Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, said to be his favorite role
Last week I managed to watch a digitally restored, almost complete (137 minutes) version of the once famous 1937 Lost Horizon, directed by Frank Capra, screenplay Robert Riskin from James Hilton’s 1933 utopian/dystopian novel of the same name, starring Ronald Colman as Robert Conway, supported by Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Stone, Jane Wyatt, Sam Jaffe, John Howard, and Edward Everett Horton, together with about an hour and one half of features on the film (history of the cuts, how it was put together, how it has been restored). This weekend I went onto the 1942 WW2 film, Random Harvest, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, screenplay Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis, again from a James Hilton novel (1941) of the same name, starring (once again) Ronald Colman as Smithy/Charles Ranier, and supported basically by Greer Garson as Paula Ridgeway/Paula Hanson. I’d decided since rewatching Colman’s The Talk of the Town and recreating my blog-review of it, that I’d try to go on to watch more movies closely associated with Colman. I’m hoping to go on to re-see his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and watch for the first time The Light that Failed (1939), and A Double Life (1947).
Colman as John Arthur with Shelley Winter in A Double Life (for which he won an Oscar)
When I was about 13 I would tell anyone who asked me, “Who is your favorite actor?”, “Why, Ronald Colman, of course.” If the person was someone who watched old movies on Channel 9, there was a chance he or she might have heard of Colman, but since most people I talked to were not the types who watched such movies (they would be people around my age), they’d look at me as if I were mad. Once in a while I was asked politely who Ronald Colman was. Their favorite actor would be a teenage or 20+ year old rock star (Fabian?), or omeone they just saw in an action-adventure or Peyton Place kind of movie, or was famous that year on TV.
Why did I like Colman? My father said I was drawn to the dignified noble gentleman, that it was an aspect of my love of British novels, tendency to idealize; until I watched these two films with some thoughtfulness, and began reading two books I have had in the house for ever so long and only just now really gave myself a chance to read (R. Dixon Smith’s Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema: A biography and filmography; and Sam Frank’s Ronald Colman: A bio-bibliography), I thought my father was right, only that he left out my Anglophilia and love of Colman’s sort of melancholy wit, ironic stance towards life, and distinctive resonant voice.
Well I did and do like all that. Certainly that’s the central presence he enacts in the comic Talk of the Town, and (as I recall) the romantic action-adventure Prisoner of Zenda, with (in TofTT) some strong tolerant disillusion, and (PofZ), dashing debonair heroisms & chivalry in swordplay and jumping from one height to another (with Douglas Fairbanks Junior) thrown in.
Colman as Rudolf Rudolph Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda
But now I know that’s not what draws me. What draws me is his repeated enactments of levels of melancholy, despair, enactment of mentally unstable personalities, who turn to alcohol and retreat, find refuge in private worlds we are given no access to. This does not provide the real explanation for why he never became a prevailing male icon in the way of James Cagney, Humphry Bogart, or Grant, Gable, Flynn (etcetera, etcetera), though certainly upbeatness, ceaseless competition to satisfy appetites, and the supposed admirable amoral cunning of the “ordinary guy” please crowds who turn from most things intellectual and psychologically subversive.
The real explanation it came to me as I watched these two films and remembered the others I have seen is that Colman himself refused to move further into the demonic, would not challenge himself yet further to reach troubling levels of angry brilliance. He limited the number of movies he’d do as well as kind: he would not play in pro-imperial films, not films which were pro-violence, nothing reinforcing injustice, and also chose roles where restraint, understatement, and a certain lightness and suavity combined with responsibility were parts of the role and enabled him to keep his guard up. He actually was offered (it’s said) the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and refused (!). This means his movies are finally limited to show us a character who rises to a civilized response to others. Probably he saw he was not up to enacting the edgy-neurotic aspects of Rhett.
It does mean he determined to maintain a comforting presence, finally. Quiet. Honorable.
The stories of the two movies reveal how he was chosen for movies which could bring out of him this fuller non-social self which could critique our society by its very withdrawal. In Lost Horizon, Robert Conway is trying to save 90 white people from massacre during a wild period of mad violence by Chinese people by getting them on board planes. He is a journalist-statesman hero who manages all this until it’s time for him to get aboard. The plane he’s in is hijacked to a mysterious Utopian place in the farthest reaches of Tibet. He has been chosen as a replacement by a High Lama in a place immune to the ravages of time where all human kind’s bad impulses have been rendered unnecessary and have therefore disappeared. Shangri-La.
Robert and the High Lama
While there he falls in love with Sondra Bizet (Jane Wyatt), a young woman whose presence is never explained, but who he sees from afar bathing in the nude. She enacts a kind of utterly generous free-spirited nymph.
Jane Wyatt dressed in a boyish way
The action consists of showing us how after an initial desire to return home, the other people in the plane gradually fall in love with the place and its mood. They begin to spend their lives doing good to others: running schools, exploring truths about the physical universe, loving one another and being kind and courteous. This is not done in a preachy, but rather comic way. Only Robert’s brother, George (John Howard) continues to rage with boredom and demands to return to ordinary society in England. He insists on returning at the risk of his life, and Robert (ever self-sacrificing) agrees finally to return with him, half-agreeing that what they have been told about Shangri-La cannot be wholly true. They bring another young woman with them and in their trek with a group of hired companions, they see her age suddenly to a ancient woman. The brother becomes frantic as they climb in bewildering patterns through the treacherous snow, and falls to his death.
Robert then tries to make his way back. He fails and we are told what happened to him through newstories about him reported to upper class males in high places in the British government and clubs. At first he lost his memory, and then he told the story of Shangri-La after having agreed to return; one night though he escaped and began to try to return to this place against the will of others. We hear of his valiant treks and in the last minutes of the film watch his figure in the snow apparently lost and near death. Suddenly he looks up to see the fence to the place at its last outpost and his face lights up. There the film ends. It could be he has made his way back; it could be a mirage after which he dies.
