Thanksgiving's Random Harvest

Scripps-Howard News Service 11.21.01
Balint Vazsonyi

We complain much about television, and not without reason. Yet there is another side to the coin: ever-increasing choice.

Last Thursday night, Turner Classic Movies offered MGM's "Random Harvest," the 1942 gem about a British officer in WWI who suffers from general amnesia, is helped to a new life by a wonderful woman, then recovers his original identity but loses the intervening years. The cliff hanger is whether he will ever find his "lost" years, and the woman whose vague image, together with a mysterious key in his pocket, overcomes him from time to time.

That woman, played by the incomparable Greer Garson, contrives to become his secretary, hoping in vain to be recognized. Ronald Colman is at once gentle and powerful in the lead. During the entire movie, there is not a harsh word, not a single person to resent, the men are men, the women are - invariably admirable- women. The greatest moments of drama occur without words, as close-ups of faces as they respond to heart-rending disappointment with heroic acceptance. In that, Susan Peters, whose character hopes to marry Ronald Colman's, matches Greer Garson's depth.

Random Harvest broke all records by running for 11 weeks at New York's Radio City Music Hall, refuting forever that Americans respond only to the overstated and crude.

We complain much about Hollywood, and not without reason. Yet there is another side to the coin: ever-increasing frustration. At least those who have eyes and ears must suffer greatly from hopes fading that the glorious line up of the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and even the '60s would ever recur. Is there anyone out there now to fill the shoes of that roster of true greats, long enough easily to take up the entire space allotted to a column like this?

In 1942, the nation was at war as well. Yet, unlike now, the president had no need to send an emissary to Hollywood to request some patriotic gesture. No one had to call a meeting of the celebrities to decide what to do.

Americans knew what to do, and they were Americans - plain and simple. No hyphens, no "global" citizenship, or something equally vacuous. For Americans, there is only one thing to do after their nation has been attacked. That one thing is to contribute to America's defense whatever it takes. This coin does not have another side.

Last Thursday, my own "random harvest" of TV channels continued by finding a 1953 MGM's star-studded production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." It was random harvest indeed on a day when our newspapers were full of pro and con opinions about the president's decision to jail aliens and apply military justice to terrorists when the Nation's defense is best served thus. William Safire accused George W. Bush of seizing dictatorial powers. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death because some senators suspected him of the same. They were wrong, and History punished them in a variety of ways.

But the really interesting parallel may be with the horrible events of September 11.

In the movie, Ronald Colman's character, now a Member of Parliament, returns to the town of his "lost" years to help settle a strike in the factory in which - unbeknownst to himself - he had once worked. A chance event sets him on the road of awakening memories, and he begins to wind his way back to his hidden self.

Eventually, he finds the little cottage where he had been happy. The squeak of the garden gate he had always intended to oil confirms his memories and, as he stares at the cottage door, his hand finds the mysterious key in his pocket, as the key finds the door for which it had been made. In another beautiful, silent allegory, the door opens, and so does his mind.

For 30 years, America has been suffering from increasing amnesia about its true self. During the '90s, it reached near-catastrophic proportions. But the memories of past bliss had always remained present just under the surface, and we have always had that mysterious key in our pockets.

That key was forged by one George Washington who, in his Farewell Address, defined the word, the concept, the importance of being American.

Terrible seeds were sewn on September 11, 2001. Those who planted them on our soil, in our souls, thought they had prepared a bitter harvest.

Instead, we were granted a random harvest. They led us to the door. We had the key. The door opened. We remembered.

We are American once again.

Just in time for Thanksgiving.