Oscar Vault Monday – Random Harvest, 1942 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
I first saw this movie a few years back on TCM and it destroyed me. I saw it recently at the Castro Theatre and I guess I had forgotten a few things about it because there were whole plot twists I didn’t remember and it destroyed me all over again. If you haven’t seen this film before, beware I will be discussing some of the film’s major plot twists. Random Harvest came out the same year as arguably Greer Garson’s most famous film – Mrs. Miniver – as such, she was nominated (an won) Best Actress for playing the titular role in that film, and was ineligible to be nominated for her performance in this film. Regardless, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, though it failed to win any: Best Score, Best B&W Art Direction, Best Writing Screenplay (this was a third category, and is not analogous to the Best Original or Best Adapted Screenplay categories we have now), Best Supporting Actress Susan Peters, Best Actor Ronald Coleman, Best Director Mervyn LeRoy and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were 49th Parallel, Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy and winner Mrs. Miniver.
Mervyn LeRoy directed nearly 80 films in a forty-year career in Hollywood. Despite directing several actors and actresses to Oscar nominations and wins, as well as directing several films nominated for Best Picture, his only competitive Oscar nomination came for his work on this film. He received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award in 1976.
Ronald Colman made his film debut in 1917 and was active throughout the silent era (I recommend his films with Constance Talmadge). He received his first Oscar nomination in 1929 for his roles in Bulldog Drummond and Condemned (back then you could be nominated in a single category for more than one performance). He received his second nomination for this film and finally won the award for 1947’s A Double Life. Here he plays a shell-shocked WWI veteran who has lost his memory and goes by the name “John Smith.” When we first see him, he is clearly lost in the fog of his own mind and it is heartbreaking. Eventually, he manages to wander out of the asylum where he is held and into the town nearby.
There he finds himself inside a small tobacconist shop run by none other than Una O’Connor, one of the greatest bit players to grace the silver screen.
When Una goes off to call the asylum and report him, Greer Garson swoops in with her sparklingly sweet face and saves the day. Here she plays a singer named Paula, who, despite realizing he is loose from the asylum, takes pity on him and helps him escape. Over her long career, Greer Garson was nominated for Best Actress seven times – five of which were in a row. Her nominations were for Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942, won), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), The Valley of Decision (1945) and Sunrise at Campobello (1960).
I love the choices Greer makes early in her performance as Paula. When she first pops out from behind her changing screen, she salutes Smithy – that is her nickname for him – then she pulls up a chair and sits across from him, straddling the chair in an almost overly familiar manner. This is pretty shocking behavior for 1942 – but this is set in 1917, so one can only imagine how shocking it would have been. She then sings and dances in a delightful Scottish accent for a group of soldiers celebrating the end of the war.
Smithy and Paul find an ally in the owner of a pub, who himself is an ex-boxer, named Biffer. Biffer is played by Reginald Owen, who made 175 films in an almost 70 year career – including co-staring with Garson in the 1942 Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver. Owen is a real hoot, telling the same story of his big fight over and over, exaggerating more and more each time.
Eventually, Paula and Smithy escape to Devon, where Paula hopes Smithy’s mind will have time to heal. While he does get his health and happiness back, his memory does not return. The two have fallen in love and Smithy asks Paula to marry him (she’s been waiting for this for months), but afterward she says yes, he starts eating a sandwich. In response she says, “Smithy, do I always have to take the initiative? You’re supposed to kiss me.” It is the most adorable of scenes. The chemistry between Garson and Colman is to die for.
Henry Travers, who is basically in everything, has a small role as the country parson who marries couples, reads last rites and christens babies, all with the same strange combination of vigor and nonchalance. Travers received his one and only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver that same year.
One thing I really love about this film is the way it shows the importance we put on little things, whether they have monetary value or no, and how people’s memory can be attached to them as well. One example of this is a necklace that Smithy gives Paula after the birth of their child. It’s made of cheap beads, but is the same color of her eyes. This necklace will show up later in a most heartbreaking scene.
