Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees once lost her memory and was found wandering the foggy streets of England, but unlike Ronald Colman she'd had the foresight to keep a photo ID with her.
"My life began with you. I can't imagine a future without you."—Smithy (Ronald Colman)
The term "tearjerker" tends to be used pejoratively, but think how many grand old classic movies fit into that category. Whether it's Paul Henreid and Bette Davis sharing cigarettes and yearning gazes in Now, Voyager or Olivia de Havilland playing aunt to the son who doesn't know her in To Each His Own, some of the most splendid movies are those that don't hesitate to pour on the sentiment and melodrama. And among the cream of the great sentimental dramas must surely be counted Random Harvest, the classic 1942 adaptation of James Hilton's best-selling novel. This Oscar-nominated tale of a shell-shocked amnesiac and the brave woman who loves him is the kind of film that is exquisitely tuned to hit one straight in the tear ducts…and how gloriously it succeeds.
Facts of the Case
As World War I draws to a close, a distinguished but haggard figure in military dress (Ronald Colman, The Light That Failed) makes his way through the mist in a small English town. Behind him are the tall iron gates of an asylum built to house the war's many victims of shell shock. Before him lies an unknown world. Smith, as he is now known, has no memory of his life before he was rescued from a foxhole and treated for a head injury. When warm-hearted entertainer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver) spots him, she knows right away that he needs someone to look after him. Under her gentle care the ravaged veteran begins to recover his strength and his confidence, and when he finds the courage to propose to Paula, she joyfully accepts. In their secluded yet idyllic married life in a country cottage, everything seems poised to ensure their happiness.
But when Smithy, as his wife likes to call him, leaves Paula on a short business trip and gets involved in a freak accident, suddenly everything changes. His memory of the past few years vanishes completely, replaced by the identity he had lost in the war. With no memory of Paula, he picks up his old life as Charles Rainier, heir to Random hall. Will his forgotten wife be able to find him again and bring back his memories of their life together…or will she lose him to a new rival, audacious young Kitty (Susan Peters)?
The adaptation of James Hilton's novel Random Harvest into a film is a fascinating example of how changing a story's structure can transplant it almost into a different genre. Hilton's novel is structured like a mystery: We meet Rainier in 1937, when he is an established businessman and a minor celebrity, and travel back into the past with him as he tries to fill in the strange hole in his life left by his missing years. In the film, however, we follow events more or less chronologically, so that we understand all that Rainier doesn't once he ceases to be Smithy. We know exactly what he has forgotten, so we feel the full emotional impact every time he fails to seize the happiness that once was his. It's a remarkably clever way to involve us emotionally in the story; where the novel creates more of a mood of suspense, the film places emotion at the fore. Every scene is charged with a meaning that would be absent if we hadn't witnessed Rainier's early days as Smithy.
That is not to say, of course, that Hilton's novel is of negligible importance to the film's emotional impact. Though dependent upon some suspension of disbelief, his plot is an ingenious and moving one; I'd love to give examples of particularly effective plot twists, but I don't want to risk spoiling them for viewers (or readers)—I'd even recommend refraining from reading the DVD cover synopsis to avoid a biggish spoiler. In Hilton's relatively brief career, in fact, he did much to make his mark on classic films. Besides Random Harvest, he wrote other beloved novels that themselves inspired notable adaptations, including Lost Horizon (1937), also with Ronald Colman, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), in which Greer Garson had actually made her film debut. Even today, the novels that inspired these classic films are still in print and winning over a new generation of fans. He also contributed to the screenplays of other notable films, including Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent and the classic Garbo vehicle Camille, another magnificent tearjerker.
Having already proven themselves in other Hilton screen adaptations, Colman and Garson seem practically tailor-made for their roles in Random Harvest. Colman is extremely touching in the early scenes, which show the plaintive, uncomprehending confusion that shell shock has reduced him to; over the course of the movie he establishes two different personalities, the gentle, kind Smithy and the brisk, businesslike Rainier, and it is to Colman's credit that the two personalities are clearly yet subtly distinct from each other. Colman also excels at moments of deep emotion; some of the most haunting moments of the film are when we can see in his expressive eyes the mysterious feelings of emptiness and loss that plague Rainier. Opposite Colman, Garson glows, warmly embodying the womanly sympathy and compassion of young Paula. She, too, goes through a transformation of sorts, as she takes on a new identity to insert herself once more into the life of the man who now does not know her. In her other films I have sometimes found Garson to be somewhat affected, and every now and then her Paula gets a tiny bit too-too for my taste, but overall her performance here is exactly what the story demands. She, like Colman, beautifully carries the emotional scenes and effectively tugs the heartstrings, and by the end of the movie I felt that this was probably my favorite of Garson's performances. Supporting players like Una O'Connor (The Invisible Man) and Henry Travers (It's a Wonderful Life) also raise the level of the acting above the ordinary, and fans of Laurence Olivier will be intrigued to see his first wife, Jill Esmond, in a rare film appearance as a gimlet-eyed relative of Rainier's.
