Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Random Harvest.

criterion logoFrom the best-selling novel by James Hilton, author of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon, comes one of Hollywood’s most sentimental romances and one of 1942’s biggest hits. Ronald Colman stars as Charles Rainier, an amnesiac World War I veteran who falls in love with beautiful music hall performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson) until a sudden accident restores the man’s true identity while erasing from his mind his relationship with Paula. Charles returns to his privileged life to become a successful industrialist but struggles with an unshakeable longing, all while Paula secretly suffers posing as the businessman’s executive assistant. A box-office triumph honored with seven Academy Awards nominations, Random Harvest is a first class melodrama featuring two of the era’s most distinguished performers.

Disc Features:

Random Harvest (1942) was already a smash hit even before director Mervyn LeRoy began filming. Author James Hilton’s 1941 novel was a best seller, following in line with his past successes Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon, and MGM quickly scooped up the rights, initially intending the film to star Spencer Tracy. The movie’s charmed production began however with Ronald Colman becoming available and then joined by Greer Garson, who had become an overnight sensation with the film adaptation of Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood, 1939). As LeRoy noted in his autobiography, “between the two of them, the English language was never spoken more beautifully on film.”

The film was a smash success for MGM – earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Art Direction (and likely would have earned a nomination for Garson had she not been disqualified after already being nominated (and winning) for Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942)) – but critics were cool on the popular film, finding it well acted but excessive and shallow in its content. Since then, the critical view of Random Harvest appears to have changed as the spell cast by Garson and Colman seems to have worked its eventual magic. Fans of the movie have remained faithful, voting the film onto DVD by a 2004 TCM webpoll. Beloved as it is, fans now wait for a Warner Bros. blugrade to this classic film and so we take this opportunity to promote Random Harvest for admission into the Criterion Collection.

Random Harvest traces a long, tragic romance heavy in sentiment and British fortitude. Ronald Colman plays an amnesiac veteran of World War I who wanders out of an English asylum during armistice celebrations and into the kind and comforting arms of a travelling theatre performer who sings and dances under the name Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). Paula dubs him “Smithy” and the two fall in love, setting up an idyllic life of marital harmony where Paula gives birth to their boy and Smithy works toward a budding career as a writer. Smithy travels to Liverpool for a job opportunity but is struck by a car. The accident restores his lost memory, returning to him his past life as Charles Rainier, son to a wealthy businessman and a well-to-do family, but robbing him of his memory of Paula, their son, and their life together.

Charles successfully takes over the family’s business interests and becomes the “Industrial Prince of England,” yet all is not well with him. His engagement to his step-niece is broken off as it becomes apparent that his heart belongs elsewhere, though Charles can’t say where. And in a surprise turn, Paula is revealed to be Charles’s executive assistant, hiding her true identity on the advice of the asylum doctor who treated Smithy and waiting for Charles to piece together his patchwork memory. Known to Charles as Margaret Hanson, Paula agrees to a heartbreaking marriage of convenience with her lost love when Charles is approached to run for Parliament. This “merger” proves an agonizing frustration to Paula/Margaret as she loses hope in Charles’s ability to recover his memory of her and finds herself a distant second to the empty longing that keeps the outwardly pleasant Mr. Rainier forever out of reach.  Yet, as Paula decides to take an extended vacation overseas away from Charles, a chance visit by the industrialist to Melbridge, where Smithy met Paula years earlier, leads to new insight and a long overdue reconciliation between the two.

Critics and audiences, then and now, seem agreed that any success owing to Random Harvest has to do with the great charisma of its performers. Garson and Colman are simply able to generate so much goodwill in the spectator that the film’s overwrought plot becomes compelling, more resembling a fable about a sleeping prince than even a romantic melodrama. Colman’s palpable sincerity might have been due to his personal proximity to his character – both Colman and Rainier were from the same part of England (Richmond, Surrey) and were reserved and bookish men in their youth; both served in WWI, were medically discharged (Colman for a shattered ankle), and used art to work through their traumas. Also notable is Susan Peters in the role of Rainier’s step-niece/fiancé Kitty. Peters plays the character with a precociousness that verges on grating, but feels neither implausible nor entirely selfish. Random Harvest was intended to be Peters’ path to eventual stardom, but a hunting accident just a few years later that severed her spine and left her in a wheelchair halted her ascendancy and Peters died in 1952 at the young age of 31.