Smithy becomes a writer and gets a job interview in Liverpool. When he leaves his wife and newborn son behind in Devon to go to the interview, he gets hit by a car and when he wakes up his mind is back in the trenches in 1917. He’s lost four years of his life. He decided to go back home, because maybe it will all make sense there. Of course, this home is his real home and not his home with Paula in Devon. As it turns out, Smithy’s real name is Charles Rainier and he is the heir to a disgustingly rich family. In a twist of fate that can only happen in the movies, he arrives home the night after his father’s funeral. We meet his old family, they are most cold fish rich people. Although, the breakfast scene does include one of my favorite lines in the film, “Sausages, by Jove!” So British, so great. As Charles, Smithy may have his family back, but he doesn’t have his happiness. In a sense, he is more lost than he was when he didn’t know who he was.
Charles sister has remarried since his disappearance years earlier and he now has a new niece-in-law named Kitty. Kitty is played with gusto by Susan Peters, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. When we first see her, she is a schoolgirl, who thinks Charles’s return from the dead is like one of those dime novels people buy at the train station. She is smitten with him from the minute they meet and even has the gall to ask him to wait. The transition sequence where we see time change via photographs of Kitty as she goes through high school and eventually college are particularly brilliant. When we meet Kitty again, she is a divine young woman, chic and self-assured, but really all she wants is Charles. Her playfulness and instant familiarity are similar to Paula’s behavior earlier in the film, and we can see why Charles begins to fall for her. Peters lost the Academy Award to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver. Peters only made six films after Random Harvest. In 1945, while on a hunting trip with her husband and some friends, Peters was accidentally shot and paralyzed. Despite the pain, she as a wheelchair-bound matriarch in John Struges’s The Sign of the Ram in 1948 and as a wheelchair-bound Lawyer in the short-lived day time show Martinsville, U.S.A. in 1951. Sadly, she died in 1952 and the age of 31 from kidney failure and starvation caused by anorexia.
Despite her sad history, Peters gives one of the most moving and memorable performances in all of cinema history and hopefully she will not be long forgotten.
Kitty realizes that she cannot marry Charles because he is in love with some other woman, giving one of the greatest I love you, but I’m going to let you go speeches in film history. Charles then begins to move up in the political spheres of England and decides he needs a wife and asks his secretary – who in a devastating scene earlier in the film we discover is Paula, now using the name Margaret – to marry him. Again, Greer speaks volumes with her eyes, as we see Paula’s pain of Smithy, now called Charles, does not remember her or their love. Should she marry him in hopes that he will remember? His proposal this time, unlike the romantic proposal from Smithy, is cold and more like a business proposal. Obviously, she marries him and things are almost fine – except that he still doesn’t remember who she is and every time she thinks about Smithy – like when she looks at the necklace that is the color of her eyes – she dies a little on the inside. Now, in his proposal, Charles basically says it won’t be an emotional marriage – which I think was code talk for NO SEX – and since they are British (I am going into stereotypes here) I am guessing he stuck with that and the two never banged. . .because I would think having sex with Paula would probably have brought Smithy’s memory back. I mean, right? But then we would have no movie, so. . .
When Charles woke up after the accident in Liverpool, the only thing he had on him was a key to a house – his house in Devon. Unfortunately, he did not know where it belonged – where he belonged – and he carried it with him everywhere for the rest of the film, which stretches over a decade. Paula sees him holding the key and I must say, I wonder why she never suggested going to Devon. It seems like that would have made sense? She never does. Instead, she decides to go on long trip to South America. On her way to the boat, she stops in Devon for a few nights. Charles ha gone to fix a strike in a town where his company owns a factory and it happens to be the town where the two first met (this is no coincidence . While there, he begins to remember more and more about his time in the asylum.
Eventually – and with no explanation – he finds his way to Devon and to his house. There is a really nice moment where he holds up a branch – one earlier in the film he decided never to trim – and slowly you see him remembering who he once was and the happiness he once knew.
In true Hollywood fashion, our two lovers reunite and everything is literally sunshine and roses. I’ve written basically the whole plot, but what words cannot describe is the emotional roller-coaster this film will put you through. You will experience every emotion – often back to back – and when it is all said and done, you might not actually remember how to breathe. I wish this film were more remembered now than it is, for it surely contains some of the greatest performances of the 1940s and is as gripping, raw and beautiful as any film ever managed to be.
Posted on February 18, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1942, Greer Garson, Henry Travers, Mervyn LeRoy, Random Harvest, Reginald Owen, Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, Una O'Connor. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.