Before I tell you of my own thoughts, I thought I’d first share a quote with you from the late great James Agee. Upon viewing Random Harvest in 1942, he said that he would “like to recommend this film to those who can with pleasure eat a bowl of Yardley’s shaving soap for breakfast.”
I suppose if we look merely at the plot of Random Harvest, it surely ticks every box. The start of the film sees Colman as a WWI veteran suffering from amnesia and apparently utterly alone in the world. He falls for and eventually marries a wonderful girl, Paula Ridgeway, and for a while the two seem to lead a thoroughly idyllic life in the English countryside. One day however, he suddenly remembers his true identity, and loses concurrently all the memories of his three years with Paula. Amnesia. Twice. This is, needless to say, textbook soap opera.
Yet one never really questions the supposed implausibility of the unfolding tale. Instead, like any great film, Random Harvest draws us into a world, rather subtly unlike our own. From the immensely successful James Hilton novel did this world first emerge. Like many other stories of Hilton’s, Random Harvest has a uniquely transcendent quality: it features the mysterious lyricism of Lost Horizon, but possesses also the innocent endearment of Goodbye Mr Chips.
Of course, it has also at its helm Greer Garson and Ronald Colman, perhaps the two most Hiltonesque actors to have ever graced the silver screen. And if they were good in their previous respective Hilton outings, the pair are arguably even better together in Random Harvest.
The character of Paula is so beautifully and lovingly rendered by Garson. Never does her performance seem sentimental, for always she carries herself with a delicate humanity. As a result, we the audience, despite ourselves, begin to believe that such a lovely lady could indeed be real.
As for Colman’s Smithy, he is sincere and good-natured, but is haunted also by an intense vulnerability. This can be seen in the early scene in the asylum, with John Smith preparing to meet a couple who are hoping that he is their missing son. The doctor opens the door, and immediately we can see the terrible disappointment in their faces. We cut to Colman: his brave smile begins to fade away, his hand quivers at his side, and finally he too realises that these people are not his family.
Once he regains his memory, the character of Smithy seems to disappear entirely. In his place stands Charles Rainier, the so-called “Industrial Prince of England”, the embodiment of effortless charm and calm assurance. Colman plays them almost as two totally different men; yet once in while we see a flicker of little Smithy, and we see, if only for a moment, a man who is lost in a place which he’s supposed to call home.
There’s a wonderful scene that takes place in a church. Rainier’s fiancée is picking out hymns, and settles on ‘O Perfect Love’, the very hymn that was played at the wedding of Smithy and Paula so many years ago. As Rainier looks out into the stained-glass windows, he seems to be many miles away. We see in him such a sorrowful desperation, and a quiet searching for any trace of those three missing years. Yet the scene is bathed also in a warm and hopeful light, suggesting that hope itself is not altogether lost.
This idea of being lost is one of the most fundamental themes of Random Harvest. It is seen in the very literary motifs of a literal “key” (Rainier’s only clue as to his life with Paula); a beaded necklace, serving as a reminder of a simpler time; and a recurring mist which lifts and descends throughout the film, mirroring the uncertain and uneasy mind of Charles.
The result of such poetic metaphor is this: a tale of most expressive and enchanting heights. We often forget that “romanz” from the old French had connotations of chivalry and adventure. Gradually, the word came to mean something idealised and quixotic, and first and foremost, of course, a story of love. If we return to Random Harvest, and we examine its setting, its characters, and its expressive execution, it is clear that the film is truly the quintessence of romance.
One of the biggest smashes of 1942, Random Harvest provided a welcome escape from a torrid world at war. Part of the movie’s appeal is undoubtedly its long and arduous uphill climb; many times we see a heartbroken Paula searching her husband’s eyes for some remnant of recognition, and finding none. Many times we see the two on the verge of a breakthrough, only for that hope to pathetically distinguish in the following instant. Happiness seems to be against all odds, and it is for this reason that the glorious conclusion of Random Harvest, —a key which finally turns in a lock— becomes all the sweeter.