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DVD SAVANT

Random Harvest


Random Harvest
Warner DVD
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 125 min. / Street Date January 11, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters
Cinematography Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Harold F. Kress
Original Music Herbert Stothart
Written by Claudine West, George Froeschel, Arthur Wimperis from the novel by James Hilton
Produced by Sidney Franklin
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant enjoys old sentimental romance stories for the same reason anyone else does, but he often tunes in just to see how different filmmakers solve (or don't solve) familiar narrative problems. Making a serious romantic tale come together satisfactorily is no easy task. Most of the movies ask us to set aside all the world's problems to concentrate on two individuals separated by chance, misunderstanding, prejudice and even time itself. A picture like Portrait of Jennie places its lovers in an insoluble time-warp as a perfect pair unfortunately born at different times. It creates an entire illusory world just to make the subjective romantic experience seem that much more magical. The recent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in my opinion) just works too hard in the same vein, inventing an elaborate science fiction premise that eventually becomes irrelevant - the real movie hidden in there somewhere is just about simple feelings between two interestingly ordinary lovers.

Random Harvest is a superior romantic melodrama, an expertly crafted MGM "women's film" made at a time when the subgenre made do with tired plots while leaving star chemistry to do the heavy lifting. An attempt to describe Harvest would make it sound like the worst movie idea ever imagined, which is why I'm not going to get too deeply into the plot. The story hook is amnesia, the basis for some of the most hackneyed movies ever. But the writers, director Mervyn LeRoy and actors Ronald Colman and Greer Garson make it work beautifully. Savant had never seen this one and it really took him by surprise.

Synopsis:

Shell-shocked WW1 vet "John Smith" (Ronald Colman) has a cloud of amnesia covering his past and is grateful to start a new life with ex-performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). They marry and have a baby while he starts a new career as a writer. But the first time he leaves Paula's side to go to Liverpool and find a newspaper job, fate deals him a terrible twist.

Your standard garden-variety amnesia movie is a pretty sad affair. A man shows up on a street with no identity and no memory of a past life. Or he wakes up in a hospital to find people assuring him that he's a person he never heard of. Memory loss is frequently used to suppress ordinary facts long enough to create a mystery where there really isn't one: John Hodiak in Somewhere in the Night, for instance, finds himself in act two of a murder drama. Amnesia victims never turn out to be ordinary people and there's always some psychic trigger that brings them back to sanity just in time to thwart whatever evil plot happens to be underway. The more modern film Shattered mixes amnesia with plastic surgery, a case of two bad plot elements working far too hard to create a clever story.

Random Harvest is from a book by James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. All three movies are obsessed with the experience of WW1, and Harvest begins as sad story of an ex-soldier living unhappily in a gloomy asylum in the English countryside, hoping some relative will show up to help him remember his identity. The mood and tone are no sooner established than the story switches to an Armistice party in the village. "John Smith" has just escaped the asylum and is picked up by Paula, a travelling music-hall performer who almost immediately falls in love with him. Various minor characters help Smith toward freedom and happiness in ways we don't expect. For instance, Smith injures a man who might tell the authorities about an escaped looney, etc., steering the story toward a familiar manhunt. The surprise is that the film never does anything as obvious as that. We instead settle in for an episode of happiness between Smithy and Paula. Unlike most old studio films, we have no idea where the story is going.

The unpredictability of events keeps Random Harvest from developing as a normal narrative. It seems to be a theraputic story, the recovery of a good man with the help of a good woman. But who exactly Smitty is remains a mystery. No telltale clues are allowed to poke through - when things happen we're just as surprised as the characters are.

That's as far as I'm going to do with the actual story. We care deeply about what happens to these people and their situation becomes something of intense personal importance for the audience. The actors make the initial connection. Ronald Colman and Greer Garson are glamorous stars but come across as good people we'd like to know. A second factor is that MGM didn't scrimp on telling a tale that requires the creation of several completely different sets of characters and locations. Finally, the script makes it possible to invest in the film's peculiar fantasy of unlikely events without feeling like a gullible fool. We often "will" ourselves into accepting a simple-minded story idea (The Enchanted Cottage for example) just to enjoy the resulting emotional dramatics. Random Harvest has some jolting surprises, but none of them ask us to ignore logic or common sense.

Other non-spoiler observations about Random Harvest:

The film somehow avoids standard MGM class snobbery when dealing with stories set in England. The story straddles a number of social levels but stays focused on the central mystery. The only message we get is that "Smithy's" progress toward mental clarity might represent a "sick" England coming out of WW1 and finding its way toward sanity and enlightenment.

There is one jaw-dropping story development begging to be pointed out (but not spoiled). It bridges the gap between Alfred Hitchcock trickery and narrative abstraction. Surrealists love an old movie called Peter Ibbetson because its romance blurs the line between fantasy and reality in a completely non-formulaic way - its separated lovers are granted the ability to meet in dreams where they live out their entire romantic lives. It's sort of A Romance on Elm Street. Random Harvest has one plot development that initially seems a logical impossibility and turns out to be a narrative rupture not unlike something out of a Luis Buñuel film. The movie came from a very popular novel but to those who are caught by surprise in a movie theater, it hits like a jolt of ice water. For a minute we think this might be the most stupid plot twist ever in a movie. But then the movie recovers and it all makes sense again. You'll see.

