Despite its happy ending, Random Harvest (1942) left me feeling oddly melancholy. The main characters, Charles Rainer aka “Smithy” (Ronald Colman) and Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson) have undergone a long, emotional journey. When they first meet, Rainer is an amnesic WWI vet who can hardly speak. With Paula by his side, he recuperates. They fall in love, marry, and build a happy life together—complete with a little cottage and baby son. He discovers a passion for writing and is on the verge of translating his talents into a profitable career when an accident changes everything. His memory of life prior to the war returns and the years with Paula are erased. He becomes Charles Rainer, heir of Random Hall and prominent businessman.
As you might guess, the remaining seventy minutes of the film trace the arduous road to their happily-ever-after. There are many times, though, when it appears that Rainer and Paula will not achieve their storybook ending. One scene in particular struck me. A decade has passed since “Smithy” regressed into Rainer’s mind. Nothing Paula has done will open his mind’s eye to the memory of their life together. Hard as he tries, Rainer cannot recover the memory that he instinctively knows is significant. Paula anxiously asks Rainer:
Doesn’t it frighten you sometimes? That the years are passing? That you may sometime find that you’ve lost your capacity for happiness?
Her lines echoed in my mind long after the final shot. Their reunion as "Smithy" and Paula should reassure us that any anxiety or despair they experienced has been resolved. But can they truly go back and recapture their past? Or has too much time passed—have they lost their “capacity for happiness”?
Like the verse from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” –
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
- a lot has changed in those ten years. Way has lead on to way, and they will never be able to fully return to that first road. They are no longer the same people. Gone are the carefree days when Rainer could pursue his dream of writing; political responsibility falls on his shoulders now. The opportunity to be parents may have also passed—Paula being older and fertility treatments being decades away. Even if Rainer and Paula did have a child, they would not be able to have an uncomplicated, private life again.
And so I am saddened, in spite of the happy ending, and find myself mourning the lost road on their behalf.