Two of the most compelling aspects of “Random Harvest” (1942) are the total absence of proof of identity leading to a new life, and the possibility that a person could fall in love with someone who he forgot he had already fallen in love with previously.
There is a third element which makes the plot twist intriguing, and that is the selfless and honorable attitude which the characters played by Greer Garson and Ronald Colman undertake out of their respect for each other. It is the improbability of such a film being made today that makes the movie irresistible to its fans.
In the world we live in today where we are drowning in documentation of our existence, and where thieves make a living trying to steal or exploit that documentation, it is hard to imagine a time when all Ronald Colman had to do was show up as a patient with amnesia for nobody to be able to determine who he really is. He is called John Smith for the sake of convenience by the asylum staff, where he is taken to recover from his horrific experiences as an officer in World War I. Greer Garson, playing against type for once as an earthy music hall performer, takes the confused, escaping Colman under her wing and they begin a life together, which ends abruptly when being knocked down by a taxi is all it takes for Mr. Colman to remember he is Charles Rainer, a wealthy aristocrat.
The plot takes a fascinating turn when Charles Rainer returns to his ancestral home and an executive office at the family firm. Years have passed, when he asks his secretary to step into his office. We are amazed to see it is Greer Garson who walks in with her dictation pad. She is transformed, no longer the earthy, cheeky music hall lass, but sober, mature and as elegant as…well, as Greer Garson. Colman, too, whose crisp, mannerly speech had been much parodied and mimicked back in the day, seems more at home in his guise as lord of the manor than the boyish and utterly lost John Smith.
Garson does not tell Colman that they were married and once had a child, hoping he will remember on his own. Colman eventually proposes a marriage of convenience for his political career, which she accepts. That neither attempts to seduce the other for fear of taking advantage of a valued friendship is perhaps the most improbable feature of this movie, and one that makes it’s being remade today likely impossible. The current film industry would regard such a situation as naïve and not to be believed by present day audiences. Ironically, however, it is this aspect which most furthers the action and sexual tension of “Random Harvest.” Their keeping each other at arms length, venturing only a chaste kiss on the cheek, is enough to keep the viewer wondering how the story will end. That Colman does remember his love for her in the end seems almost anti-climactic and could have been drawn out at least a few moments more before the end credits. The buildup to that moment has been magnificent. Throughout the film their characters are faced with choices, and it is the interesting choices they make that move the plot along, not the overused “hand of fate” idea which has left him without a past and her without a future.