Saturday, February 5, 2011

Classic Film Review: Harvey

Harvey (1950)
Directed By: Henry Koster
Based on the Play By: Mary Chase
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Josephine Hull, Charles Drake and Peggy Dow

"We sit at the bar, have a drink or two, play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they say, 'We don't know your name, Mister, but you're a very nice fellow.' Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments." ~Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart)~

Harvey is one of those TCM staples. I've only caught bits and pieces of it on t.v. over the years, but I'd never seen the film in its entirety. Jimmy Stewart is enough to draw me to a film, but I was also intrigued by its unique concept.

Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered and independently wealthy man. He lives in a mansion with his older sister, Veta Louise (Josephine Hull, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role), and would appear to have everything going for him. However, his sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), are afraid to receive visitors to their home out of humiliation. Elwood has one very close friend who follows him everywhere: a 6 foot 3 rabbit whom Elwood calls Harvey. Elwood openly converses with Harvey, sometimes even guiding his imaginary friend through a door. The two share long drinks together at the local bar. As Elwood calmly explains to those who are willing to listen, Harvey is a pooka; a shape-shifting fairy-like creature from Celtic mythology who can take on the form of any animal and can bend time and predict the future. When Veta schemes to have her brother locked away in an asylum, a misunderstanding with the doctor, Sanderson (Charles Drake), results in Veta's institutionalization instead of Elwood.

Stewart portrays Elwood as the kindest man you're likely to ever meet. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a nicer character ever being captured on film. He's not generous in an unrealistic way; Stewart made sure to instil him with every ounce of humanity and genuine personality he could conjure. Elwood warms even the coldest hearts with his soft voice and lack of judgment. Elwood charms people because he listens to them and appreciates their life stories. Only an actor of Stewart's calibre could have done justice to such a complex character. In the hands of a lesser artist, Elwood could have come off as a naive and misunderstood. Stewart lost the Best Actor Oscar that year (to Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac), but it's one of the greatest performances I've seen. It's not an easy task to share half of your scenes with someone who isn't there; yet Stewart made it look so easy, even maintaining eye contact with the empty space in front of him. You can almost feel the actual presence of that rabbit. 

It's hard to be in Stewart's shadow, especially in Harvey, but the supporting cast were all strong in their respective roles, especially Josephine Hull as Veta, Charles Drake as Dr. Sanderson and Peggy Dow as the beautiful, young nurse known only as Ms. Kelly. All convey the conflicting emotions of their characters as they struggle to solve the riddle of Elwood and Harvey. As a viewer, it's through these secondary characters that we realize that not everything should be taken at face value. We all want to believe in Harvey, including Veta, who even admits to having seen the rabbit on a couple of occasions. Is this due to Elwood's persuasive nature or is there some truth to his tale?

I had a discussion with someone who didn't like the implication in the film that Harvey is real. I think the film leaves it open to debate, depending on the viewer. Even though a person's perception of reality may be different from yours, it doesn't make it any less a reality. Elwood believes, wholeheartedly, that Harvey is there in front of him. And, for Elwood, that's the truth. As a viewer, you can leave the film thinking Harvey was either real or just a figment of an overactive imagination. But, in the end, does it really matter?

The screenplay, adapted from Mary Chase's 1944 play, is whip-smart and manages to be hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. When Elwood is asked why he and Harvey spend so much time listening to other people's trouble, he replies, "They tell about the big, terrible things that they've done and the big, wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes and their regrets, their loves and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me and when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back, but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us and that's too bad, isn't it?"It's rare to come by fascinating dialogue like that, filled with so much meaning. And to hear Stewart recite these lines make them all the more poignant.

What I admired most about the screenplay was its ability to make the viewer understand that even Elwood himself doesn't understand Harvey's purpose in his life. Despite this, Elwood welcomes Harvey's presence into his life, no questions asked. We are often afraid of what we don't understand, but Elwood makes the best of it and never professes to have all the answers. To him, Harvey just is.

Elwood is gentle and harmless, but he's not considered "normal." The film leaves you wondering what "normal" really means anyway. Elwood's warm nature would have been severely altered had he been injected with the drugs he was threatened with at the institution. And, really, who would want to change a man like Elwood? There's a little bit of madness in us all.