In 1942, MGM released Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest; just one of the studio’s grand and glorious odes to an England that never was, based on a best-selling novella by author, James Hilton whose previous works, Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr. Chips had entered the popular lexicon and been made into equally as gratifying motion pictures. Random Harvest is really a throwback to the Irving Thalberg era; Metro’s raja, Louis B. Mayer electing to partly honor the precepts that owed a great deal to Thalberg’s extravagant spectacles of the mid-1930’s. Random Harvest has at least the look, if not the deportment of a movie overseen by Thalberg’s mighty and uncompromising hand. Throughout their joint reign over this Culver City empire, better known to the outside world as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Thalberg and Mayer frequently clashed over Thalberg’s profligate spending on fewer pictures to make up Metro’s yearly quota. Thalberg had reasoned – usually with uncanny clairvoyance – that less output with more distinction would net the studio even greater profits. At least in his time, this much was generally true. Even so, when the diminutive zeitgeist unexpectedly died at the age of 36 in 1937, exiting the synagogue on the day of the funeral, Mayer is rumored to have nudged executive, Eddie Mannix, whispering the murderous line, “Isn’t God good to me?”
Indeed, Thalberg’s passing had left a void in management Mayer was only too eager to fill as the undisputed monarch of MGM. Too much has been written of L.B. Mayer since as a tyrannical and oppressive influence, mostly by those who never knew or even met the man in person. And while it is nevertheless certain Mayer would continue to rule Metro with an iron fist, it is equally as true he fully believed his way was the just and only way to ensure perennial profitability. The proof is in Metro’s longevity and profitability while Mayer reigned supreme, and the cataclysmic spiral into fiscal oblivion that steadily marked and dogged the various regimes put into place after his forced departure from the studio.
Mayer could have cleaned house immediately following Thalberg’s death. He could have done away with those devoted almost exclusively to Thalberg’s edicts, except that Mayer, for all his faults as a human being, could sincerely recognize the strength – as well as the profits to be had in retaining these loyalists; every last one integral to the proliferation and maintenance of Metro’s supremacy at the box office. From this vantage, Random Harvest is yet another example – at least from the outside looking in – of how a change in top-level management had not impugned Metro’s ability to carry on in the grand manner on which its reputation with the public had been based. It was, after all, in keeping with tradition and that long-since dreaded word ‘prestige’ that, at least in Mayer and Thalberg’s heyday, meant far more to the cachet of a company than pictures that don’t make any money.
Random Harvest is an exquisite melodrama; a wartime weepie wrapped in the enigma of an elegant – if thoroughly – far-fetched tale of woman’s suffrage. The book, published in 1941, had appealed to a primarily female readership. The movie would make a valiant attempt to reach out to both sexes, and, on the whole succeed in broadening its appeal. How could it not, with winsome Greer Garson, riding the crest of success begun with her debut in 1939’s Goodbye Mr. Chips, and continuing with a string of highly profitable tearjerkers, including Pride and Prejudice (1940),Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and the Oscar-winner, Mrs. Miniver, released earlier in the same year as Random Harvest. For a brief wrinkle in time, Garson’s screen appeal was almost Garbo-ian in tone. Metro had, in fact, been meticulous in crafting movies to showcase her infectiously lithe Irish charms; Garson’s image as the perennially devout woman of hearth and home leading to a her frequent on-screen teaming with the genteel and adoring Walter Pigeon as her soon-to-be/or already ensconced husband. Behind closed doors, Garson was actually more heatedly involved with actor, Richard Ney who played her son in Mrs. Miniver. Yet, unlike Garbo, Garson radiated genial warmth, the perfect quality for Hilton’s patient heroine, dance hall performer, Paula Ridgeway. At first, Paula takes pity upon, but then almost immediately falls in love with an amnesiac/escapee from a nearby asylum in Melbridge. Seemingly without effort, Garson’s performance morphs from motherly and protective to instinctually romantic; the transition never forced or awkward.
