In 1918, an amnesiac soldier named Smith is still recovering at an English asylum after months of dealing with shell shock. No family has claimed him; in one agonizing scene, an elderly couple are shown Smith to see if he’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 frail soldier. He enters a tobacco shop where he encounters the gorgeous, lively entertainer Paula. She surmises that he escaped from the asylum, but she sees something in Smith, or Smithy as she affectionately calls him, and befriends him.
Over time, the two of them fall in love and marry. But their blissful existence is shattered when Smithy goes to Liverpool and recovers his memories after an accident. Having forgotten Paula, Smithy returns to his family and moves on with his life… but fate has one more trick up its sleeve when Paula reappears in a way that allows her to reconnect with her husband.
Although “melodrama” seems to be a dirty word, especially in our current cynical times, classic Hollywood had a gift for crafting transcendent melodramas that embodied deep emotions without shame or condescension. Mervyn LeRoy’s 1942 film Random Harvest is an arresting example. While the story may sound ridiculous, LeRoy sweeps you into the fog and shadows and sunshine that surround Paula and Smithy. Greer Garson and Ronald Colman’s tremendously moving performances help to legitimize the material to the point where you don’t even question anything that happens, as you become all too willing to believe in the fairy tale being delicately woven before your eyes.
Lushly romantic, Random Harvest is, in the end, a film about pain — the pain of loss, of remembering, of loneliness, of war, and of love. In every scene, Garson and Colman illustrate these intense concepts with stunning grace and sensitivity. Just a single sentence or look from them is enough to break your heart from the emotional gravity it carries. Perhaps it was because of Colman’s own experience fighting in WWI that he was able to give Smithy such a haunted quality. Garson, for her part, brings to Paula the sweetness and resilience that ultimately drives the story. LeRoy was right when he wrote in his autobiography that between Colman and Garson, “the English language was never spoken more beautifully on film.”
A personal favorite of LeRoy, Colman, and Garson’s, Random Harvest is the kind of film that lingers on your mind long after it ends. Its beguiling lyricism and unimaginable tragedy are sob-inducing, to be sure, but its soulful fragility and exquisite romance are so breathtaking that, like Paula and Smithy, you’ll realize that love is worth the heartache.
For a more intimate look at WWI and the experiences of the soldiers, come to the IU Cinema on May 23 and 24 for Peter Jackson’s acclaimed documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, shown in 3D as part of the International Arthouse Series. The May 23 screening will be followed by a panel discussion with film archivists and programmers, including a representative from the Imperial War Museums. Immediately following the May 24 screening, there will be a 30-minute documentary about the making of the film.
For a short review of They Shall Not Grow Old, check out what regular blog contributor Caleb Allison had to say about it in January’s Monthly Movie Round-Up.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.