Garson and Colman melt hearts in... Random Harvest (1942)

James Hilton is a somewhat familiar name for old movie fans. Seven of his books have been made into films, some more than once, with Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon emerging as the undisputed classics. Hilton also penned screenplays for Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for his script for Jan Struther's novel Mrs. Miniver. The same year Mrs. Miniver was released, another adaptation of Hilton's work came to the screen: Random Harvest. Interestingly tied to Hilton was actress Greer Garson. The lovely Englishwoman had great luck with the author -- her film debut was Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939, which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. 1941's Blossoms in the Dust gave her another nomination, the first of five consecutive noms, a record that Garson shared with Bette Davis and one that still stands. Greer didn't have to
wait long for that Oscar, though; Mrs. Miniver brought her the statuette, just as it did for James Hilton. Funnily, Greer set another Academy Award record that night... for the longest speech ever given. After her five and a half minute-long speech, the Academy put in force a time limit. Unrelated, how cute is this photo from the ceremony?

Random Harvest would be the third and final time Greer worked with material from Hilton, and for her leading man Ronald Colman, it would be his second time after Lost Horizon in 1937. A consistently amazing actor, Colman was weirdly nominated for an Oscar just three times, Random Harvest being responsible for one of those and only winning for 1947's A Double Life. (Technically, he was up for Best Actor four times -- in 1929, Bulldog Drummond and Condemned were lumped together as a single nomination.)


In 1918, an amnesiac officer by the name of "Smith" (Colman) is still recovering at an English asylum after months of dealing with shell-shock. No family has claimed him, and in a heartbreaking scene, an elderly couple are shown Smith to see if it's their son, both sides horribly disappointed that he isn't. Taking a walk in the foggy night, Smith notices that the front gates aren't being guarded and he slips out. The village is bustling with people as they celebrate the end of World War I, no one paying
attention to the fragile soldier. He enters a tobacco shop where he encounters the gorgeous, lively entertainer Paula (Garson), who takes him to the local pub. She knows he escaped from the asylum but she sees something in Smith and befriends him, inviting him to sit backstage while she performs. Smith, or Smithy as Paula calls him, falls ill, but she and her bartender friend Biffer nurse him back to health and Paula gets him a job with her show. Right before they're set to go on the road with her troupe, Paula overhears an asylum employee in Biffer's bar talk about how they're still looking for a missing patient.

Paula and Smithy sneak away to the small town of Devon, where they stay at an inn. Paula gets a job as a typist, while Smithy becomes a writer. When he sells his first story to a magazine, an elated Smithy proposes to Paula and they become married. They find a beautiful cottage, where months later Paula gives birth to their son. Soon after that, Smithy gets a telegram about a potential job with a magazine in Liverpool. Paula encourages him to go for the interview, something she regrets when Smithy fails
to return. Unknown to her, he was hit by a car in Liverpool, regaining his memory as the wealthy Charles Rainier and forgetting the three years he spent as Smithy. He reunites with his family, learning that his father had died and he inherits a good chunk of the estate. Charles also meets Kitty (Susan Peters), the teenaged daughter of his sister's new husband. Kitty is instantly smitten with Charles, but he keeps her at arm's length due to their age difference. The girl's persistent, though, and we get a
montage of her writing him over the years until it's 1932. By now Charles has kept his father's business thriving, earning him the position of an industry giant. None of this fixes the missing three years, however, something Charles reflects on by looking at the latchkey to his and Paula's home, not realizing what it is for.

Charles begins a romantic relationship with Kitty, quickly proposing to her. All of this is observed by his secretary,
Margaret Hanson, who is really Paula. She found him two years ago and has been consulting his doctor from the asylum, Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn). Benet has advised Paula not to say anything to Charles about their past, warning her that it could be harmful to his psyche. She has Smithy declared legally dead so he can get remarried without complications arising later. Paula decides she can still be close to him, though, confiding in him about the death of her/their infant son and being
his sounding board when he talks about Kitty. (Sob!) Charles has to find Smithy on his own... which he begins to when he and Kitty are planning their wedding. Picking songs for their ceremony, Charles recognizes a melody that reminds him of Smithy. Kitty goes to him, but he looks at her like she's a stranger, causing her to break off their engagement -- he clearly loved someone in those three years and she can't expect him to love her wholeheartedly with this dangling over their heads.

