Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Colman and Garson

Somehow, from the list of the greatest romantic films, in August, I missed out Random Harvest, starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson (MGM 1942). The central character played by Colman is a shell-shocked WWI soldier suffering from amnesia. At the end of the War he slips out of an asylum in the midlands of England and finds himself in a tobacconist where his halting speech gives him away and, as the shopkeeper goes to call the police, a stage-performer in a travelling troupe - "Paula", played by Greer Garson, enters the shop and suggests that he shouldn't hang around. He latches on to her and she decides to help him, calling him "Smithy". Eventually, she takes him off to a village in Devon to recuperate and he starts writing and even sells some articles to a newspaper in Liverpool. They get married and have a child (who later dies) and, on the day after the birth, he is summoned to Liverpool for an interview with the paper. Knocked down in a road accident, Smithy remembers who he really is and forgets his recent life, except that he finds the key [to his house in Devon] in his pocket. Suspended disbelief has to extend to the fact that he would probably have had a return train ticket and the letter from the newspaper, inviting him to interview, showing his recent name and address. But, maybe, this is a small point. He then remembers that he is a member of a rich family and goes to his original home. There then follows a period during which he cannot quite marry someone else and Paula becomes his secretary. After he becomes an MP she becomes his wife but each of them exhibits the loneliness of the losses that they have sustained; only Paula knows the truth but is advised to keep it from him. After a series of coincidental journeys and meetings, Smithy finds himself back at the Devon cottage, opening the squeaky gate and moving aside the blossom-laden cherry-tree branch to get to the front door, where he opens the door with the key just as Paula arrives and calls out "Smithy". Of course he then recognizes her and all is obviously going to be well. Mawkish? Maybe. Effective as cinema? Certainly. Those old Hollywood makers, aided and abetted by the music composers, knew how to hit the mark. The picture above is a still from near the beginning of the film when they are in the tobacconist. The film wa snominated for seven Oscars and although it did not win any, that year Greer Garson won the best actress Oscar for her stirring performance as Mrs Miniver.


  1. Hollywood, film, romance as you say fashioned in sentiment...all of this a poor sort of substitute for living; so many people it seems to me are or were simply living their lives vicariously through the big Hollywood screen; perhaps wondering what life might be like if it was only a little more charmed, cosy (as cosy as Greer Garson perhaps). Oh I preferred the poets; they seemed to tell me more about life, times I never knew than Americana; Larkin did it for example just beautifully in the Whitsun Weddings; and in High Windows; I said to myself when I read and re read those pieces now there is a thing to strive for; a lean sort of perfection; an observational eye as acute and as compassionate as one could ever wish for in the world. That sort of expression - who can keep it down or indeed, develop it?

  2. Sentimentality, rather than sentiment, I should say and a million miles from the poetry that you mention or of others such as Yeats but these films were wartime films to buoy up the cinema-going public, many of whom wouldn't have thought of finding solace or hope in poetry. It's still a good film and also a million miles away from much of the stuff that they churn out now.

  3. Anyway, it occurred to me this evening in the car that history is not just about informing oneself or contemporary decision-making at the level of goverment but for all of us it is or can be inspiring and emotive; it can galvanise us into action or it can colour the fabric of our interior thoughts. Isn't that amazing. History isn't dull or dry; it isn't simply the notebook of the well educated person; it is somehow inextricably now; so that it seems to be continually shaping us at both the mental/subjective and real/factual levels of our lives.