The last close-up of the film
The film is badly dated in some ways: first, I for one cannot believe in this ideal place, and it is not made believable. We see only our friends at dinner and with one noble man. The DeSadean Lord-of-the-Flies point of view is the one that prevails nowadays, e.g, as seen in A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower: people when they get together in such a community will end in a terrifying ugly dictatorship under powerful men who exploit and use the weak. We are shown women as secondary creatures in the place who exist to serve the men. Where the children come from, and who cares for them is a puzzle. The way Conway is depicted as a worshipped savior and hero won’t wash. The settings are just not persuasive (even if the film-makers went to great lengths to create them).
What keeps the film alive is the acting of Mitchell, Horton, Stone (a prostitute who somehow gets on the plane and has a moving speech referring to her previous life) and Colman. The ethical ideal presented which in the year leading up to WW2 was absolutely subversive. The film, admired by Roosevelt, was savagely cut so that its criticism of colonialism, and so too Conway’s disillusioned speech while drunk on the plane. We also watch on with great intensity out of our desire to see Conway stay there, so the suspense is, Will the brother get him to leave; once having left, Will he get back safely? We want him to end up safe somewhere. We care about him. Wyatt is a symbol of peace for him to return to.
Smith escaping from aslyum
Random Harvest is yet more bizarre in its break with realism. On the day WW1 ended a shell-shocked veteran (Colman) is taken to an asylum; he cannot remember who he is. He is called Smithy (John Smith). He escapes from the sanitorium with the help of a beautiful young woman, Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson whose face uncannily resembles that of Keira Knightley, showing that the ideal face for women is still centrally white Anglo).
With her help he begins to take care of himself and resume an independent non-clinging adult identity (he had been behaving like a child). They marry, have a son, as he has begun to recover his strength (if not his memory), he is to try to support them at last, he travels to Liverpool to try to get a job as a reporter. Alas, he gets into an accident, his head banged so hard, that he is jerked back into remembering his name, Charles Ranier, and forgets all his experience from the sanitarium to his marriage. He is the wealthy son of an upper class family and returns to the ancient estate to take his place with them.
Fast forward a number of years and Ranier has become a successful businessman. His younger cousin, Kitty who fell in love with him as a child has grown up and pressured him into marrying her. Nonetheless, he is apparently dependent on a secretary in the next room, who when she comes to take dictation and plan for the day turns out to be Paula. Unbeknownst to him she has followed him there, and utterly abject to him, not revealed her identity. Her heart is near breaking when she realizes he is going to marry Kitty. We see she meets regularly with a psychiatrist from the mental asylum who advises her the shock of telling Ranier the truth would be too much for him.
Apparently her son by Ranier died; this is presented as grief to her, but not so bad as what she’d feel if he married Kitty.
To make a long story short: Ranier realizes he doesn’t love Kitty, and he turns to marry Paula as his real support. However, he tells her he does not, cannot love her (he doesn’t know why) and so we are to understand they don’t have sex. As in other films of this era, everyone is overdressed luxuriously, go to upper class cultural events (theatre). As time passes, Ranier becomes alerted to his past, and returns to Liverpool and then the place where he and Paula first met and loved. She has retreated to this place too (distraught at his continuing not to love her, and implicitly at their not being lovers). He slowly retraces his way to the place they first met (a store), then a pub they went to, then an inn and finally their cottage which is still standing there. (This made me think of Maurice Sendak’s book where a child returns home at the end of a long day and the soup is still hot.)
A key he has carried all this while fits in the door, he opens it, turns round and there is Paula by the fence. He rushes over to her and they kiss at last. The camera’s last scene is not of his face, but of Paula’s joyous, upbeat. And the movie ends.
There is no explanation for the onset or return of the amnesia. As in Stella Dallas, the portrait of our hero as a businessman is not at all convincing. We cannot believe he succeeds and are given no sense of how he could sell and buy and trade; he is such a gentle upper class non-aggressive presence. I have read this is a flaw in all post-code pre-1960s movies. The men are unreal. We are never allowed to see into Smithy’s mind; there is no anger, only a surface sweetness. The use of voice-over would have helped enormously. The critique of war, and the values of the society that supports it is conveyed through occasional stills, such as this:
Smith/Ranier buffeted by an anonymous crowd
And yet this film also works. I was really moved when Colman rushed over to Garson to hug her and cling to her. I felt so relieved for him and her. Almost enough to get over my disappointment in being deprived of his face as I had been of his mind throughout the film. It is a remarkable film whose strength derives from Colman’s enactment, even ever so quietly, of a frightening state of mind.
Both films spoke to their generation and they speak to us today again, I believe mostly through Colman’s presence, even in the limited way he was willing to manifest the man within in public. Frank and Dixon agree about how he kept his private life out of the public gaze: from middle class British people where the father died before he could secure the family, he was driven to lower class occupations until he found himself as an actor and made his way slowly to Hollywood; he had one long-time close male friend with whom he travelled as a young man; he was first married to a woman whom (we are told) emotionally abused him and then to one who gave him a happy life; he famously sued Goldwyn for trying to get attention to his underlying persona by spreading rumors he was really alcoholic. Late in life he stopped acting. He had made enough money and understood the lack of value in the public world to keep on. Here is an excellent site for pictures and filmography.
Perhaps the key to his failure to become an icon influential in our society is that he didn’t aspire to. I suspect he thought it would be of no real use in changing anything. His psychological baggage was at heart, the tormented man, originally of high integrity. In fact he wasn’t tormented but accepted the world; how else could he have been so successful in his career? he took it at its real value, and that’s the key to his laugh.