Reel Infatuation BannersThis post contributes to “The Reel Infatuation Blogathon,” and so I should really be talking about Greer Garson, my all-time, top of the list, silver screen crush. In a 1985 interview with Garson, Elwy Yost offers a quote attributed to L. B. Mayer, who hired Greer for her “great fresh beauty” and because she “had the motherhood that Garbo lacked, the propriety that Crawford lacked, the acting skills that Shearer lacked, and better diction than all three.” Garson had become by 1942 the great lady of MGM, a beautiful red-haired woman with sumptuous elocution noted for playing dignified, self-sacrificing characters. Like many of her characters, Garson had a reputation for being exceptionally clever; often generous in spirit yet having a canny diplomacy (particularly with the press). In the Yost interview, Garson references in herself an embodiment of maternalism that was appealing to audiences as World War II carried on in Europe and American involvement gradually appeared inevitable.  Garson’s life was certainly not without its period of strife, but Greer’s aura was rooted in a quiet, distinguished confidence that was inspirational, epitomized in her iconic role as Kay Miniver. She was as much a person you wanted to be like as she was a person you wanted to be near.

Ma DaisyRandom Harvest continues MGM’s stately image of Greer Garson, but offers a lot more as well. Garson felt a kinship to Paula/Margaret, remarking:

She was multi-faceted as most human beings are—the music hall actress, gay and independent; the sympathetic, gentle girl; the adored wife, happy Mrs. Smith; the efficient secretary, and finally the influential Lady Rainier. But more important even than the variety of color to the role was the fact that it was a sensitively written study of a woman’s heart. Fidelity to human nature in such a story is more important to any thoughtful player than opportunities for showmanship.

That music hall performance really spikes the punch. Garson was rarely seen as lively, as humourous, or as sexy as she appears while singing “She’s Ma Daisy.” With her over the top brogue, the mischievous twinkle in her eye, and those long, gorgeous legs, one can’t help but wonder about a lost career for Garson in musical comedy. (And that kilt! Concerned over how the stage costume might impact her ongoing star persona, the production prepared kilts of three lengths and the middle one was chosen.  It’s probably best I not think about that shorter option – my wife theorizes it was just a scarf!) Here, we see the good-natured, cheeky, and even flamboyant Greer Garson known privately by her friends and peers.

In discussing this post with my wife, I mentioned that the aspect of Greer Garson that pulls most strongly at me are those moments in her films where she looks adoringly at her romantic interest. Garson was shot in Random Harvest by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, with whom she worked on Mrs. Miniver. Garson found Ruttenberg’s camera so flattering that she installed him as her permanent photographer thereafter, and so it makes sense that these moments appear so consistently across her filmography. In the shots, Garson, MGM’s perfect lady, looks upon her leading man with an adoration that is fortified by a kind of profound admiration. It is as if Garson’s characters see only the potential of their men, not them as they actually are, and in doing so, they inspire those men to meet that potential, to be worthy of the love and respect granted by this ideal woman. I recall wondering at how amazing it would be to be looked at by a woman the way Greer Garson looked at Ronald Colman or Walter Pidgeon, to see yourself as that gorgeous, extraordinary woman sees you and to be inspired simply by her gaze. It was difficult to imagine when I first saw Random Harvest and was first introduced to Greer Garson that such a feeling could exist in reality. (It’s even more stunning to experience that feeling all the time thanks to my own lovely wife!)

Looking at the Criterion Collection’s “Classic Hollywood” theme page, I struggle to find the kind of swooning romantic dramas MGM was known for at the time. I also see no Ronald Colman in the Collection, no Greer Garson, no Mervyn LeRoy, no James Hilton, and no Joseph Ruttenberg. Random Harvest is a masterpiece of its mode and an avowed favourite of classic film fans that have already once demanded that this underappreciated work find its way to hard media. With no Blu-ray of the film yet released, a Criterion edition seems commercially viable and canonically justified.

