Random Harvest - Love Conquers All
2 hrs. 6 mins Drama, Romance 1942 8.0 stars
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Ronald Coleman - Charles Ranier/Smithy
Greer Garson - Paula/Margaret
Philip Dorn - Dr. Jonathan Benet
Susan Peters - Kitty
Henry Travers - Dr. Sims
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
The First Proposal
Video of the The First Proposal
The movie opens with the scene inside an English asylum at the end of World War I and a doctor (played by Philip Dorn) who is trying to help the men inside. Among his patients is an amnesiac who suffered shell shock in the trenches of the war (played by Ronald Coleman). He has gotten to this asylum in the town of Melbridge. In addition to his amnesia his circumstances have left him extremely timid to the point that he barely speaks and when he does he does so haltingly. The doctor has arranged for an elderly couple, the Lloyds, to visit the asylum in the hopes that they might identify him as their son who has been listed as missing in action. Perhaps the sight of them would trigger his memory. But alas he was not their son, and so our soldier is left with no answers as to his identity.
That night he went out for a walk. But at the very moment he leaves the war ends and the town erupts into a celebratory revelry. The asylum guards leave their post and our soldier wanders out through the gate and into town, a free man not knowing who he is or where he is and only speaking with great timidity and difficulty. The revelry and particularly the noise it produces, intimidates him and he seeks relief by ducking into a little tobacco shop on a side street, but when the proprietor notices how haltingly he speaks she realizes that he has escaped from the asylum and goes to phone the police. A woman named Paula (played by Greer Garson) is in the shop and she is quite taken with him. She gets him to leave quickly so as to avoid capture, and then she follows him down the street. She realizes that he has problems, but she is confident that she can restore him to normality. Paula is a singer in a traveling show and she has an up-coming performance to which she invites the soldier, who she has started to call “Smithy”. She performs the song, “She’s My Daisy” and afterwards goes to check on Smithy and discovers that he has fainted back stage. She revives him and gets him a room where she and her troupe are staying. The police are looking for this escapee and they come to the bar downstairs from his room. This is too close for comfort so Paula quits her troupe and takes Smithy to Devon in southwestern England.
They go to an inn and stay there a while, and here with the tranquility of the setting and with the passage of time Smithy improves markedly. He doesn’t regain his memory, but he is able to otherwise socially interact with complete normality. He begins to write. First he has an article accepted by a newspaper and they are both ecstatic. Smithy proposes to Paula and she accepts. They marry in a little country chapel with the hymn “Oh Perfect Love” playing in the background and they rent a nice cottage nearby. In the course of time a baby is born; the happy little family is in the best of times.
One day Smithy receives an invitation to interview for a position at a newspaper in Liverpool. He leaves for the overnight trip, but when in the city he is struck by a lorry while crossing the street. He’s knocked out but is otherwise unhurt. When he comes to, the police ask him some basic questions such as his name and address. He says his name is Charles Rainier and that he’s stationed in Arras France. He can’t understand why he’s wearing civilian clothes or why he’s in Liverpool. When he finds out what the date is he is even more perplexed. He realizes that he has lost three years out of his life.
His amnesia has left him, but it has been replaced with another type of amnesia. He now remembers who he is and has been all his life, but now he can’t remember his last three years. He has no recollection of Paula or of his baby or of his fledgling writing career. But as Charles Rainier he knows he is part of an affluent family.
He goes to his mansion, Random Hall, and surprises his family with this seeming resurrection. He arrives coincidentally and unfortunately on the day after his father’s death. He arrives, in other words, just in time for the reading of the will. In the will he inherits the estate and business interests. He also catches the attention of a step niece, Kitty (played by Susan Peters).
Kitty has an adolescent crush on the much older Charles Rainier and over the years pursues him romantically. He, in the meantime, becomes an influential business man. In fact, in one magazine article he is dubbed, “The Industrial Prince of England”. His photo was printed in this article and that caught the eye of Paula who in the intervening years has worked as an executive secretary for a prosperous business. When Charles Rainier advertised for an executive secretary Paula applied for the position and got it. But her presence in his office did nothing to stimulate his memory and it was difficult on her. She saw a psychiatrist to talk about all of this and it was none other than the man who had “Smithy’s” amnesia case at the start of the movie, Dr. Benet.
Paula watches as Kitty courts Charles and as they become engaged. Charles and Kitty go to a chapel to make plans for their wedding; Kitty selects, “Oh Perfect Love”. But that hymn has a profound and immediate effect on Charles and he freezes. Kitty sees this and realizes that she can’t marry him with his partial amnesia so she breaks things off right there at the chapel.
Charles, now more determined than ever travels to Liverpool to try to learn about his missing years. Paula finds him there and assists him, but to no avail. Charles is next recruited to run for parliament and he does so and wins. He realizes that as a member of parliament he would be better served if he had a wife so he proposes to Paula stating that it would strictly b e a marriage of convenience.
