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Random Harvest

"I love Random Harvest," Guy Maddin announced on the audio commentary track to his film Archangel, which also deals with the theme of amnesia. Still, the 1942 MGM classic restrains itself and is not as frenetic or delirious as Maddin's mock '20s epic. Based on a novel by James Hilton, whose influential tales (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Lost Horizon) seemed, in mid-century, tailor-made for cinematic adaptation, Random Harvest begins in the final days of World War I. In an asylum, a man known only as John Smith (Ronald Coleman) is coping with shell shock and amnesia. He was found unconscious in a trench, with no personal memories. On the night of the armistice, he wanders from the asylum and is picked up by a sympathetic actress, who senses that he is a wounded vet lost amid the revelry. Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson) is in town to perform in a musical revue (while wearing a disturbing costume that consists of silk stockings and a Scottish kilt). Paula lets Smith, who can barely speak, watch her perform from the sidelines, and then, via the creaky mechanisms of plot, helps him escape town. Settling in a placid village, the couple marry and have a child. Just after the kid's birth, Smith, who has been dabbling in writing, is summoned to Liverpool to take a position on a paper. But, as in a similar scene in An Affair to Remember, he is knocked down by a taxi while crossing the street for the rendezvous. This results in the restoration of his memory up to his wounding in the trenches. His last several years in the asylum and with Paula are erased. And he turns out to Charles Rainier (whose last name is pronounced three different ways throughout the film), the dreamy scion of landed gentry. The movie now drops Paula and follows Rainier as he re-integrates himself into his family life over the course of several more years (the title of the movie, by the way, refers to the name of the Rainier estate, though in the book the title comes from a quote in military report). But the once-aspirant writer now learns that he has a head for business, and under his supervision the moribund Rainier enterprises turn profitable.

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Do Paula and "Smith" meet again? That is only for the viewer and Holden Caulfield to know (Random Harvest is the film the main character in Catcher in the Rye watches). Suffice it to say, the filmmakers make Rainier's memory recovery gradual, rather than swift, as some even more vulgar hands might have endeavored to do. Random Harvest is credited to three scripters and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, a conventionally minded and pedestrian studio hack whose career spanned most of the 20th century before being put out to pasture in the 1960s. Still, it's easy to see why Maddin loves the film, especially in shots such as one early in the film of Smith's yearning hopefulness when an elderly couple drop by the asylum to confirm if Smith is their long lost son. About five different emotions play across his face in true silent film fashion as he stands before their skeptical gaze. Warner Home Video offers a fine full frame transfer of Random Harvest with good Dolby Digital monaural audio (in English and French, and with English, French, and Spanish subtitles). Supplements include two short films. First is Don't Talk (21 min.), a WWII effort admonishing viewers against speaking loosely in public about war-related matters. It stars Barry Nelson, whom we all recall fondly as the brilliant hotel manager in The Shining. The second short is one of those Pete Smith efforts called Marines in the Making (9 min.), only this one is intended to be serious. It's a celebration of the manly art of training for war, with numerous shots of Marines slapping each other and taking tumbles. Anyone familiar with Guy Maddin's evocation of Icelandic "glima" wrestling in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, or his short Sissy-Boy Slap Party, will note the coincidence of further thematic resonances between the modern filmmaker and dark crevasses of ancient pop cinema. In addition, there is the 1944 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Random Harvest (55 min.), also with Garson and Colman. Finally, there are trailers for three Garson films, Random Harvest, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Mrs. Miniver. Keep-case.
—D. K. Holm

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