What’s So Bad About Melodrama? In Defense of Forgotten Classic Random Harvest
Meg Walters Revisits the Adaptation for Its 80th Anniversary
“For sheer make-believe romance you cannot top James Hilton’s Random Harvest,” actress Greer Garson once said. “It was the happiest film I ever made. I know I am prejudiced but I think it is one of the half dozen greatest love stories.”
Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the classic 1942 Mervyn LeRoy film is still achingly romantic—a story of love gained, love lost, and love restored.
Although it hasn’t been remembered as one of the greats of its era, in its time, the film was a hit, taking home over $8 million at the box office. Since then, however, it has typically been dismissed as an overly sentimental melodrama. In 1973, Carol Burnett spoofed the film with a skit called “Rancid Harvest,” in which she and Harvey Korman gave their best clipped transatlantic accents and schmaltzy overacting. Similarly, one 2006 review of the film called it an “effortlessly smooth tearjerker” set in a “patronizing patina of English pastoral.” And yet, there are some who, like Garson, still revere it as one of the great love stories. In a 2017 interview with AV Club, Mel Brooks effused, “You have to see it… It’s a great story. It’s a simple, beautifully crafted story.”
It’s undeniable that Random Harvest is a heightened, even melodramatic film. But after 80 years, perhaps it’s time we reassessed our disdain for the melodrama. Is Random Harvest too far-fetched, too feminine, too emotional? Or is it a forgotten classic that, thanks to rather than in spite of its melodramatic style, continues to resonate?“It remains one of the most memorably romantic scenes in cinema history.”
The plot certainly verges on the ludicrously melodramatic: A young, shell-shocked soldier known only as Smith (Ronald Colman) finds himself in an asylum during World War I. He has forgotten everything about his past and struggles to speak more than a few words at a time. He escapes and meets a lively music hall singer named Paula (Greer Garson), who takes him under her wing and fondly dubs him “Smithy.” It’s a brilliant meet-cute. Smithy is restrained, helpless, and lost, while Paula is bright, warm, and chatty. At a time when PTSD and trauma-related mental illness was largely misunderstood, her easy acceptance is startlingly modern.
Before long, the pair run off to an almost comically charming cottage in the Devon countryside, fall in love, marry, and have a baby. And then comes the tragedy: While in Liverpool for a job interview, Smithy slips in the street and is knocked out by a car. When he comes to, his pre-war memories have been restored, while his memories from the past three years have vanished. With no knowledge of his new family or his picturesque life, he returns to his old self.
As it turns out, he is a wealthy landowner named Charles Rainier. Fast forward several years, and Charles has become a no-nonsense businessman. But all is not lost: we soon learn that his personal secretary, Miss Hansen, is none other than Paula. She’s tracked him down and is staying close in the hope that his memory will return.
Agonizing years go by. Eventually, Charles becomes a politician and proposes to Miss Hansen/Paula in a painfully cold manner: “I need your help in my political life… I’m proposing marriage, Miss Hansen. Or should I call it a merger.” She becomes a dutiful wife and hostess. Finally, 12 years after losing his memory, a chance circumstance brings him back to the town of his old asylum and he begins to piece together his lost memories. The pair reunite outside of their old cottage, where Charles/Smithy finally recognizes his wife as Paula. “All the lost years of our love, and all the hopes of the future are crowded into that one scene,” Garson recalled. “It hit the deepest emotional point I’ve ever experienced in a picture, and it remains a thrilling memory.”Random Harvest reminds us that sometimes, to capture big emotion, cinema can afford to be big, too.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why Random Harvest has the reputation of being dated and melodramatic. The author of the original 1941 novel, James Hilton, is known for nostalgic writing that yearns for the bleating sheep and rolling hills of pre-World War II England. Stylistically, the film adheres to this unique brand of nostalgia. The rural idyll where Smithy and Paula fall in love was painstakingly constructed at MGM’s studios: “One idyllic set,” Michael Troyan writes in his Greer Garson’s biography, “complete with shady trees, a running brook, and trained fish, was constructed for a country picnic sequence in which Smithy proposes to Paula.” He adds, “It remains one of the most memorably romantic scenes in cinema history.” Added to the overly luscious set design, there’s the distant sound of waning violins, the hazy closeups and lighting of Golden Age cinema, the acting that is just a touch too much.
And then there is the love story—a love that is thwarted by forgotten memory and buoyed by Garson’s multifaceted portrayal of stoic, unwaning hope. While the book is built around flashbacks from Charles’s point of view as he tries to piece together his forgotten years after the war, the film instead follows Paula’s journey. Effectively, this means we yearn alongside her as she waits for Charles to become Smithy again. As Garson once said, “It was a sensitively written study of a woman’s heart.” At its core, Random Harvest is the epitome of a sweeping, sublime sort of romance. It’s a film that aims to both distill and elicit the essence and grandness of enduring love—and it does so through melodrama.
But it also captures something else, something of the overarching mood of Britain at the time. While Random Harvest the novel ends just before the onset of WWII, Random Harvest the film omits any mention of the coming conflict, preferring to offer its wartime audience the gift of escapism. Nevertheless, it still has the air of being distinctly of its time.In recent years, the mentality of pre-war Britain has been remembered through rose-tinted glasses that fail to acknowledge modern British culture.
The book’s title was allegedly inspired by a WWII German war report that stated, “Bombs fell at random.” For Hilton, this captured the sense of chaos that pervaded the second World War. The love story in Random Harvest mimics the feeling. As Paula and Smithy’s love story so clearly illustrates, everything one cherishes can be ripped away without warning. The fact that what these characters cherish includes an idyllic pre-war countryside—a countryside that, in 1942, was disappearing—would have certainly resonated with viewers at the time. Paula’s journey from blissful country life to stoical existence mimicked the Make Do and Mend, Keep Calm and Carry On messaging being circulated to the nation. In turn, the unlikely happy ending between Paula and Smithy—which sees the resurrection of their pretty blossoming tree and charming cottage—would not have merely pulled at the sentimental heartstrings of audiences, it would have touched a much deeper collective nerve.
But 80 years later, what new meaning can we glean from Random Harvest as a modern audience?
It’s possible that the specific brand of nostalgia brought to life in Random Harvest will now bring up less-than-savory associations for many viewers. In recent years, the mentality of pre-war Britain has been remembered through rose-tinted glasses that fail to acknowledge modern British culture. Most glaringly, Brexit has demonstrated that a certain demographic in Britain still feels a pull to the long-gone (and ultimately fictionalized) version of the British idyll that is somewhat glorified in Harvest.
But it’s not the era or nostalgia that makes the film so powerful. Nor is it the film’s melodramatic style. The grandiose music, cinematography, and script all send the signals that we’re watching something heightened, but what makes this melodrama succeed is the depth and detail of the performances. Garson is radiant and unforgettable. Colman is moving and nuanced. And both commit wholeheartedly to the epic nature of the story they’re telling—with utter sincerity, they buy into the profundity of the emotion that pulls the far-fetched story along. It is them who keep the film from veering too far into the realm of schmaltz and satire, instead giving us something that is timeless.
As the melodrama’s popularity has fallen off over the decades, modern creators are turning toward gritty realism (Blue Valentine, Nightcrawler, Manchester by the Sea) and mumblecore (Frances Ha, Drinking Buddies). Such “realistic” contemporary films are increasingly favoring naturalistic performances and understated cinematography. At 80 years old, Random Harvest reminds us that sometimes, to capture big emotion, cinema can afford to be big, too.