Saturday, December 10, 2011

Random Harvest (1942)

It was movie night around No-house again, and last night's was a sentimental beauty: Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, and the lovely Susan Peters.  The movie is based on a book by James Hilton who also wrote the novels-turned-movies Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939, starring Garson) and Lost Horizon (1937, starring Colman).

Set in England, the story involves an amnesiac, John Smith, who lost all memory in a French foxhole during WWI.  Ronald Colman is spectacular in the role.  His face is a veritable exemplar of emotional complexity, puzzlement, confusion, frustration and resignation.  He is simply pathetic, and lovable, in his befuddlement.  

Amidst the jubilation of German surrender, Smith wanders off the Melbridge asylum and into the celebrating town where he is discovered, protected and cared for by Paula (Garson).  Her heart goes out to him.

The two eventually make their way into the country where they live a quiet life that blossoms into love.  He can't remember anything about who he is.  But, the life he knows begins with her, and he is happy.  He becomes a writer.  They marry, live happily in a country cottage, and have a son.

Naturally, if it ended there, the viewer would be pleased, but unsatisfied.  It doesn't.  While on his way to an out-of-town interview, he suffers a blow to the head.  He awakens as his original self, Charles Ranier, a scion of industrial wealth.  Unfortunately, he can't remember anything about Paula and his son, or of the years between the onset of his original amnesia and the recent accident.

With nothing to go on except a latch key to his house with Paula and the newfound memory of who he is, he returns to his family estate after a three-year absence, reintroduces himself to kin, and enters into his lavish inheritance.  Charles is a business wizard, especially at mergers, and comes to be publicly celebrated as England's leading industrialist.  The public notice he receives alerts Paula to his whereabouts, which she had been unable to ascertain for years, try as she might.

One of Charles' sisters has a precocious teenage stepdaughter, Kitty (Susan Peters), who at 15 reveals to Charles her intention of marrying him.  She encourages him to think of her and correspond; she matures from schoolgirl, to debutante, to highly courted beauty.  Her persistence pays off, and Charles, who still suffers from the haunting absence of a happiness he can't identify, asks her to marry him.

This is bitter blow to Paula who, going by the name of Margaret Hansen, has worked her way back into Smithy/Charles' life by becoming his indispensable personal secretary.  Of course she wants to tell him everything, but is advised by Smithy's Melbridge psychiatrist not to force remembrances on him.  His memory must return naturally, lest it threaten his psychic integrity.

Choosing to take the high road, Paula privately has her marriage to Smithy annulled under a statute that permits such in the case of a disappearing spouse.

Garson is superb in the role of the patiently suffering lover, burdened with more than mere mortal can bear. We feel her pain acutely as Charles announces his intention to marry Kitty, at the same time as he professes his utter dependence on Margaret's secretarial prowess.

Just days before their wedding, Kitty breaks it off.
Kitty Chilcet: Sometimes, especially when we've been closest, I've had the curious feeling that I remind you of someone else - someone you once knew... someone you loved as you'll never love me. I am nearly the one, Charles. But nearly isn't enough for a lifetime.
Though a reprieve for Paula, her suffering is far from over.  He still doesn't know that she is the lost love he laments in abstentia.  You feel her despair as Charles discovers the suitcase that she had helped him pack for his fateful trip, but recognizes neither its contents nor its namesake.

It gets even worse, as Charles enters politics and invites Margaret into that life in order for her to employ her talents on a broader stage.  It is an ironic invitation, as Paula was a stage girl when they originally met in Melbridge.

All of this grinds on for fifteen years, as Paula grows hollow from the wear of being so close to, yet so far from the man she loves.  Charles powers through industrial and political life while vacantly rubbing the latch key he wears on a vest chain in order to invoke a happiness that eludes yet haunts him.

This is not a movie for the unsentimental, who will likely consider it syrupy, and perhaps annoying for Charles' failure to carry identification, wear a ring or other such nit-picky details.  For those capable of being seduced by beautiful art, exceptional story-telling and emotion bruising irony, this movie is for you.  It is a compelling tale absorbingly told and superbly acted.

Filmed in an age when actors could act and not merely emote, and the story rather than the special effects carried you from beginning to end, it is a masterpiece of romance.

Garson is magnificent, particularly in the second half of the movie in which she tries to piece her and Smithy's life together again without throwing him into a relapse of psychic confusion.  She is strong and self-sacrificing.  She is good.

Colman is likewise a gem.  The viewer is trapped in his loss, as it is in Garson's deprivation.  One can't but help admire his basic decency and quiet equanimity.  One feels badly for him without ever blaming him.  It's simply not his fault.

The two of them together are wonderful.  Noman hopes that you'll enjoy the film, and recommends it heartily for your family's viewing.

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