Jeremy Lipking Yellow RosesThe branch of the blossoming tree outside Smithy and Paula’s cottage that extends out over its front walkway and that figures somewhat prominently in the film’s plot stands out as an evocative image to draw upon for a cover treatment. Rather than go the route of macro photography, we propose Los Angeles painter Jeremy Lipking to provide a cover treatment. His loose, painterly realism would compliment the tone and era of Random Harvest, while his skill in portraiture suggests that a rendering of Garson and Colman would also make for a beautiful place to drop a wacky “C.” And should there be any doubt that Lipking’s place in fine art might put him above such a commission, we provide his “Yobana” portrait for the Star Wars: Visions art book.

Jeremy Lipking YobanaCredits: We’ve dragged over from the Warner Bros. DVD of Random Harvest the Lux Radio Theatre production, dropped the two shorts randomly included on the DVD, and added Elwy Yost’s very insightful interview with Garson discussing Random Harvest, the TCM tribute, the Hallmark Playhouse radio adaptation, and the two MGM promotional films. With Guy Maddin being a devotee of Random Harvest, his buddy Jonathan Rosenbaum writing something of a defence of the film in the Chicago Reader (stating, “James Agree compared watching this 1942 MGM feature, derived from a James Hilton story, to eating a bowl of shaving soap for breakfast, but it has a kind of deranged sincerity and integrity on its own terms”), and with both being friends of the Collection, we’ve imagined a conversation between the two on the magic and madness of LeRoy’s film. Glenn Erickson is another friend to the Collection and so we’ve tapped him for an essay given his positive review of the film. Finally, we can’t recommend enough Michael Troyan’s biography, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, and so we’ve also tapped him to provide an essay as well.

Big thanks as always to this blogathon’s organizers, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Mae at Font and Frock, for letting MMC! participate in this great event. “The Reel Infatuation Blogathon” winds up today, so head over to its daily recaps and bask in the warm glow of the cinematic crushes of some other bloggers!

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10 thoughts on “Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)

  1. Silver Screenings June 17, 2016 / 11:12 am

    When you first signed up for this blogathon with Random Harvest, I realized I hadn’t seen the film in many years. So what a treat this is, that you’ve included it in your post! (Thank you.)

    I completely agree with Mervyn LeRoy when he said that between Colman and Garson, “the English language was never spoken more beautifully on film.” Like you pointed out, this film is a heavy melodrama (and a little schmaltzy), but these two actors make it an Important Film. They are pure joy to watch.

    I also agree that this film should be included in the Criterion collection.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this well-written and well-researched entry. Greer Garson is a perfect choice!

    • spinenumbered June 17, 2016 / 1:31 pm

      Cheers! Thanks again for organizing this great event.

  2. Tonya June 18, 2016 / 4:55 am

    One of my all-time favorite films. Getting a bit teary-eyed thinking of it. Garson is indeed wonderful. She and Colman worked so beautifully together. Also thinking of the times I’ve watch it and just how much I would have loved having Ronald Colman talk to me! Oh my… his voice. *swoon* Thanks for sharing this!

    • spinenumbered June 19, 2016 / 12:08 am

      I’m glad I’m not the only one typing through the tears! Thanks!

  3. Shari June 27, 2016 / 11:38 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your post on Greer Garson and Random Harvest. It is one of my favorite movies. I am happy to have learned all the background information about the movie and about Greer Garson herself. She sounds like a wonderful person. Her character in the movie was so admirable and tragic at the same time. Great post!

    • spinenumbered June 28, 2016 / 1:29 pm

      Thanks! It’s hard to find much negative written about Greer …

  4. Jonathan May 21, 2017 / 10:17 pm

    The Elwy Yost interview(s) with Ms. Garson (viewable on youtube) are absolutely marvelous, as she reveals–even in her 80’s–that she has a remarkable sense of recall and indeed a charming aptitude for story-telling, giving forth with gloriously eloquent anecdotes that serve to dazzle us with that unique brilliance of hers all over again.
    The mildly upsetting reaction I experienced during first viewing at 13, over 5 decades ago–and the only issue I have with this quiet gem–was confirmed on a recent revisitation, when I remembered correctly, that Smithy’s realization at the climax of the film still seemed a tiny bit rushed…if only by a few seconds. For me, a couple more reaction shots, maybe from different angles, would have made for a much more satisfying and realistic resolution.

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