It was an instant commercial success. Its seven Academy Award nominations included nods for Colman, supporting actress Susan Peters, director Mervyn LeRoy and Best Picture. Garson, whose performance was well-received, was ineligible for the Academy Award for Best Actress, as she had already been nominated that year for her role in Mrs. Miniver.
"John Smith" (Ronald Colman) is a British officer who was gassed and became shell shocked in the trenches during the First World War. He is confined to an asylum as an unidentified inmate because he has lost his memory and has trouble speaking. When the war ends, the gatekeepers abandon their posts to join the celebration in the nearby town of Melbridge. With no one to stop him, Smith simply wanders off.
In town, he is befriended by singer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). She assumes he is from the asylum, but as he seems harmless, she arranges for him to join her traveling theatrical group. After an incident that threatens to bring unwanted attention, Paula takes Smith away to a secluded country village, where they marry and are blissfully happy.
"Smithy", as Paula calls him, discovers a literary talent and tries writing to earn a living. Paula remains home with their newborn baby while Smithy goes to Liverpool for a job interview with a newspaper. There, he is struck by a taxi. When he regains consciousness, his past memory is restored, but his life with Paula is now forgotten. He is Charles Rainier, the son of a wealthy businessman. None of his meager possessions, including a key, provide any clue how he got there from the battleground of France.
Charles returns home on the day of his father's funeral, to the family's amazement as he had been given up for dead. Fifteen-year-old Kitty (Susan Peters), the stepdaughter of one of Charles' siblings, becomes infatuated with her "uncle".
Charles wants to return to college, but the mismanaged family business needs him, and he puts off his own desires to safeguard the jobs of the many employees and to restore the family fortune. After a few years, a newspaper touts him as the "Industrial Prince of England".
Meanwhile, Paula has been searching for her Smithy. Their son having died as an infant, she returns to work as a secretary. One day, she sees Charles' picture in a newspaper and manages to become his executive assistant, calling herself Margaret Hanson (Paula being her stage name), hoping that her presence will jog his memory. Her confidant and admirer, Dr. Jonathan Benet (Phillip Dorn), warns her that revealing her identity would only cause Charles to resent her.
As Kitty grows up, she sends Charles love letters. Eventually, they become engaged. Margaret has Smithy declared legally dead, seven years having elapsed since he left her, dissolving their marriage. However, a hymn that Kitty is considering for their upcoming wedding triggers a vague memory in Charles. Kitty realizes that he still loves someone else and, heartbroken, breaks off the engagement.
When Margaret hears Charles is in Liverpool, trying one last time to piece together his lost years, she rushes there. They recover his suitcase from a hotel, but he recognizes nothing. Charles is then approached to stand for Parliament. After his election, in which Margaret provides invaluable assistance, he feels the need for a wife in his new role. He proposes to her, more as a business proposition than a romantic one, and she accepts.
They become an ideal couple, at least to all outward appearances. She is the perfect society hostess. In a moment of reflection, they discuss his lost past, and she tells him of her own lost love, without revealing that it is Charles. He hopes their life together can fill the void they both feel. Miserably alone and desperately unhappy, Margaret decides to take an extended vacation abroad by herself. Before her liner sails, she revisits the hamlet where she and Smithy lived.
As Charles is seeing Margaret off at the train station, he is summoned to mediate a strike at the Melbridge Cable Works. After the successful negotiation and the resulting announcement to the factory workers, he walks through the town, and the familiar surroundings and celebrations begin to unlock his lost memories and eventually lead him to the cottage he and Paula shared. Hesitantly, he tries the old key he kept, and finds that it unlocks the door.
Margaret, who had been about to leave for her boat, makes a casual remark to the current innkeeper about the former innkeeper. The innkeeper tells her that a gentleman just that morning had inquired about the former innkeeper, the old vicar, and had mentioned that he used to rent a cottage near a church. With newfound hope, Margaret hurries to the cottage and finds Charles standing at the unlocked door. When she calls him "Smithy," his memory floods back and he cries out "Paula!" as he rushes to embrace her.
According to MGM records, the film earned $8,147,000 and made a profit of $4,384,000.
Despite its box office success, critics were not impressed at the time. James Agee wrote, "I would like to recommend this film to those who can stay interested in Ronald Colman's amnesia for two hours and who can with pleasure eat a bowl of Yardley's shaving soap for breakfast." In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther was of the opinion that "for all its emotional excess, Random Harvest is a strangely empty film." "Miss Garson and Mr. Colman are charming; they act perfectly. But they never seem real." Variety praised the performances of the two leads, in particular Garson, but noted that Colman seemed older than the role.
Decades later, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader allowed that it had "a kind of deranged sincerity and integrity on its own terms". Leonard Maltin's capsule review reads "James Hilton novel given supremely entertaining MGM treatment, with Colman and Garson at their best." Hal Erickson wrote, "Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't believe a minute of Random Harvest, but the magic spell woven by the stars and by author James Hilton (Lost Horizon, Goodbye Mr. Chips etc.) transforms the wildly incredible into the wholly credible."
The film was ranked 36th by the American Film Institute in its 2002 AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions list.Best Picture
Best Director – Mervyn LeRoy
Best Actor in a Leading Role – Ronald Colman
Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Susan Peters
Best Writing, Screenplay – Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture – Herbert Stothart
Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White – Cedric Gibbons, art direction; Edwin B. Willis, sets, Randall Duell, Jack D. Moore
This film is alluded to in the third season of British sitcom As Time Goes By. Lionel and Jean attend a meeting in Los Angeles about a script he has written, and co-executive creative consultants Josh and Lisa come up with a "mangled version" of Random Harvest, about "Lionel being shot in the head every five minutes."
Several Indian films were influenced by this film: Bengali film Harano Sur (1957), starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen; Tamil film Amara Deepam (1956 film) and its Hindi remake Amar Deep (1958 film) starring Dev Anand.
In 1973, the twenty-fourth episode of the sixth season of The Carol Burnett Show featured a take-off of the film called "Rancid Harvest", with Carol Burnett in the Greer Garson role and Harvey Korman in the Ronald Colman.
Warner Home Video released a restored and remastered version in DVD format in 2005.