And in her co-star, the ultra-sophisticated, yet fluently graceful Ronald Colman, she all but finds the strength to endure his character’s unintentional loss of affections. Colman, who had quickly gone from little known British émigré actor to A-list Hollywood star, primarily thanks to the dawning of sound, that unlike for so many had marked the kiss of death to their careers, in Colman’s case revealed an exquisitely mellifluous and richly nuanced baritone, ideal for the talkies. In writing this review I can almost hear the echoes of his immortal and penultimate farewell “…a far far better thing I do…” as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1935). The thirties had indeed enriched Colman’s prospects in Hollywood, even as his presence in such classics as Lost Horizon and The Prisoner of Zenda (both released in 1937) firmly established him as the epitome of a certain kind of benevolent, proud English aristocracy; the personification of the traditions England herself was fighting to preserve with the advent of WWII. Colman is generally magnificent as the shell-shocked British soldier who skulks off from the asylum after the armistice in Random Harvest; greatly depleted and quite unaware he is actually Charles Rainier; heir apparent to an industrialist’s fortune and ancestral estate. After another failed attempt made by his devoted doctor, Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) to establish his identity, Charles casually walks away from the asylum in search of his own truth on a moodily fog-laden eve.
A chance meeting with Garson’s empathetic Paula on the crowded and chaotically cheering streets of Melbridge, the latter on her way to the Tivoli music hall to perform for the troops, gives rise to a whirlwind romance and the sort of pastorally emblematic and escapist retreat American movies in general sought to present and preserve as the English way of life; all cultured garden parties and staunchly enduring principles: stiff-upper-lipped morality, decorum and propriety – noblesse oblige. Paula rescues the amnesiac from being sent back to the asylum by a well-intended tobacconist (Una O’Connor), ushering him into a local pub run by the exuberant keep; retired pugilist, ‘Biffer’ (Reginald Owen). In short order, Paula is ordered by the Tivoli’s stage manager, Sam (Rhys Williams) not to be late for the performance. What to do? Charles is so very fragile. He ought never to be left alone. So, Paula takes this man she barely knows, whom she has since nicknamed ‘Smithy’, to her dressing room, bolstering his confidence with an ebullient one-sided ‘conversation’ in which she reveals a great deal more about her own character and aspirations. Leaving Smithy backstage to enjoy the show, Paula delights the crowd with her high-spirited and leg-revealing rendition of ‘Daisy’. Alas, as the returning soldiers who populate the audience join in for a verse and chorus of ‘It's a Long Way to Tipperary’ something stirs within ‘Smithy’. Unbeknownst to these revelers, Smithy has suffered a relapse and collapses on the floor.
The next afternoon, Biffer learns the man Paula is keeping hidden in his upstairs bedroom over the bar is actually the mental escapee everyone in the village is talking about. Biffer is staunchly loyal and agrees to guard Smithy’s secret. After a few days convalescence, Smithy’s outlook has greatly improved. He speaks full sentences and his optimism and faith in humanity have been renewed. Alas, Sam refuses to take him along on the company’s travels throughout the provinces forcing Paula to make a life-altering decision. After briefly considering returning Smithy to the asylum, Paula instead leaves the touring company without giving notice; taking Smithy under her care and more determined than ever to see him restored to perfect health. Together, they make their way from Melbridge to the West Country – ‘the end of the world, lonely and lovely’ – the ideal retreat to mend a shattered mind into which Paula invests every last vestige of her nurturing self to oversee Smithy’s complete recovery. Gradually, a romance blossoms. And although Smithy is unable to unlock the portholes to his past, he finds himself making new and enduring memories with Paula. Befriending the country physician, Dr. Sims (Henry Travers), Smithy girds his resolve and proposes marriage to Paula. She, at first, resists, fearing he is only doing this to repay her kindness. But Smithy confides in Paula that she has resurrected more within him than a sense of loyalty and compassion. The two are wed in a quiet country church, Sims walking the bride down the aisle to the altar.
