Harvey (1950)

Directed by Henry Koster

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” – Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd

When I was younger I had the good fortune of seeing the movie Harvey for the first time under perfect conditions. I knew nothing about it; I was completely unaware of its existence. I was probably around fourteen and I’m pretty sure I saw it on TV one night.

I started watching and there it unfolded, a delightful story about a lovely man with an invisible six foot rabbit, a pooka, as a his best friend.

A movie like Harvey is easily dismissed as being light – a bit of pleasant fluff, not the sort of thing worth considering when discussing “important” movies, the real thing. Harvey often is dismissed this way. Myself, I think that is a mistake.

The story is relatively straightforward: Elwood P. Dowd is independently wealthy, having received an inheritance years ago (including a large house). So he spends his days wandering about, going to bars and getting tipsy with his invisible friend. More importantly, he meets people, engages them in conversation, often invites them home (and they’re often the down and out) and just generally enjoying the company and diversity of people.

His activities and, more importantly, is belief in a six foot tall invisible rabbit results in most people considering him nuts, though most see it as harmless. Elwood is such a nice man.

His sister Vita (Josephine Hull) does have problems with it. She lives in the same house. How is she to present her marriageable daughter to the world and find potential husband material when her brother keeps showing up and is so obviously unbalanced – or at least a social problem?

Ultimately, she decides to have Elwood committed to an asylum.

The problem, however, is that with his very engaging and pleasant manner, and with his invisible friend Harvey (a mischievous spirit), everything goes sideways as it is Vita who is committed, Elwood the doctors mistake as the sane one, and chaos that builds and builds as everyone keeps mistaking who is who.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is that while people pretend otherwise, others see Harvey too – including Vita and the head of the asylum, Dr. Chumley.

And everyone loves Harvey for the calming effect he has, which may be why Elwood is so easy going and darned likeable.

I don’t think you could call this movie slapstick or screwball, though there are elements of those in the chaos that keeps building. And I don’t think you could call it a romantic comedy, though there are elements of romance in it.

It is, however, very funny and very charming as Elwood with his easy-going pleasantness and Harvey with his mischief work their magic on all the other characters who, prior to encountering the pair, are caught up in their own worlds and worries. If the movie has a message, I suppose it would be, “Lighten up.” Life is so much more pleasant that way.

Harvey began on the stage as a play of the same name by Mary Chase (who also wrote the screenplay). Jimmy Stewart played Elwood on stage, though he wasn’t the actor who originated the role (that was Frank Fay). Part of the reason Stewart took on the stage role was because this was a movie he very much wanted to do on screen.

When released, the film didn’t exactly do boffo business. It was something of a disappointment in those terms and Stewart afterward even questioned whether making the movie was, for him, a career mistake. The years have changed all that and, in the end, it was one of his favourite roles.

I think that when considering Jimmy Stewart that while the films he made with Frank Capra, Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock all have to be considered, a movie like Harvey also has to be considered if only because I think it represents an aspect of the man, a way of seeing that was an essential part of who he was. While the other roles may have tapped into the darker and more complex elements of his character, his sense of how the world should be is articulated in Harvey and, as contrast, provides some context and meaning to those other roles.

Harvey is the aspirational Jimmy Stewart.

And it’s an absolutely delightful movie.

4 Responses

  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    I just watched this movie and was wondering…..Did the actual house exist or where they all sound stages?…..Considering the time it was filmed, I assume they were all sound stages…..Just wondering.

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    I also think that Josephine Hull should have won the Best Actress award for this film….in no way is she a “supporting” actress in this…..She ruled the entire film and I could not take my eyes off of her actions and reactions to the other players. Incredible actress and a natural comedienne!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My grandmother was just like her.

  3. Lisa says:

    I saw this movie for the first time about a year ago. I’ll admit that I’d never even heard of it and at age 37 that’s significant.
    What a beautiful movie.

    Rarely are screen characters more engaging than Stewart’s Elwood. You just want to know him and be around him because you would be sure to leave in a better mood than when you started. I think the message of the film was very simply, “Try to be a bit nicer to people. It makes life more pleasant for everyone concerned.” I’m not a sunshine and rainbows kind of person, but “Harvey” manages to convey this idea without making me gag.

    Of additional note, the movie’s acceptance and humanization of the mentally ill (or in Elwood’s case, perceived as mentally ill) to be quite startling given when it was written. The 40’s and 50’s were still the virtual dark ages of psychiatry. Elwood’s character in the end is defined outside of Harvey.

    Thanks for the lovely review.

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