Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Random Harvest

Random Harvest (dir. Mervyn Le Roy, 1942)

A representative staple of old Hollywood tearjerkers, Random Harvest has maintained a surprisingly strong reputation since it's release over sixty years ago, probably because of its notably barmy plot, which involves amnesia, amnesia, and a bit more amnesia. Amnesia, of course, is a very handy plot device, because it can instantly make a character forget- and indeed remember- at the drop of a hat; all you need to do is knock them over, and ta-da! In Random Harvest, however, amnesia is not simply a plot device, it IS the plot, almost body and soul. We open in a British asylum, where an unnamed WWI veteran is spending the last few days of the war, retained inside solely because he has nowhere to be sent, having lost any memory of his former life in 1917 while at the battlefields. On the day the war finishes, the man (Ronald Colman) somehow manages to slip out unnoticed into the rejoicing town below, where a friendly stranger named Paula (Greer Garson) saves him from being returned to the asylum, and kindly takes the bewildered man back to where she's performing that night. Rapidly becoming aware of the danger her new friend is in, Paula takes him away to the country, where, to no surprise, they fall in love and get married.

I'll ignore the blaring question of how it's possible to get married when you don't know your own name and simply say that to enjoy Random Harvest, it's necessary to take it with a large pinch of salt. As tearjerkers go, it is for the most part remarkably restrained, thanks in no small part to Greer Garson, who, when the film does an abrupt u-turn and knocks Colman's memory into reverse- he suddenly remembers that he's Charles Rainier, an aristocrat, but forgets all about Paula and his infant son- is asked to shoulder the large majority of the film's emotional wallop, and she does so with her usual committed underplaying. A remarkable scene places Charles side-on near the camera, with Paula stationed just behind; here, Charles is unknowingly discussing his past with his wife, who of course he doesn't know his wife, and he is in fact happily engaged to Kitty (Oscar nominated Susan Peters). Garson flickers desperation across her face, desperately but silently searching for any sign in Charles' face that he remembers, sadly recognising that it's a lost cause but looking all the same. Garson, who was overlooked by Oscar (she won for William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver the same year, so it can hardly be quarrelled with), is one of the great forgotten actresses: I've yet to see her less than radiant; even when given an obvious role (Blossoms of the Dust), she makes it something special. Here she gives possibly her best peformance, deeply devoted and desperately sad, the emotional core of the film as Colman is forced to be the unknowing ostensible centre.

As I said, amnesia is an easy plot device to work with, which perhaps makes it quite a surprise that the film so delays its resolution; indeed, despite Garson's committed work, the film can't help but begin to drag somewhat- after all, it should be obvious to everyone from the start that everything will work out in the end, and it becomes quite a chore waiting for the obvious to occur. The film is also rather weak at properly portraying passages of time: over ten years is skipped at one point, yet no-one seems to have aged a day and it takes a while for anyone to inform us of this leap in time. This is another chance for me to highlight the excellence of Garson; she's dextrously able to imply years of silent suffering with just a few glances. Colman, by contrast, isn't as able; whenever asked to actually portray the sadness of a lost memory or unexplainable doubt in his actions, he never really succeeds, at one key point simply staring off into the distance. Peters is solid enough if not particuarly notable in a role than never gives her much to work with; and the only other person of note is Henry Travers, and simply because your probably response will be "It's Clarence!" (as, indeed, my mother's was).

By the time is reaches its suprisingly brief emotional reunion, Random Harvest has put you through the wringer in two very different ways: while Garson is busy gently but wrenchingly sliding you through the rollers, the editor has his feet up and his hand firmly on the crank. As a representation of its genre, the film is recommended, but make sure your seat is comfy and your mouth not ready to yawn. Random Harvest is completely hokey, but it knows it, and the gusto that all involved have thrown into is to be admired, even if it ultimately proves difficult to straight-forwardly enjoy. Grade: B-

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