Inspired to finally figure out the mystery, Charles goes to Liverpool to search for clues. Paula follows him to inform him that the Liberal party wants to nominate him for an empty seat in the Parliament. She then tries to guide him towards his past as Smithy, leading them to the hotel he checked into before the car accident. His suitcase is still there, but nothing in it jogs his memory. They return to London where Charles is instated in Parliament. Some time goes by, when one day at lunch, Charles admits to Paula that she seems familiar to him, as if he knew her before. He then quietly proposes to her, calling it more of a merger than an actual marriage -- she could help him with his political life and he would be able to offer her companionship. Although it's far from what she wanted, Paula accepts and within three years, she becomes a celebrated hostess and he is knighted.

On their third anniversary, Charles gifts Paula with an extravagant necklace. She gushes over it, until she is alone in her room and stumbles upon the cheap bracelet Smithy bought her when she had their son. Her emotions finally unleash, and she decides she needs a few weeks away from her husband. At the train station, Charles is saying goodbye to Paula when he gets word that there is a labor dispute at his cableworks in Melbridge, the village where the film began. He goes there and settles the problem to great success. As he and his assistant Harrison walk the streets, Charles takes them to the tobacco shop where he met Paula. Harrison asks him how he knew where the shop was when he just said he had never been in Melbridge before. I wonder...

The next day, we see that Paula has been staying at that inn in Devon. As she's talking to the front desk clerk about the former owner, she learns that a man had recently been there asking the same questions, as well as needing directions to a nearby cottage. Paula can hardly believe it. At their picturesque home, Charles tries his latchkey and opens the door. Behind him, he hears Paula breathlessly say "Smithy!" and it is all complete -- they embrace, finally reunited.

If this film doesn't just ruin you, you're a robot. An evil, emotionless robot. The story is melodramatic, yes, but the performances sell the hell out of the material. They legitimize it to the point where I don't even question anything that happens. I willingly buy into the fantasy, and to me, it's worth every penny. First of all, Greer Garson. How amazing was that gal? Paula is strong and resilient, trying her damnedest to keep her emotions in check for Smithy's sake. This would be incredible on its
own, but Garson enriches these moments with the quieter ones, the ones where she is able to drop her facade as Margaret Hanson and just be Paula, Smithy's Paula. Those are the scenes that take my breath away; they're fleeting, but they're astounding. Garson is equally matched by Colman. Infusing Smithy with tenderness and naivety, Colman could have easily walked off with the picture if he didn't have such a fierce partner in Greer. He beguiles you without you even realizing it -- just a single sentence or look from him is enough to break your heart from the emotional gravity it carries. The man's performance is stunning.

I must admit, as much as I unequivocally love this movie, I've never really liked Kitty. Something about her just rubs me the wrong way -- it honestly might be because she's an obstacle to Paula and Smithy reuniting, albeit a temporary one. It's not even the age difference between her and Smithy, which I'm sure freaks a lot of people out. Age differences always send people into a tizzy, but they rarely bother me. No, there's just something about Kitty that stops me from enjoying her. I felt bad
about this once I read Susan Peters's story. Random Harvest was her breakout role, earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. MGM continued to groom her for success, promoting her from featured player to star in 1944, alongside Metro talents Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, George Murphy, Robert Walker, Van Johnson, and Kathryn Grayson, to name some. In 1943, Peters married actor and director Richard Quine, but two years later, while duck hunting with Quine, a
rifle discharged and left her paralyzed from the waist down. That same year, her mother died. MGM kept her on the payroll, but she soon left the studio and tried to find roles elsewhere. Her career never really gained back its momentum. She and Quine were divorced in 1948, and afterwards she became depressed. In 1952, at the age of 31, Peters died from a chronic kidney infection and bronchial pneumonia, her death hastened by dehydration and starvation, a result of her severe depression.

Random Harvest is a novel that could be seen as unfilmable. Its big twist is the ending, when the reader realizes that Paula and Mrs. Rainier (Helen in the book) are the same person as she arrives at their old home to find Smithy. It packs quite a punch, but obviously you couldn't film it that way, especially with an actress as high-profile as Garson. I think the script handles it beautifully, though, still giving the viewer a little surprise when we see that Paula became Smithy's secretary. There were other changes as well, of course. Kitty died in the novel instead of just quietly leaving to travel abroad. In the book, Smithy doesn't inherit his family's fortune, yet he accepts whatever is donated to him by the family.

Let me just say this: I haven't read the book. I really wanted to, if that helps. I have a copy from 1942 that I found at a library sale over a year ago, but the timing has been impossible. So, anything I tell you about the novel, I found online. I know, I cheated, so if I got something wrong in the following few paragraphs, please politely correct me in the comments and I'll make amendments right quick. On a slightly unrelated note, if you're the monster who tore out of the last page of my Random Harvest copy and you're reading this, I will find you and I will make you do something highly horrific. You do not want to know what I'm capable of.