Paula consults with Dr. Benet who is himself in love with her, yet he does not prevent her from accepting Charles’ proposal. She does so and starts her new life with him all over again except he doesn’t know it. Charles and Paula are seen together at various social functions and she is stated to be one of the most admired of women. Nevertheless she has the shadow of a loveless marriage to a man who doesn’t remember that he had been married to her before. It’s an awful burden on her.
Charles also has a burden. He over the years since his accident in Liverpool has carried in his pocket a house key and the knowledge that it belonged to his missing years. He yearns to know what transpired then.
Paula leaves to go away on a trip out of the country to get away from everything. She goes with Charles’ blessing, but first she goes out the inn where she and “Smithy” first went when he escaped from the asylum in Melbridge.
In the meantime Charles is called to settle a strike in one of his factories which happens to be in Melbridge. He settles the strike and while strolling through town afterwards remembers where there is a tobacconist shop and he goes there to buy cigarettes. He had previously told his assistant that he had never been to Melbridge before. So his assistant was perplexed. He could not understand how Charles who had never been to this town before knew exactly how to find the tobacconist shop (which was not on a major street) so he asked Charles. Charles was also perplexed, but this triggered the slow unraveling of his mysterious missing years. He traced his steps from the asylum down into town on the night of the armistice celebration. He remembered that a girl had come to his rescue.
The next scene was Charles out at the cottage testing the key that he had carried in his pocket all these years. The key worked and the door opened. Paula at the inn learns that a man had been there earlier inquiring about that cottage. She rushed to the cottage to see Charles opening the door. He turns around to see Paula there and he calls, “Paula” and she responds, “Smithy” and they embrace, his memory restored now.
Charles and his Secretary
The Second Proposal
Video of the Second Proposal
This movie is a heartwarming story which if it were true would fall under the category of the truth being stranger than fiction for it is a strange set of circumstances indeed. Amnesia is a popular theme in movies, but does it ever work like this? I watched this movie once with a friend who was a mental health care professional who said that this is not how it works. But is there really a standardization of mental illnesses? I’m sure that within that realm the adage, “the truth is stranger than fiction” is really true.
Even within the context of this movie “Smithy’s” condition was rare but not absolutely unique. Dr. Benet could not produce a cure, but could only offer advice to Paula as to how to handle him after he reverted to Charles. Did his methods work? That’s unclear because it took years before Charles was able to realize that he was Smithy or for him to recognize that Paula, the woman he married was already his wife.
The power of this romantic tale is found in Paula’s undying determination to pursue, subtly pursue Charles to win him back, a pursuit that took years. Charles’ own mind was Paula’s obstacle. She doesn’t give up on him and that’s a remarkable thing.
Indirectly the story asserts that it is possible for two people who were meant to be together to find each other under different and weird circumstances. Love triumphs over amnesia; that’s the main conflict of the movie. Smithy and Paula found each other despite trying circumstances. Again Charles and Paula found each other after years, not of estrangement but of closeness.
It fascinates the mind to think that man could remarry his wife and not know it, but then realize it years later. This fascination is yet another reason to enjoy this movie; it teases the mind and brings a subtle suspense only to be relieved at the conclusion to the movie. We, the audience are treated to a powerful reunion at the movie’s end and it satisfies all longings, Paula’s, Charles’ and ours. The fact that there is no denouement leaves us to wonder how they got a long in the days and years to come, but it leads us to believe that all was well and they lived happily ever after.
But the story includes many unlikelihoods and not just the unlikelihood of the amnesia switch mentioned earlier. It is unlikely for one thing that Paula would fall for someone and keep him safe from the asylum in the first place at the risk of her career. It is unlikely that she would have the money to rent rooms at the inn or to buy a cottage. It is unlikely that the cottage would still be unoccupied and in good shape at the end of the movie or that the key would still work in the door. It is unlikely that Kitty would harbor a crush on Charles for as many years as she did only to throw that away simply because Charles had a momentary spell of staring absently during their wedding rehearsal.
None of these unlikelihoods ruin the movie, however, because like with so many other stories we have our own “suspension of disbelief” going on within ourselves. Suspension of disbelief occurs especially when we watch science fiction or fantasy or even cartoons. In this movie we’re sufficiently interested in the outcome to forgive what seems impossible to us so we can enjoy the story.
A difficulty also exists in the age differences of the cast members. Ronald Coleman is thirteen years older than Greer Garson and while that’s not unheard of by any means it is a rarity in romantic cinema. Of course Greer Garson’s second husband was twelve years her junior so it certainly can happen. But an even greater age difference is that between Ronald Coleman and Susan Peters. He’s 30 years older than her which I think leads to an unconvincing romantic portrayal.
Despite the unlikelihoods mentioned the movie carries the audience forcefully by the power of the “against-all-odds” romance. In some ways the unlikelihoods actually enhance the romantic effect and the view leaves the movie with the uplifting sense that with patience good and seemingly impossible things can and do happen. It restores faith in the possible and as with any happy ending it doles out a dividend of hope.