This is an easy movie to like. It’s so entertaining, and both leads, Greer Garson (as Paula/Margarite) and Ronald Coleman (as Smithy/Charles) have great chemistry together. The supporting cast works well too, especially Susan Peters as Charles’ niece Kitty. There’s good cinematography, especially in the village, where the furtive night-time scenes highlights Smithy’s ‘escape’ and eventual return, along with the sunny, idyllic cottage with its blossoming tree. Although Smithy/Charles is the protagonist, Paula and Kitty are the emotional heartbeats of the film. Having just seen another English romantic drama from the same era, Brief Encounter, I was drawn in quickly by Random Harvest’s similar beguiling, haunting tone.
The depiction of Smithy’s shell-shock was masterfully done. His disassociation from the world, shown by his near-muteness and apparent lack of emotion, is as horrific as any amount of flashbacks from the front. In fact, until his return to the village near the end of the movie, there aren’t any flashbacks. The convincingly authentic way that Paula draws him out makes a good psychological study. The long middle phase of the movie, while setting up the resolution–that is, taking up where the story left off years before–unfortunately hammers so many holes in the plot that it mangles suspension of disbelief.
Maybe the best way to approach the plot is to mentally expand the implicit quaintness of the fairy tale village scenes (both the horrific and the comfortable) over the entirety of the movie. Maybe that’s the intent: there’s as many quirks, twists of fate, bits of (good and bad) luck, and just plain arbitrariness to fill a few of Grimm’s stories.
Smithy’s original amnesia is the only unusual thing that makes sense. Early on, when a hopeful older couple visits him in the asylum it’s very touching, and sad. He’s not their son after all, he’s still nobody. It’s horrible how the townspeople treat him (a good slap at the prevailing notion that any mental instability implied madness). Then the odd stuff begins, as Paula just scoops him up.
I can see that she might simply be attracted to him–but she pretty much drops everything and devotes herself to him–with some help from her acquaintances. It’s plausible that his slow, but steady recovery leads to his tentative writing career, then to his romance and marriage to Paula. The white-picket-fence apple(?) blossom- adorned cottage makes things appropriately snug, and, of course, there’s a baby too. Then, the Liverpool accident, and we’re into the Charles incarnation of the hero. I can buy his near-instant acceptance by his upper-class ‘new family’. After all, he is who he claims to be. Since he remembers that phase of his life, it does figure that he slides back into his lucrative business. But then there’s the Kitty factor.
It is explained that she doted on him before his disappearance, but for her to throw herself at him is a throwback to Paula’s reckless behavior (plus he’s got to be more than twice Kitty’s age). I guess he’s sort of a low-key Don Juan. What’s stranger is that he does want to marry Kitty. One good dose of reality is her sudden revelation that it wouldn’t work out anyway. It’s plenty sad, as she’s desperately in love with him, and has gone nearly to the altar already. Meanwhile, Paula has metamorphosed into Margaret, and inveigals her way back into his life, as his secretary. It does make sense that she’s reported him as missing years ago, started over, and believes she’s found him as Charles. So she starts over again.
But her actions are very odd from this point on. Why does she want to get him declared legally dead? It’s clear that she didn’t look him up simply to get a job. Isn’t she still married to him? The legal device would make sense if he were going to marry Kitty. And Margaret, being supremely self-sacrificing, cleared the way for the younger woman by pretending that he wasn’t Smithy. So, as Charles, he could marry Kitty…but, that wouldn’t make too much sense either. Then there’s his very mercenary ‘proposal’ to her. Here’s a woman who is strong and sensible, but also very much in touch with her emotions–why would she marry as part of a political ‘deal’? Sure, she’ll gain plenty of wealth, status, and security, but, until this time, there’s no inkling that those qualities define her. More importantly, she still loves this guy. And what about their child? We never hear a peep about him…
She does try to resurrect his memory on their trip to Liverpool. But she’s not assertive enough about it. She never tells him about their history together, she just leads him to promising clues, hoping that he’ll take the bait. Then, she’s upset for his continuing business-like attitude; what did she expect? At least that frustration sets in motion the so-called South American trip, which leads, very oddly, to their reunion in the village. Thanks to his assistant, Charles retraces his asylum-Armistice Day steps there, and wends his way to the sweet cottage, where, apparently, it’s always springtime. Now that he’s doused himself in nostalgia, he gets the whole picture, Paula/Margaret included.
Truly, we believe they shall live happily ever after. I would’ve been a lot happier myself if things didn’t go so smoothly after he becomes Charles. Maybe some members of the family don’t quite believe that he’s Charles, or they hold his recent history against him (the amnesia, the asylum, his marriage). Maybe there’s an actual (as opposed to an hypothetical) rivalry between Kitty and Margaret. In other words, Random Harvest might have been better with more dramatic tension. As poignant as are Kitty’s and Margaret’s romantic dilemmas, and Smithy’s mental hardship, things just work out too easily.
Lastly, why draw this out over a seventeen-year period (1918-1935)? As has been said, Coleman, but only he, is believable age-wise. Unless the story were compressed to about a five year or so time-span, Paula and Margaret should be played by different actresses. I know I’ve heaped on Random Harvest a lot: I’m sure for many viewers the entertainment value far outshines the cloudy plot. This is well-worth watching for the good acting and genuine emotional content. 7/10.