Random Harvest (1942) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Ronald Colman, Greer Garson, Philip Dorn, Susan Peters
I know don’t much about amnesia other than some personal moments of memory loss after a heavy night of boozing. But if you look at the frequency and severity at which amnesia occurs in cinema it would seem like a frequent ailment. I don’t know anyone who has had amnesia, but it certainly makes for a great device for storytellers and the perfect solution for many screenwriting dilemmas.
In ‘Random Harvest’, Ronald Colman is introduced as a British soldier in the First World War who wakes up as a John Doe in a military hospital in England, without his memory. He’s not just without any memories, but he’s barely even able to speak. During his time in the hospital he eventually relearns to talk, and when an opportunity to leave the hospital presents itself, he wanders out into the streets. There he befriends a lovely and kind dancer/performer Paula (Greer Garson) who she names ‘Smithy’. But when she finds out he’s an escapee from the hospital, having develops an interest in him, she hides him. A romantic relationship blossoms and they progress toward marriage, and a settled life together.
But on a trip to Liverpool by himself, Smithy is hit by a bus and thrown back into hospital, with all his memories back of before the war, but without his memories of his life with Paula.
And so, Smithy lives out his former life as Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman without ever bringing back the old memories of Paula. He’s courted by a young family friend who confesses her love for him and they begin their own settled relationship. But what ever happened to Paula? Years later, after an exhaustive search for Smithy shows up as his new secretary. Having been told by a psychotherapist that Smithy has to discover his memories by himself she is forced to work with him without revealing their previous love affair with each other. What torture!
Much like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and Michael Winterbottom’s sci-fi romance ‘Code 46.’, losing memories, fate and love work hand in hand and will draw people back together. But if you’re going to use a cinematically contrived concept as amnesia, might as well milk it for all its worth. The contrived situation serves to examine the subliminal power of love which extends deeper in the mind and body beyond conscious memory.
Despite the contrived set up the film doesn't quite wring all the drama. The threat of the authorities finding the John Doe from the insane asylum isn't exploited enough. And the opportunity for dual lovers competing in the mind of Rainier is lost. As a result there's little conflict. It takes him 12 years to even contemplate the common sense test of retracing his steps in Liverpool to try and draw back his memories. Boyer in both his Rainier and his Smithy characters are consistently inactive with both Kitty and Paula, the women, taking the initiative in establishing the relationships. In fact, Paula has to remind Smith to kiss her after he proposes.
While poking holes in the common sense logic might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, with its fairytale-like simplicity and soap opera melodrama, the picture works on the level of Hollywood escapism and the ‘amnesia’ sub-genre of movies.