For some people, black and white stiff-upper-lip movies are the sort of thing that has their stomach contracting until there is sick in their nose.
It makes them think of a world of class division, exploitation of the colonies of the British Empire and reeks of a nostalgia for a non-existent simpler past of cricket, scones and public hanging. But there is frequently far more going on within them than that. Like the much maligned Merchant Ivory films which are accused of being about little more than being snotty and making lace doilies, but actually have a depth of character and criticism of the English old world order which seems to go quite unnoticed (these people clearly confuse EM Forster with Mills and Boon and are too busy reveling in a gritty modern urban realism that they wouldn't be driven within 30 miles of).
Mind you, Merchant Ivory did once employ Julian Sands and, like Mike Figgis, they shall never be forgiven for that.
Random Harvest stars one of the greatest stiff, upper lip actors, Ronald Colman - a man of magnificent voice and superbly manicured moustache, who was also no plank when it came to the acting lark. Ronald Colman could be a tremendous swashbuckler (Prisoner of Zenda) a fist fighter of rare accuracy (Bulldog Drummond), but he could also portray a subtle sensitivity, and that is what Random Harvest required. The film is based on a novel by James Hilton, a best selling author of his day whose work has not had the ability to age in a way pleasant to a modern reader’s eye.
Two of his books had already been adapted for the screen, Lost Horizon, which also starred Ronald Colman, and Goodbye Mr Chips, in which the magnificent Robert Donat took the title role (Robert Donat was an extreme asthmatic and when performing theatrical roles had to breath from an oxygen mask during any break he had from the stage, just thought you might like to know). For an unfathomable reason both those films were remade as unpleasant musicals that flopped hopelessly at the box office. Burt Bacharach’s songs for Lost Horizon are seldom listened to, not even by Noel Gallagher.
More recently Mr Chips returned again with Martin Clunes doing very well in the part, though let’s pray to God this doesn’t encourage Neil Morrissey to try and extend his range that has been so overstretched ever since he played the amusing window cleaner, or whatever he was, in Noel’s House Party.
Random Harvets has Mr Colman as a shell-shocked soldier in an army asylum, he has lost his memory and now finds it hard to talk. He waits to hopefully be claimed by his parents or whoever might be out there. Armistice day arrives and Ronald, or John Smith as he has been imaginatively monikered, escapes nonchalantly into the whooping, screaming outside world.
Soon overwhelmed, he takes cover in a tobacconist run by Una O’ Connor, one of the shrillest actresses ever to appear in Hollywood productions. She is perhaps best known for playing the shrill servant in James Whales’ Bride of Frankenstein and the shrill innkeeper in James Whales’ Invisible Man.
Due to Smith’s tremulous difficulty in ordering a packet of cigarettes she soon suspects he is an army loon and alerts the police, but not before a kindly music hall artiste helps him escape, gets him a brandy and invites him to the safety of her dressing room. She is played by Greer Garson, a mistress of stoical young women who take charge, she had previously been the wife of Mr Chips, who sadly died in childbirth (clearly here I refer to her and not Mr Chips, that would be preposterous. As we will later discover, childbirth and Greer and James Hilton are a recipe for tragedy).
Sadly this leads to the most unpleasant scene in the film, but one which probably had the cheap tweed caps of the nickelodeon audience being thrown in the air as they rollicked in the aisles. Miss Garson’s act is to dress in a very short kilt and spout a song with a cack-handed Scottish accent and occasional Harry Lauder impersonation.
The Music hall audience go quite wild, though this must mainly be due to the limited fabric involved in the mini-kilt and not due to the comical lyrics or dancing (as I discovered whilst supporting The Stranglers in Bosnia, the military man cares little for choreography, it didn't matter how many times one of the dancers fell over, as long as the potential of a partially revealed nipple increased).
Greer realises that 'Smithy' is getting better just by being with her and soon they elope, marry, live in a beautiful blossom covered cottage and have a child. But oh dear, one day Smithy goes for a job in Liverpool (place ironic gag here) and is knocked over by a van. Uh oh, he’s got his memory back and knows nothing of his old new life. He returns to the stately home he came from, where not a single family member seems to bat an eyelid that he has had amnesia for some years and not really been around.
He goes into his father’s big business, flirts with his step niece (hmmm) and rolls around in his fortune, aided by his wonderful secretary. But what of Greer? Well she’s the wonderful secretary of course, praying that one day she might jog his memory by her presence and more than happy to remain subservient. Ronald has some slight inkling that he had some form of love in his forgotten past ( a bit like Robocop) and he still carries the mysterious key he had on him when he was run down that actually opens the door of blossom cottage.
We also discover the child they had together died, though that is brushed under the carpet pretty darn quick. I suppose I better put SPOILER at this point to alert you to the fact that I'll be giving away the ending that you all clearly know anyway.
Yes, he finds himself by chance in the old loony town, memory jogged he takes the key to a blossom covered cottage, Greer tracks him down, they kiss, the blossoms tremble and ducks swim past on the beautiful studio bound lake. The end arrives on screen in lovely swirly letters, the font of which you have never
Random Harvest is a sweet, simple story, immaculately acted, marred only by a never-ending weeping sore of a musical soundtrack that runs through the entire film. Most modern viewers would approach this big grossing Hollywood film with hate in their eyes and probably soon turn off, their jaded buds too tainted with cynicism ( a cynicism that still allows them to part with their money to watch this year’s particularly shoddy bunch of formulaic US blockbusters that provide an increasingly strong argument to go all French and bring in a quota system so a few more European films could make it into the cinema. Maybe even films from other parts of the world, but one step at a time).
The plot may lack twists, turns and shadowy revelations, but in its basic nature it shows up the mathematical story formula of so much contemporary film product that seems to have been created by a mammoth committee, siphoned through the thoughts of an Idaho test audience and all overseen by a gigantic HAL computer.
Perhaps I just have heat stroke, and my enforced stay in my damp flat to avoid my English skin bubbling has led to an over reliance on Channel 4 movie matinees and a sentimentalizing of my brain or maybe a just want to grow a moustache and wear tweed. Or maybe this is just a well-made film and after all the dross I have seen recently my brain has been thrown into shock.
Anyway, I better get back to my room and finish the naked portrait I am painting of Margaret Rutherford.