Op-ed: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Random Harvest’ (#36)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
When we think of British productions succeeding in Hollywood we typically think back to the 1960s when stars like Julie Christie and Alan Bates could command high salaries and Tony Richardson could get hired to make innocuous comedies about suicide. We tend to forget that there was an earlier British invasion that occurred during the World War II-era as the United States was allied with Britain and it became hip to promote the British as a mighty, courageous people. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, it became common for British stars to cross the pond and transition into being a star in America while retaining their plummy accents and typical English reserve. MGM even began scouting around Britain in an effort to find new talent as films themed around the British Empire were very popular with American audiences.
Greer Garson became a star as a result of one of these talent searches and she turned into MGM’s top actress of the early 1940s. The Britishness of these stars was heavily promoted and they were sold as ‘English Roses’ who were more pure and innocent than brassy American girls like Lana Turner. On the other hand, there were already plenty of well-established actors who had enshrined themselves within the studio system and nobody was more suave and debonair than Ronald Colman. He had risen from being an action star in the early 1930s to appearing in prestige pictures like A Tale of Two Cities (1935) which boosted his profile. He was a sex symbol in the eyes of women who liked their men to have extraordinary diction and the sort of thin pencil mustache that would leave anybody lovestruck. The combination of Garson and Colman, two of the biggest British stars in Hollywood, made sense and they were shrewdly placed together in a weighty tearjerker.
Incest is a topic that is rarely broached in mainstream cinema but 1942’s Random Harvest had the courage to present its audience with a step-niece who is utterly besotted with her step-uncle. It tries to play this off as something that is perfectly charming and even normal but when these two characters approach getting married you are reminded of the fact that you are watching two relatives falling in love. It was this touch of madness that tantalized me and made me think that Random Harvest could be the sort of insane soap opera that would leave me floored. It reminded me of the wonderful Kings Row (1942) in which the future President, Ronald Reagan, plays a young playboy who has his legs chopped off by the father of one of his former girlfriends which leads one of his friends to consider murdering his fiancée. Sadly, Random Harvest is often happy to settle for being a regular romantic drama about amnesia and a woman chasing around the father of her child for decades. It never reaches the melodramatic heights that it seemingly aims for and the muted tone that it adopts ultimately lets it down.
The film concerns John Smith, Ronald Colman, who faces amnesia after being gassed while fighting in World War II and upon his return to Britain he is immediately placed in a mental asylum. He escapes from his overseers one day and falls in love with singer Paula Ridgeway, Greer Garson, who eventually marries him and fosters his talent for writing but when he is hit by a car he regains his memory and becomes a different person. As Charles Rainier, he is the heir to a fortune but he has forgotten about Ridgeway and abandons her to track down his family members and friends. After a brief flirtation with family member Kitty, Susan Peters, leads him to realize that he needs female companionship and he begins a formal arrangement with Margaret Hanson, Greer Garson, who is really Paula but is posing as another woman to get his attention. She suffers silently as he does not reach out to her emotionally and does not remember Paula.
When you read that plot description you imagine this as the 1940s equivalent of a 1980s daytime soap as it is full of convenient plot devices and characters who make seemingly irrational decisions. It doesn’t have the courage to be Dynasty because it clearly wanted to be taken seriously by snooty critics of the day and in its effort to impress Bosley Crowther it ends up sanding off rough edges. Every plot point, no matter how ridiculous it is, gets approached as though it is worthy of serious consideration and all of the actors think that they are reciting Shakespeare instead of hamming it up and bringing the trashy lines they deliver to life. It might just be because this was made during World War II and most protagonists had to be noble, stoic, and morally unimpeachable in this era. Because of this, Smith becomes a war hero who doesn’t want to hurt anybody instead of being a sociopath who alienates everybody around him while repressing his dangerous sexual desires. Ridgeway is a typical Garson heroine as she is a ‘Great Lady’ who lovingly cares for her husband, puts his needs first at every turn, and responds to events that would be traumatic with a quirk of the eyebrow and a pursing of her lips. We also get tony black and white cinematography and tasteful shots of birds chirping outside of bedroom windows instead of being hit with glorious Technicolor and lurid imagery. This is why so many people view cinema from this era as safe and unexciting.
Random Harvest could easily be viewed as a woman’s picture as it is about a kind woman with a set of principles that were in line with the religious right in America and Britain in the early 1940s and the way that she structures her life around the man she loves. The genre was strange in that it produced films primarily targeted towards female audiences and men frequently dismissed the genre as low art and yet most of the entries in the genre were obsessed with men. People do spend significant portions of their lives looking for romantic partners and for straight women, it is easy to fixate on men but most modern women have ambitions outside of getting married and raising a family. Back in the 1940s, everything was different and the vast majority of women were told that they would have to base their lives around their husbands. Films followed this message because they didn’t want to upset the status quo but some subtly subversive productions were pushing back against the limitations placed upon women and the way they were depicted. Leading ladies like Margaret Sullavan were playing tough-talking career women who put their priorities first and considered the idea of getting married later. Unsurprisingly Sullavan was more popular with female audiences than male audiences so other, more conventional actresses had to take her place as the milquetoast, bland star that everybody could accept.