There are no outright gimmicks. Smithy doesn't turn out to be the dupe of thought-control experts or the Kaiser's son sent as a master spy, or anything at all pulpy. Part of the tension in the first half of the movie is that the amnesia issue is the only problem - nobody is running from the law, nobody is being blackmailed. How many forgettable pictures have we seen that start with an intriguing premise, and then waste it as a springboard to the same-old car chases or shoot-outs?

The plotting is also not lazy. An Affair to Remember has a cloying, insulting development where the crippled Deborah Kerr character entertains kids in a hospital ward, just so we'll know how selfless and virtuous she is. Random Harvest doesn't have to make its characters into saints so we'll cry when things go bad for them.

Remember Vertigo, when James Stewart suddenly has a burst of memory upon seeing Kim Novak place a certain piece of jewelry around her neck? Random Harvest has a similar scene that points up its superior use of the amnesia "gimmick." Except for the cruelly ironic amnesia episode itself there are no tricks, no memory triggers. Smithy is confronted with several objects that in an ordinary story would send him into a psychic tailspin, like Marnie going bonkers over the color red. Nothing happens. It's refreshing to see a Hollywood show of this vintage in which psychiatric problems aren't solved by knee-jerk magic.

The appeal of Random Harvest is that it engenders a feeling of, for lack of a better term, social utopianism. The movie has no malice and no villain. Smithy and Paula are met with kindness wherever they go. A potentially troublesome group of aristocratic people we meet later on also cause no problems for the two lovers. Smithy wants to do the right thing. Paula is a trusting saint ready to risk her life and future on a romantic gamble, which sounds like anybody going into a relationship. Peripheral characters - a doctor, an office worker - are interested in Paula but remain respectful of her lack of response to their overtures. There's only one other major romantic role, and that person ends up also being "noble," backing out of an advantageous marriage for purely altruistic reasons. If only more people we meet in life were just half as virtuous as the characters we meet here.  1

Ronald Colman is of course excellent in his role. He has much better luck here than he did in Frank Capra's Lost Horizon, where he supported the entire weight of a shaky premise on his acting shoulders. Greer Garson is the bigger surprise. Her other MGM vehicles traded heavily on her obvious qualities, a genteel and sincere manner and a winning smile. Before this picture she never seemed as natural as an Irene Dunne or Carole Lombard ... but a more controlled "Disney-type" screen lady. Here Garson has many difficult acting moments to carry off and does extremely well. She's even a hit as a dance-hall singer, an identity that could easily clash with her later appearances. Hers is the tougher role and we're more than surprised when Garson is able to take us through some highly unlikely plot turns.

The amnesia story weaves several possible "lives" of the main characters into a pattern that to many will seem like sentimental hokum. More adventurous viewers might realize that John Smith's alternate lives and shifting memories give Random Harvest certain similarities to the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose writings are replete with people living with altered memories, false memory implants, etc. The movie has an interesting psychological depth, especially if the viewer has enough experience to identify with the sensation that major life and relationship changes can leave parts of the past feeling as if it was a life lived by another person entirely.

The supporting cast is nicely chosen, with Henry Travers, Rhys Williams, Reginald Owen, Una O'Connor and Margaret Wycherly in solid bits. Hidden somewhere are Peter Lawford and Peter Van Eyck. If Savant has perhaps oversold Random Harvest, it's because I've seen so many Hollywood dramas from this time with trite ideas and "life lessons" that are poorly conceived or patently false. This one's exceptional - it's intelligent and emotionally rewarding.


Warners' DVD of Random Harvest is a fine rendering of this B&W favorite; perhaps this disc will leapfrog it into a new popularity. I'd call it a perfect date movie discovery for people hip enough not to reject something that looks old-fashioned on the outside.

The main extra is a Lux radio version of the movie hosted by Cecil B. De Mille, with both theatrical stars. Random Harvest was an early MGM release during WW2 and the disc also includes two war-related short subjects. One is a Crime Does Not Pay two reeler about Nazi agents and sabotage. It appears to share with the Greer Garson movie a shot of some factory chimneys. The second is a Pete Smith short showing Marine training and a demo of hand-to-hand combat techniques. There is also a selection of Greer Garson trailers.

Savant's check disc screener doesn't permit him to critique the packaging. The first thing up on the disc is a trailer for the new film The Aviator. It's easily skipped but is unwelcome just the same.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Random Harvest rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: two MGM war-related short subjects, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 8, 2004


Footnote:

1. There is another really arresting performance in this film: Susan Peters is terrific in a role that .... well, don't want to create any spoilers. She has an interesting face and a slight curl to her lip that reminds Savant a bit of Liv Tyler. Rushing to the IMDB to find out what happened to her uncovers a terribly sad Hollywood story. If it were not for a bad accident, I think she would have been a big star. Reading her story brings another weird twist to Random Harvest.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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