Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Classics: A Review of Random Harvest By Lauren Ennis

The old saying goes that ‘all is fair in love and war’, but that saying can take on a note of irony when one reflects upon the unfairness that permeates both love and war. One film expertly captures the ways in which both institutions can have permanent and devastating effects upon the individuals whose lives they come into contact with; the 1942 romantic drama Random Harvest. Through its depiction of the ways that love and war can bring people together only to later tear them apart, the film shows the tragedy and triumph of the human experience.
Free theater and Greer Garson; the benefits of life on the outside

The story begins with an amnesia patient known only as ‘John Smith’ (Ronald Coleman) residing in an English asylum after losing his memory and much of his speech following trauma he sustained in World War I. After being introduced to one in a long succession of couple’s reclaiming their lost relatives only to be informed that he is not the man that they are searching for, Smith wanders away from the asylum in despair. Just as he reaches the edge of the asylum’s grounds, however, news arrives of the armistice, prompting the guards to celebrate rather than watch their posts. Seizing his opportunity, Smith runs away to town where he blends in amongst the local revelers. While in town he makes the acquaintance of kindly showgirl Paula (Greer Garson), who helps him to escape the local authorities and offers him a job in her traveling company. After a series of mishaps, the pair finally arrive in a secluded country village where they settle down. Several months later, Smith has transformed from the shy traumatized patient that he was into ‘Smithy’ an articulate budding writer and has fallen in love with Paula. The couple is soon married and live in harmony until he obtains a job opportunity in Liverpool shortly after the birth of their son. Unfamiliar with the city, he loses his way before he can find the job and is struck by an oncoming vehicle only to wake up with his memories of his past life restored. This restoration of his past unfortunately comes at the cost of his present as the trauma erases all memories of Smith’s new life with Paula. Smith, now resuming his old life as the wealthy Charles Rainier, tries his best to move on with his new life and even finds a new love interest (Susan Peters), but is unable to lead a full existence so long as he is plagued by the doubts and questions of his lost years. He nearly gives up hope until fate intervenes in the form of his uncannily familiar secretary, who is revealed to be none other than Paula.

While amnesia is usually reserved as a convenient plot device in soap operas and melodramas, Random Harvest is far from sensationalized. Instead of contrived drama, the film uses the disorder to highlight the all too real crisis of identity that trauma can cause.  As a result, the disorder serves as the story’s central metaphor for the sense of loss that soldiers often home to. During his stay at the asylum, Smith is fearful, awkward, and unable to interact with a world that he seems to have no place in. Although the doctors credit Smith’s amnesia as the reason for his timidity and lost speech, this simplified diagnosis is called into question when he displays assertiveness and reveals himself to be capable of articulation with Paula. His interactions with Paula shed light on how his anxiety following his war-time experiences contributes just as much to his reservation as his memory loss. When finally away from the hospital, he is able to focus upon his present and open up to Paula in ways that he would have been unable to open up to anyone while still surrounded by reminders of his forgotten past at the asylum. His progress also directly correlates to the level of normality that he achieves once he has escaped from the asylum. When he first meets Paula, his is lost mentally as well as physically in a world that seems to have moved on without him. As the two settle down and build a life together, however, he regains his sense of purpose and steadily improves until he is finally a confident and self-reliant man capable of starting a career and supporting a family.  His loss of any recollection of Paula upon regaining memories of his service similarly illustrates the way in which his progress is derailed once he is forced to confront his past trauma. Although as Charles Rainier he is more socially prominent and conventionally successful than John Smith was, he is also emotionally detached from the world around him and unable to fully appreciate anything in his life. It is only when he is able to come to terms with his experiences that he is able to reconcile his two halves and become a whole person at long last. The film’s happy ending, while very Hollywood, serves as a hopeful reminder that with patience and understanding happiness and fulfillment can be found even after the most devastating of events.
Is it really bigamy if you can't remember?

Beyond its intelligent and poignant script, Random Harvest also boasts performances that are nothing short of classic. Ronald Coleman expertly portrays both John Smith and Charles Rainier and is able to lend credibility to both characterizations. His Smith is an endearing blend of honesty and gentleness that leaves little doubt as to how he was able to attract the worldly Paula. His portrayal of the established Rainier, by contrast, is all propriety and no passion as Charles devotes himself so much to his career that he loses sight of the love that is right before him all along. Greer Garson is stunning in her portrayal as Paula, portraying her as an impulsive actress and self-sacrificing wife with equal skill and maintains an air of intelligence and wit regardless of her character’s changing circumstances. The supporting players all provide apt performances with Susan Peters and Philip Dorn particularly standing out in their multifaceted turns as Charles’ high society love interest and asylum physician.

Although critics initially dismissed it as mere sentiment, Random Harvest is a testament to hope and survival even in the most dire of circumstances. Through its dignified portrayal of its hero’s journey to recovery the film sheds light on the effects of war on soldiers and those that they leave behind, which linger long after the battles have ceased. Through its heartfelt script and superb performances the film brings the popular novel it is based upon to vibrant life and stands equally well when viewed independently as its own story. During their first meeting John Smith tries to convince Paula he is safe despite his stay in the asylum and says, “I’m not like the others” in many ways that sums up this film’s appeal as well, it is not like any other romance in cinema, in all the best ways.
A well-earned homecoming
FOR ANOTHER TAKE ON THE TOLL OF WAR BE SURE TO CHECK OUT MY SPANISH CIVIL WAR SCREENPLAY A FIGHTING CHANCE http://offthewallplays.com/2015/02/19/a-fighting-chance-screenplay-about-spanish-civil-war/

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