Random Harvest: Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in all their Old Hollywood Glory

Random Harvest was on Turner Classic Movies the other morning, and even though I’ve already watched the film several times, I just had to sit down and watch it again. It’s such an all-around beautiful movie – a beautiful love story, beautifully shot, with beautiful stars Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.

Handsome, urbane Ronald Colman is the only actor I know to give Cary Grant some real competition for a woman’s affection (see the wonderful The Talk of the Town). In Random Harvest, Colman plays Smithy, an amnesiac WWI veteran who also suffers from a speech impediment as a result of his traumatic wartime experiences. Colman is subtly convincing as the damaged, tentative Smithy. I’m always impressed by how movingly  he portrays Smithy’s speech impediment: he doesn’t go the obvious route – no stuttering or stammering – just a painful pause that expresses his frustration, lack of confidence, and the lingering effect of wartime trauma. Greer Garson’s Paula befriends Smithy, and Colman captures his newfound, almost childlike, joy in life as he slowly regains his speech and confidence, thanks to Paula’s friendship and love.

After an accident restores his pre-war memories but completely erases his life as Smithy, Colman perfectly embodies Charles Rainier: aristocratic, reserved, and pragmatic where Smithy was spontaneous and expressive; a businessman and politician instead of an aspiring writer like Smithy.  One imagines that Charles Rainier never would’ve deigned to have a relationship with Paula, a chorus girl. Charles’ memory loss after the war actually makes Smithy and his life with Paula possible, allowing him to discover his joyful, creative side. The heartbreak of the story is that Charles completely loses that part of himself when he recovers his memory; he exists without the happiness and love that he briefly had as Smithy, haunted by a vague sense of loss for a life he can’t even remember.

The ravishing Greer Garson perfectly complements Ronald Colman’s dignified elegance as she transitions from the warm, impulsive chorus girl, to a quietly efficient assistant, and, finally, to the regal Lady Rainier.  After Smithy disappears, Paula tracks down Charles and takes a job as his assistant, under the name Margaret. Charles, of course, has no previous memory of Paula and is simply impressed with Margaret’s composure and efficiency. Ever the pragmatist, he proposes a marriage of convenience.  As Paula listens to Charles propose, her love, her hope that he might remember their previous life together, and the painful realization that he probably never will, all play beautifully across her expressive face. When Charles looks up at her, she instantly wipes away those emotions, forcing herself back into the persona of the practical Margaret. I re-watched scene about three times, marveling in Garson’s nuanced performance.

Random Harvest charts an enduring love story from chorus hall to opera house, from gatherings at the local pub to dances with the Prime Minister, from a tiny cottage to the imposing Random Hall. Its moving story, gorgeous cinematography, and memorable performances make it a true classic of Hollywood’s golden age.

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5 Responses to Random Harvest: Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in all their Old Hollywood Glory

  1. Jason Updike says:

    This sounds really fascinating. I will definitely check it out. From the description this actually covers some similar ground as an episode of Doctor Who titled Human Nature in its third season. Would definitely recommend it. 🙂

  2. Ashley says:

    I keep telling Shanti to watch Doctor Who and she stubbornly refrains. (I never noticed the similarities between Human Nature and Random Harvest but you’re absolutely right!) On the other hand, it took me 8 years to finally watch Battlestar Galactica, so I haven’t given up on her yet.

    • popgoddess says:

      Keep the faith, friends; I’ll get there someday!

      Incidentally, Random Harvest got a rather dismissive shout-out in The New York Times Style Magazine this weekend in an article about Jessica Chastain: “She even cites Greer Garson in ‘Random Harvest, that loony old weeper’ as an influence.” Well, young lady, points for recognizing the glorious Greer; boo for dissing on the movie!

  3. Ashley says:

    Humph. She should be half the actress Greer Garson was…

  4. Indira Wesley says:

    Elegant and insightful review of a timeless but not so well known TCM movie.

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