From what I gather, the book's structure is very different. Paula never became Charles's secretary; the story starts with Harrison, a character we only see at film's end, get hired as Charles's assistant and he is used as the audience surrogate the way Greer Garson is in the movie. Narrated by Harrison in the first person, he sits down one night with his employer, who tells him his story, or at least as much of it as he can remember. The novel then switches to the third person as Charles recounts waking up in Liverpool after losing a few years of his life. Everything about Smithy, or Charles rather, going back home, meeting Kitty, and almost marrying her remains largely intact from the movie. Going back to Harrison's narration, he and Charles go to a music hall one night, where Charles starts to remember things, including the asylum he stayed at. They go there and Charles learns about the years he lost, from escaping the asylum all the way to slipping in Liverpool and remembering he was Rainier. Charles wants to find out what happened to Paula and goes off searching while Harrison tells Mrs. Rainier all that's occurred. She takes Harrison on a drive where they find Charles, the last line revealing that Charles had been with Paula all along.

I believe Dr. Benet was a creation for the film -- since Paula is our main source of info, she needs someone to talk to who understands her predicament, keeping her from being totally isolated. He also explains why Paula can't tell Smithy the truth. In the novel, Benet's counterpart is possibly Parson Blampied, who takes in Paula and Smithy before they get married. He gives Smithy a job at the parsonage and encourages him to be a writer, while also letting the twosome live there instead of the Devon inn.

James Hilton was so impressed with the film, it's his voice you hear doing the opening narration. What surprises me more, though, is the fact that the first choice for the role of Smithy was, wait for it, Spencer Tracy. Can you imagine? I love the guy, but come on. Luckily, when it was realized Ronald Colman was available, he got the part. Like Smithy, Colman also fought in WWI. While he didn't get amnesia from the battlefield, he did get a shattered ankle. I can't think of a more perfect man for Random Harvest -- the film and Colman's performance are inseparable. Director Mervyn LeRoy was right when he wrote in his autobiography that between Colman and Garson, "the English language was never spoken more beautifully on film." Usually reserved and private, Colman admitted on the last day of shooting that "This is one picture I hate to finish!" Within the same year, the actor named his newly remodeled Hollywood home "Random House."

TCM's website has lots of interesting notes on Random Harvest. One of my favorites is this story: "When Garson's musical number scored a hit in screenings, a stocking manufacturer claimed that he recognized the stockings she was wearing as a special therapeutic model he had designed. He tried to generate publicity for his brand by giving interviews to various gossip columnists, but couldn't remember, from interview to interview, whether she was wearing stockings designed to camouflage knocked knees or bow legs. Garson responded with a poem: 'Say I'm dreary, say I'm sad / Say my acting doesn't please / Say my films are awfully bad, / But don't knock my knees.'" You can watch the delightful performance here.

Cool fact to know: this film is Gene Wilder's favorite. How's that for an endorsement? You can watch Wilder discuss Random Harvest with TCM's Robert Osborne here and here. Lyrical, tragic, sweet, and fragile, Random Harvest is classic Hollywood at its finest. Enjoy my many screenshots below!

































































With love,
Michaela

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This is my entry to the fabulous Beyond the Cover Blogathon, a fun look at films that were originally books. You can check out the roster here.

Comments

  1. Early in my marriage (28 years and counting) I made my husband get up in the middle of the night because "Random Harvest" was on television. It is one of those things husbands agree to during the newlywed phase. He was a total mess! To this day, when he feels a case of manly tears coming on, he covers it by saying "Smithy".

    You are so right. If this movie doesn't go straight to you heart then you just don't have one.

    PS: Yes! That picture from the Oscar ceremony is adorable.

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    1. Aw, what a great husband to have! This film is so intense. It's one of the reasons why I have to watch melodramas by myself. Sobbing Michaela is not good for anyone. Thanks for stopping by, as always!

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  2. Oh my goooooooooooosh. This movie absolutely broke me and I agree with you about everything. It was my first Ronald Colman film (I KNOW), and he's so tender and fragile, and would walk away with the whole thing if not for Queen Greer. Just so you know, reading the line about the two reuniting, made me think of the actual scene and I may or may not have burst out crying. I think I'll read the book now.

    Excellent post as usual!

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    1. The power of RH is strong! I didn't have time to watch the film so I wrote from memory... probably a good thing since I don't think I could have kept writing once the tears started. (That's why it's not my usual, more detailed review.) RH might have been my first Colman flick as well -- it's a great one to start with. He's forever Smithy to me. Queen Greer, by the way, is a highly accurate title.

      Thanks for reading, Simoa!

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  3. Loved your review and all these terrific photos. Colman and Garson really are perfect casting.

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    1. Thanks! I took way too many screenshots, but this film just looks so marvelous, I couldn't help it.