Garson was the sort of star I was talking about as she was molded to appeal to World War II audiences and enjoyed massive success for about six years before promptly becoming less popular in the years following World War II. She almost always played mothers and wives who supported their family members while they participated in a war or dealt with familial issues. She exemplified the British self-image promoted by Winston Churchill as she had a stiff upper lip and didn’t even flinch when a Nazi dropped into the back of her yard in Mrs. Miniver (1942). This is how some people wanted to imagine the ideal woman during this era as she was desexualized, non-threatening, and blissfully happy in a domestic setting rather than asking for anything more out of life. It is not shocking that she is relatively forgotten today as women want to see complex women who respond to obstacles in a relatable manner rather than seeing women who were seemingly untouched by the troubles that faced ordinary people. Her role in Random Harvest fits every Garson cliché and this annoyed me as she does her usual act and doesn’t convey the emotional devastation that her character feels when she is abandoned by the man she loves. Ridgeway always feels like the wet dream of a screenwriter who wants a wife who is seen but not heard and I found myself unable to accept this fake version of womanhood.
We are just meant to accept the fact that she immediately falls in love with Smith because he is an unmarried man and he doesn’t treat her cruelly. When they first get together he has no discernible personality because he has just been let out of a mental hospital and he can’t understand the world around him. There is plenty of her tending to him while he is in bed and Garson furrows her brow to signal the fact that she is invested in helping him to regain his health but this is a scene that appears in most romances of this sort. When we quickly transition into the two of them experiencing marital bliss it does feel like we are watching a life insurance commercial. They skip around their house, whistle, and grin smugly at one another without ever appearing to be real human beings. Where were the scenes in which they had the sort of arguments that every real couple has? I so wished that Garson would have dropped that insincere smile for a few seconds so we could hear her snapping at Colman for dropping a bag of flour on the floor. If something like that had happened then I would have been shaken out of my slumber.
The writing of Ridgeway is what prevents the central romance from functioning effectively as she is a doormat and watching the male protagonist fall in love with an object is not that engaging. The romance also fails to soar because it is weighed down by so many improbable plot contrivances and you end up rolling your eyes as the script works hard to keep the two main characters apart. A common criticism of the romance genre is that the plots of the films end up feeling contrived as you have to wait around for two people who clearly love one another to get together and you start to get annoyed at the fact that the film won’t let them unite in a natural manner. Good romances do find ways to keep the two lovers from getting together too early on in the proceedings but you enjoy watching the two of them circle around each other and almost don’t want them to be together because you love their banter so much. You don’t feel that way during Random Harvest as Smith’s amnesia does just feel like a plot device and you can imagine the gears moving in the head of the screenwriter.
I have already explained why I don’t think Random Harvest is a good romance so I might as well explain why I was outraged that it made the list. I was honestly surprised that it entered into the list because I thought it had been relatively forgotten but maybe some of the older voters were familiar with it and they pushed all the way to the 36th place on the list. I suppose I’m dropping spoilers right now but I think it is a crime that something as dull as this ranked above some of the classics that made the list and I am honestly mad at the voters for making this choice. They shouldn’t have supported this sort of traditional woman’s picture when they could have picked something more radical and opened a young cinephile up to something that would suit their modern sensibilities.
A stated in the first paragraph there was one aspect of this mess that I did admire and that was the bizarre, unintentionally subplot about an incestuous romance. Smith is afraid of his niece because she is so forward and throws herself at him in such a brazen manner. Peters clearly threw herself into this role with reckless abandon and it paid off as we are disturbed by the way that she grips Colman by the shoulders and pins him with a come hither smile that is tinged by a certain existential fear. She suggests that her character would follow him to the ends of the earth and we see her behavior as toxic and worthy of disdain. She knows that the script is cheesy but she embraces that wholeheartedly and she and Colman actually have a fascinating chemistry. I wouldn’t call it romantic but he seems so awkward in her presence that their scenes work as you almost feel like Peters was going off script and Colman was confused by her ad-libbing. He is suitably afraid of her and we relate to his response as we also think that she might go full Alex Forrest and terrorize his family.
Nobody else is on Peters’s level and that is probably why Random Harvest succeeded as a piece of awards bait despite negative reviews. It earned a Best Picture nomination and Colman was even able to net a Best Actor nomination in a lineup full of acting heavyweights like James Cagney and Gary Cooper who were always in contention for major awards. It didn’t end up succeeding because Garson’s other 1942 vehicle, the war propaganda film Mrs. Miniver, had become a cultural sensation and because it related to the war effort so strongly there was no way that it wouldn’t win most of the major hardware. I haven’t really talked about the Academy Awards yet even though most of the entries on this list received quite a few nominations but I feel like Random Harvest was engineered to win awards. Even Casablanca (1942), another wartime romance, didn’t feel like it had been constructed with purely cynical motives. Everything about Random Harvest, from the score to the art direction, feels like it was put in place to make voters feel like they couldn’t not include it on their ballots.