The skillful condensation of Hilton’s prose by screenwriters, Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis nimbly cuts through many chapters in just a few brief scenes. Paula gives birth to a son, named John Smith after his father. In tandem with this good news, Smithy receives word that his application for a full-time position as a writer with The Mercury, a Liverpool-based newspaper has been received with great interest. Hurrying in the rain to make his appointment for the interview, Smithy is struck down by an automobile, awakening a short time later, relatively unharmed but with his pre-war memories fully restored. As he has virtually no recollection of the events that have transpired since the war, Smithy now gives his name as Charles Rainer and his address as Random Hall. Naturally, Charles’ relatives are at first skeptical of his return, though quickly they rally to his side, recognizing him as the rightful heir to their formidable family’s wealth and privilege. The youngest of this extended brood, Kitty (Susan Peters) is not directly related to Charles, but finds him utterly fascinating nonetheless. Over time, she evolves these impressionable feelings into naïve young love.
In the meantime, Paula, having realized what has become of her husband, gets a job as Charles’ private secretary, rechristening herself as Margaret Hanson. In her present capacity, Paula neither intends to deprive Charles of his obvious happiness, nor his reunion with his rightful family, nor does she set about to expose the fact they are husband and wife. Appealing to Dr. Benet for guidance, the mood turns palpably romantic when Benet suggests Paula forget about her life with ‘Smithy’ and pursue a relationship with him instead. Yet, he is ever more kind-hearted than enterprising, offering Paula renewed hope, even though, in doing so, it so utterly deprives him of his own chances to procure lasting happiness with the woman he so clearly loves. Endeavoring not to dishonor the love she and Charles shared, though perhaps realizing it is utterly futile to cling to this dream that was, Paula has her marriage to ‘John Smith’ annulled. At the same instance, and despite their discrepancies in age, Kitty and Charles become engaged. Alas, in preparing the hymnals that will crown their moment of happiness together, Charles suffers a relapse; stirred by a distant and cloudy reminiscence; the haunting faraway look caught in his eyes convincing Kitty she has been desperately grasping at an imaginary life together that can never include her. Maturely, Kitty breaks off their engagement, causing Charles to begin a deeper soul-searching excursion that takes him back to Liverpool.
On this sojourn, Charles employs Margaret as his social secretary. As he plans to enter public life as a politician, Charles suggests they are both prisoners of their respective pasts, haunted by a clouded history that can never be whole. Perhaps together, they might find a new path to move forward. Paula is taken aback by this sudden change in her fortunes, but conceals her joy. Indeed, in proposing marriage this second time, Charles remains aloof at best. While he firmly admits he would be lost without her, in the same breath he offers her nothing but passionless friendship in return for his hand in marriage; Paula expected to play the part of devoted wife and hostess as the first lady of an elder statesman. Paula agrees to these terms, informing Dr. Benet of her plans to remarry Charles. In public, the ruse is imperceptible. Margaret and Charles are a handsome couple and the envy of their contemporaries. But behind closed doors, Paula realizes that to have remained alone was not the worst that could have happened to her; that, to be nearer still the man of her dreams, and yet not even considered worthy to be his lover, is far more painful. She is wounded, increasingly heart-sore and ever as unhappy as before, perhaps even more so. How could she have agreed to such a bloodless arrangement? Declaring her need to take some time for herself, Paula departs for Melbridge, to the inn where she and ‘Smithy’ first fell in love. It is only a stopover, as Paula intends to take an extended vacation to South America.
In the meantime, Charles is called by the home office to act as intermediary in a strike in Melbridge. His arrival is met with enthusiasm and he does, in fact, restore order between the workers and the mill. However, in choosing to walk the streets instead of taking a cab en route to the train station, Charles begins to suffer from recollections he cannot explain. A trip to the pub run by Biffer further jogs his memory, as does his remembering the tobacconist who nearly returned him to the asylum so long ago. Inquiring from a local cabbie as to the location of the hospital, Charles is further haunted by memories at the front gates of the asylum which now stands in ruins, a relic from the post-war period. In the meantime, Paula prepares to depart from the inn. Charles, who has kept a mysterious key to a door he has never known tucked in his coat pocket, is now drawn to the country cottage he once shared with Paula. Trying the key in its lock, Charles is astonished when the door opens. Paula, who has astutely surmised the unnamed and unseen man who came to the inn moments before her departure, making inquiries, was likely Charles, hurries to be reunited with ‘Smithy’ at the cottage. Charles memories are stirred into full flourish and he now recognizes Paula by name as his wife; the couple tearfully reunited.