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  4. You are so right about this: "Colman could have easily walked off with the picture if he didn't have such a fierce partner in Greer." Absolutely true! Colman and Greer's scenes are fascinating because they're equally charismatic.

    I didn't realize Susan Peters came to such a sad end. :( I haven't really followed her career, but I think I'll pay closer attention now that I've read your terrific review.

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    1. Thank you for reading! While Walter Pidgeon was Greer's ultimate screen partner, I think Colman gave him a run for his money. It's too bad they didn't make another movie together. (Or if they did, I know nothing about it.)

      Yes, Susan Peters's story is heart-wrenching. Apparently she tried doing a daytime soap in 1951 called Miss Susan about a paralyzed lawyer, which many people say is a precursor to Raymond Burr's Ironside. The show only lasted one season, but it sounds interesting and probably very hard to track down.

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  5. You are so right by saying the melodrama and fantasy is sold by the phenomenal acting. Because it is so melodramatic it will probably never be in my top 10, but is really a good one due to Garson and Colman. It may be Colman's best performance (at least that I've seen so far). When he is in the tavern early in the firm he is soooo good, wow!

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    1. Ronald Colman officially had my heart after this. I'll watch him in anything, I'll listen to him say anything -- he was so darling. I know melodramas can be a bit much, especially with a plot like RH's, but I just love 'em. Thanks for reading!

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  6. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!! I really need to rewatch it now. My younger brother watched it with me and while he didn't get all broken up he thought it was very good. I agree with what you said about Kitty. I checked out the book right after I watched the film but only read a couple pages. I keep forgetting to get it again.

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    1. I keep forgetting to read the book, too! I've had it for almost two years, and yet I hadn't looked at it until this blogathon came up. I only glanced at a few pages, but it seems to be well-written.

      That's brave having your brother watch this -- I wouldn't even ask my sister to watch it with me, I'd be too afraid she would make fun of it. Good to hear he enjoyed it!

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  7. This is one of my all-time fave movies, but I've never read the book and would love to. Great post, thanks so much for joining the blogathon :).

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    1. Thanks for having me! I've definitely got to put this book on my summer reading list. What little sections I read, I liked. From the sources I looked at, it sounds like the film is a fantastic adaptation. I wish I had had the time to read it and be more informed for the blogathon, but c'est la vie.

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  8. A great review, you thoroughly covered the film and book ( even if you didn't read it! ). After watching the film for the first time since reading the book, I remember being amazed that Harrison actually appeared in the movie - it was a brief scene - but there he was; and he was such a big presence in the book. Isn't it amazing how screenwriters can take out major characters from books and we never miss them in the film? This was just a great story all around, it's no wonder Hilton's books were continually brought to the screen. He knew how to weave a story well.

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    1. When I read that the book was largely from Harrison's viewpoint, I thought "Wow, he's not even in the movie!" Then I was taking screenshots and there he was. I really like that the script chose to look at it from Paula's viewpoint, yet it's never completely one-sided. We see the individual struggles of Smithy and Paula, making their scenes together more powerful.

      Thanks for reading!

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  9. Can I make a confession? I have never seen this movie and I think it is because I am afraid of all the FEELS that I will get! Thank you for joining us!

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    1. I'm the same way with some Douglas Sirk films. But I hope you see Random Harvest soon -- it's a real good one! Thanks for co-hosting such a wonderful blogathon!

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  10. Thank you for a really lovely, well written review. I nearly cried while reading it, so ingrained or classically conditioned I have become to Random Harvest after upteen dozen views! Incidentally, it was Greer Garson's favourite film - she described it as 'the most romantic film ever made' in 'A Rose for Mrs. Miniver' and James Hilton considered that the film was better than his novel which is high praise indeed. Ronald Colman's peformance - and Greer's - were remarkable. I recommend Colman in 'A Tale of Two Cities' - he is utterly brilliant in this and should have won an Oscar. And thank you so much for all of the lovely photographs!

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    1. Well, thank you for the comment! It's much appreciated! I have a lot of Colman movies to catch up on, so much so that I wish TCM would dedicate a day to him or something to help me out. I caught The Prisoner of Zenda earlier this year and just loved it, especially Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

      It's lovely to know that the people involved in Random Harvest adored it so much, and that Hilton felt his book was done justice -- that's rarely the case in movie adaptations! I hadn't heard that Greer considered this one her favorite; I always assumed that honor would go to Mrs. Miniver. As for you reading this in near tears, I sympathize. I started getting a bit misty myself while writing it! I also wrote a review on The Story of Alexander Graham Bell that had me sobbing at one point. Thanks, classic movies!

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