Monday, May 2, 2016

Film Review: Random Harvest

"Random Harvest"
**** (out of ****)

The story is almost too far-fetched. Too fantastical even for the movies. Yet it works. Somehow we buy into this story. That's the power of "Random Harvest" (1942).

"Random Harvest" has gone on to become one of the all-time great Hollywood romances and one of the greatest movies ever made. Based on a novel by James Hilton, published one year prior to the release of this movie, "Random Harvest" was a box-office success for MGM and scored a total of seven Academy Award nominations including best picture.

Yet despite that praise and critical acclaim I fear the majority of today's audiences may not have ever heard of this movie yet alone actually seen it. It gets lost in the shuffle of other Hollywood romances such as "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Casablanca" (1942) and "Wuthering Heights" (1939). But it is equally as good as those movies.

My own memories of this classic movie go back to my childhood. My grandmother, whom I have always said was the real movie buff in our family, introduced me to it. I think it was primarily because she liked looking at Ronald Coleman, which would drive my grandfather crazy. "Random Harvest" however stood with me from my first experience watching it. I saw it again in college when I took a class on Hollywood melodramas and my appreciation for it grew even stronger. Eventually it became one of the last movies I saw with my grandmother ("Now, Voyager" (1942) was the last) before she passed away, further adding to my sentimental attachment to it.

Sentimental attachment aside "Random Harvest" works. It is an example of pure Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. Some film snobs may look down on Hollywood. Hollywood doesn't promote "artistic value" they will say. Hollywood is only interested in commercialism. There is undoubtedly some truth to that. But back in the days when a film like "Random Harvest" was made Hollywood was able to churn out classic films. There were filmmakers who were able to make "art" within the system. "Random Harvest" was a culmination of everything associated with the "studio system" coming together and working. Bringing the right director on-board, casting the movie properly, good source material...ect.

And we cannot over look the importance of the acting. The movie works because of the actors we see on-screen. Both Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson were able to flesh these characters out and make the audience care about them. Between the two of them it might be Ms. Garson that comes out on top. The filmmaker, Mervyn LeRoy and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, who won four Academy Awards throughout his career, do their best to make Ms. Garson radiate. She seems to be glowing. She is the one that makes the audience care. Her character brings out the emotion of the story.

Set during World War 1, John Smith (Ronald Coleman)  has been at an asylum for soldiers for the past year. Smith, which is not his real name, suffers from amnesia. The asylum has been unable to locate a next of kin. On the day armistice is declared Smith acts on an opportunity to escape the asylum, when all of the guards are celebrating.

One of the first people Smith meets is Paula (Greer Garson), a singer in a traveling revue, who is immediately aware Smith is from the asylum but believes he is harmless, plus the audience suspects she finds him attractive. She befriends Smith, even offering to bring him along with her traveling with the troupe.

Still dealing with memory loss, Smith and Paula begin a romantic courtship which leads to a proposal and the eventual birth of a child. Smith, trying to create a "normal" life has begun free lance writing for a newspaper and when a full-time position opens up Smith must travel to their office, in a different town, for an interview. When on his way to the office, Smith is hit by a car while crossing the street. Initially unconscious, when he awakens his memory is restored but he forgets his life as "Smith". All Charles Rainier, his real name, remembers is being in the trenches during the war. Everything after that is a blank.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Paula discovers what has happened to Smith and his real identity, Charles is now a wealthy industrialist. In an attempt to restore his memory Paula seeks employment in Charles' company, as his secretary.

Many will say this all sounds like soap opera material and will be put off by the movie. "Random Harvest" is not "corny" or "campy". The movie, as best it can, plays this material straight. Its emotions are sincere. We generally care about these characters and if they will reunite.

"Random Harvest" however was not the first movie to present such a plot. A similar movie is "I Love You Again" (1940) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Like most of their pairings, they are best known for the "Thin Man" series, the movie is a comedy with Mr. Powell playing a conservative, uptight businessman who is suffering from amnesia and was really a con-man. Ms. Loy plays his wife that he is about to divorce but with his restored memory as the con man, he falls in love with her again.

With these two movies audiences can clearly see the different directions this story can go in. "Random Harvest" does not have a "sense of humor". It wants to be a full blown romance and if anything get a tear or two from us.

As is usually the case there were differences between the film and the novel. It was believed the novel was "unfilmmable" since the identity of certain characters were supposed to be a mystery. This presents a challenge when bringing the story to the screen. Also, some complain Ronald Coleman was a bit too old for the part. That actually does make sense. Mr. Coleman was in his 50s when this movie was released and the character was supposed to be a younger man. But Mr. Coleman and Ms. Garson have such good chemistry between them it is difficult to see anyone else in the role, though one of Ms. Garson's frequent co-stars Walter Pidgeon was a bit younger than Mr. Coleman. Both Mr. Pidgeon and Ms. Garson appeared in "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), which is what beat "Random Harvest" for the best picture Oscar and the movie Ms. Garson won an Academy Award for.

Director Mervyn LeRoy had a long career in Hollywood receiving his first directing credit in 1927. He would primarily be considered a "studio director" but a very good studio director whose list of credits include some diverse genre films; the classic gangster movie "Little Caesar" (1931), several Joe E. Brown comedies, "Local Boy Makes Good" (1931) and "Top Speed" (1930), the classic prison chain-gang picture "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932), musicals; "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) and "Gypsy" (1962) and the horror classic "The Bad Seed" (1956). He received his sole best director Oscar nomination for "Random Harvest".

Would today's audience appreciate "Random Harvest"? Is the movie too innocent for today's times? I sure hope not. What would that say about society? It has been suggested, at various times, to attempt to remake this movie, but filmmakers have decided against it, for fear audiences would not be willing to accept it. "Random Harvest" was a product of its times. Lets not forget in 1942 America would get involved in World War 2. On its most basic level here is a story about lovers separated. How could audiences not relate?