Friday, May 19, 2023

Ronald Colman: A Far Far Better Man?

My esteemed colleague Carl Rollyson is probably one of the busiest biographers around. While publishing some thirty-five books, many of them biographies of eminent literary figures like Faulkner and Sylvia Plath, he is also a retired professor, a book editor, a reviewer, a podcaster, and a chronicler of movieland royalty. I happen to know that he’s currently deep into a biography of Ronald Colman,  the British actor once revered for his mellifluous voice, his neat mustache and his gentlemanly manner. My parents loved Colman in Lost Horizon  (1937) and The Late George Apley (1947). He won an Oscar for A Double Life, also 1947.  Trying, in my way, to keep up with Carl, I’ve just watched two Colman oldies, Random Harvest (1942) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

 Random Harvest is based on a popular novel by James Hilton. I have no idea what that title means, but it features a British officer who has left the battlefields of World War I with a serious case of amnesia. There’s a poignant scene, early on, wherein an elderly couple from the hinterlands arrives at Colman’s British sanitarium,, hoping he’ll turn out to be their missing son. He hopes so too . . . but he’s not. Desperate to make something of his life, he sneaks out into the local town, and is promptly taken in tow by a lively young music-hall singer (Green Garson). Soon he learns to forget his missing past and forge a new life with her. But wait! Tragedy strikes again! While hurrying to a job interview he’s hit by a passing taxi . . . and his memories of his past return to him. He now knows he’s the beloved scion of a wealthy family, and they can’t wait to fold him into their posh existence. That’s fine with him, because he’s completely forgotten his marriage to Garson and their happy days in a cozy Midlands cottage. Soon he’s an important figure in the business world. But Garson, undaunted, signs on as his loyal secretary and waits for him to remember their life together. The plot thickens from there.

 Though Colman is fine as the stalwart but confused soldier, the film is really Greer Garson’s. In the novel, the reader doesn’t know that Paula Ridgeway and Margaret Hanson are the same person. But this would hardly have worked on film with a face as familiar as Garson’s. So in playing the secretary she conveys a secret yearning that works beautifully. (She won an Oscar for that same year’s Mrs. Minniver.)  Carol Burnett fans will enjoy her spoof of this film, Rancid Harvest (see below).

 I was more impressed by Colman’s leading man chops as Sydney Carton in one of David O. Selznick’s literary adaptations, A Tale of Two Cities. This typically convoluted and schmaltzy Charles Dickens novel about the French Revolution was somehow condensed by screenwriters W.P Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman (the latter famous for sophisticated comedies) into a brisk two hours. It’s an MGM “cast of thousands” extravaganza, with a horde of extras marching through the streets of a backlot Paris to tear down prison walls. (There was a well-deserved Oscar nomination for editing, as well as one for best picture.) The acting is theatrical, to put it kindly, but Blanche Yurka as Mme. Defarge, crazed with her thirst for revenge against the “aristos,” stands out. I was surprised at the eventual Roger Corman-style catfight to the death between her and Edna May Oliver as the prim Miss Pross, but it’s in the novel. Amid all this, Colman’s tortured and unlikely hero won’t soon be forgotten.



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