While we endeavor to keep spoilers to a minimum, Random Harvest has so many twists and turns that it is next to impossible to not reveal something in any discussion of the film. So, if you've never seen it before, you might want to watch it before reading our discussion. Or at least be aware that a number of important plot points occur and characters are introduced because of surprise changes in the storyline.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizon (that highly successful 1937 film featured Ronald Colman) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the film that in 1939 introduced Greer Garson to American audiences). The book is significantly longer than the film, and has a narrative voice that does not appear in the film. And one of the surprises that appears early in the film is saved for the final page of the book. Otherwise, the screenplay is faithful to the book.
Ronald Colman (while a bit old for the character) is absolutely amazing. He really has to play three characters in the film: the shell-shocked John Smith, the loving Smithy, and the aristocratic Charles Rainier. While I'm not fond of the scene in which Dr. Jonathan Benet (Philip Dorn) bring Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd (Charles Waldron and Elisabeth Risdon), the parents of a missing soldier, in to see if John might be their son, Colman gives it just the right level of hopefulness. It also establishes John's desperate need to leave the asylum - without a family to go to, it seems likely that he will molder in the hospital until his will to fight is gone. Mr. Colman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance - he lost to James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy - as well as by the New York Film Critics. As two recent pictures had not done well - Lucky Partners (1940) and My Life with Caroline (1941) - this film (along with Talk of the Town (1942) put Mr. Colman back on top of the box office. (TCM article)
Greer Garson is radiant as Paula; like Mr. Colman, she too has to go through several "personalities," though not as drastic as his. With her warm smile and easy grace, it's no wonder that Smithy trusts her instantly. That he could ever forget about her is perhaps the only puzzle of the movie (though we are not at all stunned that even Dr. Benet is in love with her). Ms Garson gets an opportunity to sing in this film (wearing a the shortest kilt on record!). She does an impressive job, and imitates Sir Harry Lauder to boot in the "She's My Daisy" number. Ms. Garson was not nominated for an Oscar for this role, but it's not all that surprising given that she WON that year for her impressive work in Mrs. Miniver.
Susan Peters, as Rainier's step-niece Kitty, does an excellent job in a role for which Donna Reed was initially considered (AFI catalog). She has to age from approximately 15 to 25, and also make us understand that her attraction to Charles is more than a schoolgirl crush. She achieves this ultimately when she decides they are not destined for each other. Her sympathy for Charles, combined with her understanding of her own needs as a woman endear her to the viewer. Ms. Peters was nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Teresa Wright in Mrs. Miniver), and she won the Supporting Actress award from the National Board of Review.
Ms. Peters had a sadly short career, appearing in only 24 films and television shows (much of her early work is uncredited). Three years after the release of Random Harvest, Ms. Peters was out hunting with her husband, Richard Quine and some of their friends. She reached down to pick up a rifle; it discharged into her stomach, the bullet logging in her spine. Though MGM supported her through her hospitalization, the realization that she was wheelchair-bound impelled them to pay out her contract. She did work after that, but rarely. Her most notable roles were in The Sign of the Ram (1948), in which she was the villain, and a television series Martinsville, U.S.A. as a lawyer (years before Raymond Burr was a hit as a wheelchair-bound detective in Ironside). She was also able to get some stage work - Tennessee Williams notably altered The Glass Menagerie to accommodate her injury. However, with her marriage ended (it has been said that she divorced her husband because she didn't want to hinder him), she became more and more depressed. She died at age 31, from starvation and dehydration.
The supporting cast, all in very brief roles is impressive: Una O'Connor as the Tobacconist, Henry Travers as Dr. Sims, Rhys Williams as Sam, Reginald Owen as "Biffer", Margaret Wycherly as Mrs. Deventer, Alan Napier as Julian, and Arthur Shields as the Chemist. Having such impressive talent as support for the leads adds immeasurably to the viewing experience.
Though it was not nominated for its cinematography, it should have been. The film makes you believe that it is in color. Some of it is dialogue - discussions of Paula's hair being the "color of a copper penny" and blue beads being the color of her eyes help, but the pink/white tree in front of their house, the warm browns of Biffer's pub, and the lush greenery of the Smith's little town make you forget you are watching a black and white film. It's exquisite work.
Pauline Kael's antipathy towards the film in later years (she said she preferred Carol Burnett's 1973 spoof "Rancid Harvest" because "it was shorter.") nonwithstanding, Random Harvest was a huge hit, earning $4.5 million and breaking attendance records at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It is today #36 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Passions, and in his tribute to Greer Garson, was cited by Keith Carradine as being his favorite of her films. It was nominated for seven Oscars (including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Black and White Set Direction, and Score). Mr. Colman and Mr. Garson would reprise their roles twice for the Lux Radio Theatre, in January, 1944 and April 1948.
Random Harvest is a real treat, and one that you will revisit over and over again. Yes, it is a melodrama, but WHAT a melodrama, with performances par excellence. We'll leave you with the film's trailer: