There’s not a mean bone in Ronald Colman’s body. He’s the perfect gentleman and Greer Garson is his perfect counterpart. Theirs is the story of Paula Ridgeway and Smithy, or Charles Rainier and Margaret Hanson, or closer yet, both of these stories together. But there’s need for some explanation.
A man (Colman) returned from the great war with no memory to speak of, barely able to talk, and no family to vouch for him. His life is one of isolation in an asylum. Until the day he escapes and happens to run into Paula (Garson), a compassionate stage performer who never lets him alone again. She sees it in his eyes that he’s a good man, and watches over him rather like a guardian angel. His war injuries inhibit his speech, but Paula’s vibrant personality is the best possible therapy he could ever receive. She brings him out of his shell, making him feel like a man again. Marriage comes soon after and they are deliriously happy with a child on the way soon enough.
Then comes the fateful day that “Smithy” visits Liverpool to inquire about a new job. But a street accident leaves him shook up once more, and this time around he has no recollection of his last 3 years of life. Paula is forgotten and all he can recall are the trenches and his old family name, Charles Rainier. His relatives are all in a hubbub upon his arrival with his young step-niece Kitty (Susan Peters) taking an especially great interest in her uncle. He tries his hand in the family business and finds himself very handy at the work while young Kitty continues to correspond with him as she goes through school. She pleads and coaxes him to marry her, and since he is genuinely fond of her, he agrees. It seems like ages since we’ve thought of Paula, but this is the true tipping point of the film.However, at the last minute, Kitty calls off the marriage realizing it was always a dream. It would never work out.
In this stage of his life, Ronald begins to confide in his secretary who is strikingly familiar to the audience. But he has no idea who she might be, except for Ms. Hanson, a highly competent, very beautiful woman. She doesn’t dare reveal her identity but here lies the portion of the film that tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. Paula or Margaret (whatever you want to call her) is caught in such a delicate and maddening predicament. She wonders if her love even has the capacity for happiness now. There’s little hope of getting out of this cycle, and yet as we would surmise from the very beginning, love wins out.
This film hinges on these faint wisps of memories and near deja vu moments that Rainer encounters. They are what separate him mentally from the love of his life who he isn’t even capable of knowing anymore. Their tragedy is not of their own doing or even due to human depravity. It is fateful circumstances outside of their control that keeps them apart, reminding us that oftentimes the world is unjust for no apparent reason.
Ronald Colman is always a wonderfully restrained actor who nevertheless is a pleasant lead. He’s even more muted here, and it works beautifully in juxtaposition with the vivacious energy of Greer Garson. In her own right, Garson is photographed in such a way that is so pure and unblemished with softened features that captivate the screen with true Hollywood glamour.
You can easily toss around words like sentimentality or schmaltz with a love story like this, but sometimes it’s better to let all the emotions of the film pervade your mind and overwhelm your senses. It’s an easy film to give in to and an easy film to forgive, because it’s main players are generally so likable. If modern actors tried their hand at such a masquerade, more likely than not, we would scoff at their attempt and then throw them out with not so much as a second glance.
But not so with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s not a waste of time giving them a couple hours because in that time they make us believe in love. True, it is an over-trod cliche, but in a cynical world that edges more and more towards a worldview of self-preservation and pessimism, maybe Random Harvest is what we need. It undoubtedly pumped invigorating life into wartime viewers and if you give it a chance, it can do the same today.