You know how people say, "How come they don't make 'em like they used to?" Well, "Random Harvest" is one of the films they don't make 'em like anymore.
Greer Garson had a very good year in 1942. First, she starred in "Mrs. Miniver," for which she won an Academy Award, and then she starred in "Random Harvest." It was "Miniver" that won a slew of Oscars that year, but, frankly, it's "Random Harvest" that is a lot more fun to watch today. Not that "Random Harvest" didn't get in for its own share of Oscar nominations, too; it just didn't win any. Not for Best Actor, Ronald Colman; not for Best Supporting Actress, Susan Peters; not for Best Director, Mervyn LeRoy; and not for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Music, or Best Writing. Still, with all those nominations and a terrific box office reception, it didn't do badly.
Of course, how could this movie fail? "Random Harvest" is a consummate tearjerker. It was adapted from a novel by James Hilton ("Lost Horizon," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"), who had cowritten "Mrs. Miniver," and it was directed by Mervyn LeRoy ("Little Caesar," "Anthony Adverse," "Madame Curie," "Gypsy," "Mister Roberts"). Throw in those two top Hollywood attractions Greer Garson and Ronald Colman, and you've got a film that deserved its popularity.
"Random Harvest" (Hilton prefaces his novel with the quotation "According to a British Official Report, bombs fell at Random") is a long (126 minutes), old-fashioned love story that sustains interest even in today's cynical age. Maybe it's because it is the kind of love-found, love-lost, love-found tale that appeals to most anyone's sense of romanticism, nostalgia, and fair play. Whatever, it works.
The story covers a number of years, starting in 1918 when we meet a returned World War I vet, John Smith (Colman), in the military wing of an English county asylum. Smith has been hurt in the War and lost his memory; Smith is not even his real name but one the hospital has given him. With his amnesia, he has also lost the ability to speak properly, to remember words and phrases and how to link them together. So he's fairly inarticulate, an amazing feat for an actor known for having one of the most beautiful and eloquent speaking voices in all of movies. It is somewhat unfortunate that Colman was too old for the part of the young soldier at the beginning of the story (he was fifty-one at the time), but, as I say, the plot covers many years, and Colman grows gracefully into his real age. Besides, these are the movies, and with a little suspension of disbelief, anything is possible. When young Smith faces a couple of parents looking for their son--he hoping to be found and they hoping it is he--the look of despair on Colman's face when they don't recognize him is heartbreaking. Colman's age is no longer relevant.
Confused and scared, Smith escapes from the asylum and wanders out into the nearby village to find himself, literally, and there he is befriended by a stage entertainer, Paula Ridgeway (Garson). Paula calls him "Smithy," and they run off to the country together in the hope that the fresh air and quiet spaces will help him regain his memory. Presumably, Ms. Ridgeway has a good deal of money put away, because he, obviously, has none at all. He turns to writing and within a few years recovers his speech. And, naturally he and Paula fall in love and marry, buy a cottage in the country, and have a child. But that's just the beginning of the story!
All is well and good, and then the twist. While visiting the city looking for a possibly permanent writing assignment, Smithy gets into an automobile accident and recovers his lost memory. Only he forgets the previous three years, the years with Paula and the cottage and the child. Now, he discovers his old self, Charles Ranier, a very, very rich man. The rest of the plot, the second half, unfolds as a yearning and a searching for lost love, a new set of romances, and a crackerjack suspense thriller.
The years go by. With a wife and child Ranier does not know exist, he plans to marry a young woman who has had a crush on him for years, Kitty Chilcet (Susan Peters). Meanwhile, Paula struggles first to find her missing husband and then to decide what to do if she does find him. Will he recognize her? Will he still love her? Will he think she's only after him now for his money? Her decisions and pains will surprise and frustrate and possibly exasperate you. But you will not go away sorry you came in.
Having never seen this film before and knowing it only by reputation, I was fully prepared to write it off as just another outmoded relic of my parents' era. I was more than a little surprised to find myself glued to the set for the duration, my eyes welling up in the final minutes despite my best efforts to ward off the sentimentality. "Random Harvest" plays with our emotions, teases us, and manipulates us, and we find ourselves encouraging everyone involved to keep it going. I wound up loving the thing.
The screen image is presented in something close to the 1.37:1 ratio Academy standard of the day, here rendered at 1.33:1. It's in black-and-white, of course, and the print Warner Bros. had available was apparently in excellent condition. It does not appear to have been restored, particularly, but it shows very little evidence of age, almost no flecks, lines, blemishes, or scratches at all. The B&W contrasts are fine, if not always the strongest, and detail and definition are quite good for the print's age. There are a few instances of jittery lines, mostly in plaid clothing, but it's of little concern. Overall, this is a fine transfer of a well-preserved print.
The Dolby Digital audio reproduction goes a long way in helping to clarify the film's monaural sound. It's got a commendably wide dynamic range and a generally well-balanced frequency response. There is a touch of background noise, however, that seems to increase toward the middle of the picture and disappear toward the end. It's really only noticeable in quieter scenes and should, in any case, be of no cause for alarm. I'd say this is as good a mono soundtrack as one could reasonably expect from a sixty-plus year old film.
I liked the selection of bonus materials Warner Brothers assembled for this disc. It starts with two vintage shorts from 1942. The first is a segment of the "Crime Does Not Pay" series called "Don't Talk," a twenty-one minute FBI propaganda film starring Don Douglas and Barry Nelson. The second short subject is an eight-minute Marine Corps propaganda film, "Marines in the Making," filmed on location at various military bases around the country. Next, there's an audio-only presentation of the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of "Random Harvest," starring Mr. Colman and Ms. Garson. It's fifty-five minutes long and introduced by its producer, Cecil B. De Mille. Unfortunately, it cannot be fast forwarded or reversed, and there are no chapter stops. After that is a gallery of Greer Garson trailers, one each for "Random Harvest," "Mrs. Miniver," and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." There is also a trailer for "The Aviator" that begins upon start-up but cannot be otherwise accessed. The extras conclude with a generous thirty scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
How complicated life can be. Who can say what our lives would be like today if one or two key elements had been different. A chance meeting, a lucky break, a guiding word? "Random Harvest" is a weeper, and I don't mind saying it worked for me. Corny? Perhaps. It's a melodrama of exaggeration, to be sure, but of the best kind. Not only is the romance touching, the tension is keen. "Random Harvest" is a remarkable story of love and devotion, patience and endurance, an original and fascinating motion picture.