was nominated in a Supporting role), the step-daughter of one of his siblings. Despite the massive age difference between the two, romance blooms slowly. In fact, the passage of time here occurs through Kitty’s letters. She writes once she graduates from high school (she’s 15 when this romance starts) and writes again when she graduates from college. And eventually, the two are set to be married.

However, there’s a monkey in this wrench. Paula/Margaret, seeing a picture of Charles Rainier and realizing that he’s her long lost husband, has managed to get a job with his company and is his personal secretary even though she’s had “John Smith” declared legally dead. So, she’s eternally near the man she loves more than anything in the world and unable to let him know who she is or what they once meant to each other. Can you hear the violins yet? Wait—it gets better. Kitty realizes that he’s pining for someone else even if he doesn’t know it himself and bails on the wedding. And then Charles is elected to Parliament. Realizing that his position will be more secure if he’s a married man, he proposes a marriage of convenience to Margaret who accepts. So now she’s again legally married to the man she loves despite his not remembering that he once loved her.

Okay, so the plot is pretty extreme with the pathos. In less capable hands than those of Mervyn LeRoy, it would be a mushy mess of emotions. It also benefits from three solid performances, those of Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, and Susan Peters. This is normally where I would comment on the lack of a nomination for Garson. However, 1942 was well past the time when actors received multiple nominations in the same year, and Garson was nominated (and won) for Mrs. Miniver, which was the better choice for a nomination anyway.

Even with LeRoy’s capable direction and the good work of the three leads, Random Harvest is pretty glurgy. It can’t help but be mushy and overly emotional based on the plot. It’s Greer Garson who ends up bearing the brunt of this, of course, and she soldiers on with what she has to do as best as she can. One can imagine a great deal of sighing that might normally happen in a situation like this. While there are tears now and then, Garson manages to handle this with the minimum of syrup.

Other than the obvious emotional pandering, the biggest issue is the age of the characters. Colman was over fifty during the filming, and while that’s age-appropriate for the latter half of the film, he looks far too old in the beginning to be believable. Greer Garson has the opposite problem. She looks the right age in the beginning but despite losing her husband (oh, and a child who evidently dies for an unexplained reason) she hasn’t aged a day 12 years later. Susan Peters was a good 30 years younger than Ronald Colman, making their romance downright creepy, especially since it starts when she’s playing a 15-year-old.

I understand the appeal of Random Harvest for a certain mindset. I don’t generally love melodramas, but I’ll admit that this one, despite how extreme the story is, is better than most. I can only imagine what Douglas Sirk could’ve done with this screenplay, though.

Why to watch Random Harvest: Nice performances from Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, and Greer Garson.
Why not to watch: Could there be anything more melodramatic?


  1. The first part of this film is among my favorite pieces of cinema from the 1940s, the way she treats a stranger with such warmth is very moving to me. Although I admit I'm not as fond of the second half due to the huge age difference you mention.

    1. I agree. I found the first half pretty compelling. It's the second amnesia attack that sends this into melodrama overdrive.

  2. I liked this movie quite a bit and I don't tend to like melodrama. In fact, to me that's a negative term, for whatever reason. I can generally take or leave Sirk's movies. I was a little relieved when three of his films fell out of the TSPDT list in 2015 just before I finished it.

    I read afterwards that the novel Random Harvest was based on did something that no movie could - the identity of his secretary is not revealed to the reader until the very end. Because we see the character onscreen that's not an option for the movie watcher. It would have made a nice reveal if they could have done it.

    And while I noted the age difference, I raised my eyebrow more at the fact that he's planning to marry his niece. To be sure, there are any number of girls who have had a crush on a favorite uncle when they were little, but when they grow up they realize they can't marry him. This movie takes a different path, though.

    1. To be fair, Kitty isn't his niece by blood--she's a sibling's step-daughter, so there's nothing incestuous about the relationship beyond the family titles.

      This ends up being so syrupy though because they couldn't disguise the identity of the secretary.

  3. This is melodrama with a capital M that's for sure. I was loving it until that second bout of amnesia and then hit the "oh come on!" stage. The only reason I stuck with it is as you say it has three wonderful performances at its core.

    Even being Ronald Colman with his flawless diction, effortless class, surfeit of charm, rumpled attractiveness and in this wounded vulnerability it's still a bit much to believe that Susan Peters wouldn't move on to someone more age appropriate in all the years that the story covers. But being Ronald Colman it makes it almost understandable.

    Same goes for Greer Garson and her almost saintlike devotion to a man who has zero idea who she is. Most anyone else would come across as idiotic or pathetic but Greer seems to radiate an inner surety that it will all come out all right in the end. Which of course being the movie that it is it does.

    Susan Peters was very good in her role though I didn't quite understand the nomination, it probably came about because the film was a monster hit. It's hard to judge how good she would have become since while MGM kept her busy after this until she was crippled in that hunting accident none of her followup films were really great material. She was terrific as the secretly viperish manipulator in her last film Sign of the Ram but her health was shattered and she died not too many years later.

    I think credit also goes to Mervyn LeRoy for keeping a tight handle on the story and moving it along at a good clip despite its length so you don't dwell too much on the absurdity of some of the story.

    1. I pretty much agree across the board. I more or less look at this like the best possible version of something that started with a lot of strikes against it. Credit for that goes to Colman, Garson, Peters, and LeRoy.