Warner's presentation of this classic film is a worthy one. The transfer is of beautiful quality, with clear, clean mono audio and a particularly handsome visual presentation, with deep blacks, a rich greyscale range, and very little grain or speckling. Particularly since some important scenes take place at night, with the corresponding low light, the clarity of detail is striking. Fans who have been making do with a VHS copy of the film will definitely be delighted at the quality of the DVD. The array of extras is also quite nice, crowned with the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film from 1944, featuring Colman and Garson reprising their roles. Sound quality for this audio feature is adequate considering the material's age and origin; the sound is sometimes muffled, the music sometimes distorted, and there are numerous pops on the soundtrack, but by and large dialogue comes through clearly. I love that Warner Bros. is making these classic audio performances available; it's always fascinating to hear how they reimagine their parent films, and this adaptation is particularly interesting since Garson's performance is a bit different from her interpretation of the character in the film, more spontaneous-sounding and natural.
The trailer gallery features only three films, but these are well chosen. In addition to the trailer for Random Harvest, we get the trailer for Garson's screen debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (also thematically appropriate due to its source in a James Hilton novel) and her other 1942 outing, the war classic Mrs. Miniver, for which she won an Oscar. The two vintage shorts that fill out the extras are both war-themed and don't have a direct connection to the main attraction, but dating as they do from the same time as the film they do provide some interesting historical context. Don't Talk is a 20-minute cautionary tale from the "Crime Doesn't Pay" series about loose lips sinking ships (or at least detonating bridges), and Marines in the Making gives us 10 minutes of bare-chested military men training in combat moves. Of the two, I found Don't Talk more rewarding, probably because it had an actual plot, but both are interesting historical artifacts and are valuable for helping to recreate the frame of mind that a 1942 moviegoer might have brought to a screening of Random Harvest.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Among the otherwise solid cast, the only letdown is, unfortunately, a glaring one: Young Susan Peters, in the major supporting role of Kitty, is flat-out annoying. In fairness to the actress, her character is part of the problem; Kitty is an adolescent when we first meet her, and in her precocious passion for Rainier she throws herself at him with all the gush and gaucherie of any self-deluded teenager. I suspect we're supposed to find her behavior cute, but it's just mawkish and coy. Moreover, as an actress Peters shows no more subtlety than does her alter ego: Even when Kitty is allowed to mature and gain some poise, Peters always seems to be trying too hard, and right up until her moving final scene (in which she is quite effective) she comes across as false and self-conscious.
Even her standout scene is less effective than it could be because it's so protracted. Up to a point it works beautifully, with everything conducive to a lump in the throat…but then, instead of winding up, it keeps going, trying to wring even more pathos from the situation. The same poor judgment weakens a scene between Paula and Rainier—a scene that's wonderfully poignant and affecting, except that it goes on too long. Both scenes end up feeling like they sacrifice their effectiveness by insisting too much, and some trimming in these two sequences might have served the film better. On the other hand, larger-than-life romances like Random Harvest don't promise subtlety, so the very scenes that I felt went on too long may end up being favorites of other viewers.
Finally, I'm not sure how many fans of the Hilton novel haven't seen this film adaptation, but those who appreciate the novel's commentary on war and its depiction of the changes Britain underwent between the two World Wars will find that content greatly reduced in the film. The film is simply a love story, with World War I serving mostly as a pretext for the hero's loss of identity. I certainly feel that the film stands on its own as a worthwhile experience, but those expecting it to capture all the political and social perspective of the novel may be disappointed.
Who doesn't love a good cry? That was a rhetorical question, but if you don't love a good cry, then you're not the target audience for Random Harvest. If, however, you love big, sweeping emotion embodied in two talented, gorgeous, dulcet-voiced actors like Colman and Garson, step right up. With its strong pedigree and excellent packaging by Warner Bros., Random Harvest's appeal is anything but random.
Perhaps the justice has been unduly swayed by emotion, but so be it: the defendant is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Crime Doesn't Pay" Short: Don't Talk
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