I wouldn’t usually confess to liking a romance—not the pure, unabashed kind, with brooding heroes; loyal, plucky heroines; and never-ending love. This is not, mind you, that I never watch or like them—it’s just rare for me to admit it. Did I swallow up every minute of North and South (2004 Gaskell version)? Oh yes I did. Did I, in fact, neglect to try out for cross country in high school because I was watching a bad period romance instead? Ummm. Maybe. (I’m luckily a little hazy on the details, even if my best friend claims she isn’t.)
I’m not sure then what it is about Random Harvest that makes me wiling to fess up to loving it. On the surface, this film is every bit as sentimental as the ones I supposedly (and sometimes actually) despise: I mean, it centers on AMNESIA. AMNESIA!! (Even Downton Abbey, which is about as soapy as it gets, knew to nix that Patrick Gordon/Crawley storyline.) But suspend your disbelief just briefly as I explain….
Charles Rainier (Ronald Colman), shell-shocked and without his memory after WWI, escapes from the asylum where he’s recovering when peace is declared. He happens into music hall performer Paula (Greer Garson), who pities and then falls for this man she dubs Smithy. She steals him away from his pursuers, giving up her job to help him.
They have years of a happy marriage together, but an accident brings back his long-term memory, while knocking out the time with Paula. All he has is a memory of a strong love that prevents him from moving on romantically.
Are you rolling your eyes yet? I know how it sounds, as cheesy and manipulative as romances often are. But somehow, it’s not. The film is sentimental. But it takes a good forty minutes even for these two to admit to loving one another, and along the way, Colman’s heartbreaking performance captures so well his fragility as this lost man striving for dignity, and Greer’s warmth and exuberance and naiveté make her such a good foil for him, that you’ve begun to root for them before you realize you’re in their thrall. Of course, you’re terribly frustrated by his inability to see this charmer in front of him as the love he’s been mourning, even as you admire the loyalty he doesn’t know is to her.
Given Smithy’s/Charles’ continued memory loss, you want Paula to move on, know she should, and yet….There’s something so simple and right about the relationship they shared, about the generosity of spirit that made her help him, and about his wholehearted affection for her. After all, their love has nothing to do with anything but chemistry and affection, a bond with no social trappings of any kind.
If you’re a romantic, obviously, this film is right in line with The Notebook and The Vow and other similar films about love surviving great odds. I would argue this is a much finer film than either, and its seven Oscar nominations back me up. But I have to admit that the Academy isn’t much kinder to romances than it is to comedies, and a so-called “women’s picture” like this one, focused on loyalty to one’s man, would be unlikely to do as well now as it did then in the rush of patriotism that would give Greer her Oscar for Mrs. Miniver (also 1942).
Still, it would take a film this whimsical, this sweet to make me admit—in public!—just how much a romance took me in.