Random Harvest’s finale is perhaps a bit too idealized for today’s audiences lacking in sentimentality. Most certainly it represents a curious challenge for this foursome of aliases; Margaret/Paula and Smithy/Charles. While the novel spans whole decades of lost and regained memories, the movie understandably lacks this luxury; its’ condensed narrative timeline suggesting an either/or solution to this lover’s quandary. Yes, Charles has come around to remembering Paula a second time. But has he equally forgotten once more who he really is in this psychological game of ping-pong; ergo, is he Smithy again? Reentering Paula’s life as Smithy seems to suggest the couple can pick up where they left off nearly a decade before, if only Charles were not already a public figure with a new/old life as an established statesman from a very well-established English family. Stories about the sacrificing of time and place, surrendering life itself – or, at least, as we know it from our primitive limitations in the space/time continuum – have been perennial favorites in literature, the stage and the movies; Lost Horizon, Carousel, The Enchanted Cottage, and Brigadoon among them.
Yet, the sacrifice is always muddled by the realization human beings are tangibly mortal, if imperfect and decidedly perishable creatures of habit, desperate to establish a more lasting and permanent world; arguably, a forever futile pursuit. As such, we cannot preserve our own longevity or legacy without an inevitable choice made in service to this sacrifice. Random Harvest’s ‘perfect’ finale suggests life can be resumed, even after an absence of some years, when love is ever-present to restore the eternal flame of passion into the mix. Glamorized implausibility has been the driving factor of a good many romance novels - both pulpy and legitimate; Hilton’s authorship decidedly leaning towards the latter and loftier pursuit. Mervyn LeRoy’s movie straddles the chasm dead center, however; the treacle ever more fancifully contextualized by Cedric Gibbons and Edwin B. Willis sumptuously visualized Art Direction. And yet, Random Harvest never once veers into abject tedium or an obvious display of hearts and flowers; the screenplay, LeRoy’s direction and the solid acting from its two stars conspiring to evolve a tender, moody and thoroughly satisfying tome to wounded, though enduring love among the ruins of fractured time. Reuniting the lovers before the final fade out satisfies our insatiable need to believe in fairy tales without dismantling the sincerity or credibility in this exercise. It is saying a great deal that Random Harvest was one of MGM’s biggest money makers of the year; perhaps, even more telling, it was never remade; the varying vintages in film-making that have since come and gone unable to quantify, analyze or even deconstruct – if only to resuscitate – this magic elixir and reintroduce it to a new century for generations with enough confidence to sidestep its gross inconceivability.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is now well over two decades old and the transfer looks it too. Although the gray scale is solid with good contrast, on the whole fine details tend to suffer, particularly during the foggy studio-bound night time scenes depicting Smithy’s escape from the asylum and his penultimate return to Melbridge to resolve the strike. Film grain is nonexistent, leading me to deduce a bit of heavy-handed DNR has been applied to achieve these overly smooth results. Compression artifacts are a non-issue and, except for minor speckle, there are no age-related artifacts to intrude. Overall, Random Harvest doesn’t look awful on DVD. But it would behoove the powers that be at the Warner Archive to line this one up for a brand new hi-def Blu-ray transfer, surely to restore and resolve the issue of absent grain and capture the more subtly nuanced details in Joseph Ruttenberg’s moodily lit cinematography. The audio is mono and remarkably clean and free of hiss and pop during quiescent moments. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Honestly, it is about time Random Harvest made the leap to 1080p. Like so many of MGM’s perennially satisfying gems from the 30’s and 40’s this movie is deserving of that honor in time, money and other resources spent to restore it for optimal home viewing.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)