Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Susan Peters in Random Harvest

Susan Peters received her only Oscar nomination for her performance as Kitty Chiclet in Mervyn LeRoy's Random Harvest. Unfortunately, Susan Peters is mostly known nowadays (if mentioned at all) as a tragic Hollywood story after a 1945 hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Before the accident she was being groomed as a major star at MGM following her nomination for this film and a few other parts, but of course Hollywood didn't known what to do with a wheelchair-bound actress and Peters career fizzled out until she died at age 31 from what was essentially anorexia. It's a sad story for sure, especially considering how luminous she is in the role of Kitty in Random Harvest.

The film is a romantic drama about a man, "John Smith" (Oscar-nominated Ronald Colman) who loses his memory during World War I and falls in love with a singer who helps him make peace with his lost memories. After him and the woman, Paula (Greer Garson) get married and have a child he is hit by a car and suddenly regains the memory of his real life as Charles Rainier but simultaneously loses all of his memories of Paula and their time spent together. Peters enters as Kitty, Charles' step-niece who has a huge crush on him and eventually becomes engaged to him. However, Paula has found work as Charles' secretary and is determined to get him to remember their time together. It's a terribly overwrought film that is a little dull but still has a nice romantic glow whenever Garson and Colman are onscreen together.

Susan Peters has a tough job with the role of Kitty, having to traverse the film's drastic jumping around in time that forces her to age from a teen to a grown woman in what amounts to a few minutes onscreen. She's also got a really creepy romance, with vaguely incestuous undertones and a whopping 30 year age difference between her and Colman. It's a testament to Peters that she manages to make all of these aspects substantially less creepy (though not completely), through her charisma and charm. She's very convincing as a teenager, nicely expressing Kitty's childish crush on her uncle and her youthful confidence. She does absolutely all of the heavy lifting in the Charles/Kitty relationship, convincing us that the Kitty would be attracted to her uncle's romanticized mystique. She's not given a whole lot of time to develop a romance, since essentially two scenes in Kitty and Charles are engaged but Peters pulls it off with teenage aplomb and ardent forcefulness.

Because the performance is essentially three brief sequences, Peters has to work hard at showing the amount of maturity that Kitty has achieved in her second and third sequences. She definitely pulls it off, showing a more sophisticated and mature Kitty who has kept the torch going for her uncle over many years and maintains the determination to marry him. After the first two sequences featured, respectively, a teenage Kitty telling her uncle they will get married and a grown up Kitty getting him to propose to her, Peters is finally given a more emotional moment in her third and final scene. While her and Charles are picking hymns for their upcoming wedding they happen up the one that he and Paula got married to and Kitty recognizes that Charles still loves someone else. It's a beautifully acted moment, as we get a close-up on Kitty's face as her expression of giddy excitement changes to confusion and bewilderment to finally disappointment. Peters acts the scene with maturity and skill, having maneuvered Kitty to this place in only a few scenes. Her goodbye to Charles is touching and very noble, something the audience wouldn't have expected from the slightly annoying and petulant teen at the very beginning.

This is a perfectly lovely performance by Susan Peters, even if for the most part Kitty Chiclet is nothing more than a prop of a part that is meant to illustrate how attractive and charming Ronald Colman's character is. Peters tackles the role with charm and transitions the performance very well, but is essentially stuck by the part nonetheless. This nomination feels more like a "star is born" nomination than anything else, because I would very much have liked to see how Peters' career turned out after this lovely breakthrough. 3/5 Thelmas.

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