“Harvey” Review

Harvey [1950] – ★★★★

🐇While perhaps trivialising some serious issues, Harvey still presents a sweet and delightful comedy-drama about one eccentric man who befriends an imaginary (or possibly just invisible!) giant rabbit.

This play-based film focuses on a 42 year-old bachelor Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) who is in the habit of talking to his friend – an invisible giant rabbit called Harvey. Worried and embarrassed by Elwood’s peculiarity, his overbearing sister Veta (Josephine Hull) decides to commit poor Elwood to a mental asylum for treatment. It turns out, though, that the job is trickier than anyone could have imagined because Elwood and Harvey’s charms prove irresistible and they “disarm” without trying. This humorous film invites its audience not to take its plot seriously, and there are many fantastical scenes and unbelievable turns of events that would leave the audience in stitches or shaking their heads. James Stewart’s quixotic role balances between unassuming friendliness and complete naiveté, and amidst all the chaotic, crooked trails filled with follies thrown at psychiatry, the film still manages to find that one straight path to the audience’s heart.

German-born director Henry Koster previously directed such sugary, fairy tale-like films as 100 Men and a Girl (1937) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and his light-hearted approach to film-making goes some way to explaining Harvey’s own whimsiness. After “ruining” his sister’s social event, Elwood is taken to a sanatorium to be “locked-up”, but any “hard-core” psychiatric practices, including patients’ manhandling, disintegrate as the medical staff, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) and Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), get to know genteel Elwood who, inexplicably and inadvertently, turns the tables to highlight the incompetence and disorganisation of the psychiatrists themselves. A whirlpool of comedy ensues, involving a myriad of misunderstandings propelled by medical prejudices, and Koster captures diligently the play’s absurdist moments. The story’s psychiatrists want Elwood back to “reality”, but as the minutes and hours roll by, they notice that they start to lose theirs. Perhaps Harvey is far from that deep, staggering critique of a mental establishment that will later emerge in such films as Shock Corridor (1963) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), but these films’ distant echoes are still perceivable, and the image of one simple-minded man capable of bringing down an institution without trying now certainly recalls Hal Ashby’s astute satire Being There (1979). The play’s witty one-liners are also, undoubtedly, the credit of Mary Chase and her Pulitzer-winning play, but the film still has something great of its own to share: James Stewart’s “happy-go-lucky” performance is of a purest delight, and equally great is Josephine Hull’s Academy winning turn as his social-minded sister: Hull’s character’s passionate outbursts as she feels either concern, shame or indignation concerning her brother’s situation or the mental establishment’s practices are a sight to behold.

The present-day audience may also draw thin parallels between Harvey and such films as Jodie Foster’s The Beaver (2011) or maybe even Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994), but the film’s spirit may still be closer to America’s beloved story Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter. As in that classic, Harvey’s message of looking at the brighter side of life, and sharing hopeful, friendly life outlooks with others does hit home, especially considering that the original play was written in 1944, during the final stages of the World War II. Harvey pays only a lip service to any serious considerations of alcoholism or mental health, but the audience does start to wonder whether beneath all the “invisible rabbit” charade there are not in fact wounds inflicted by loneliness and depression, and whether at the core of all the humour and comical shunning of responsibilities, there is not a hidden satire on the insurmountable societal expectations and hectic city life devoid of human considerations and kindness. While there will be no concrete resolutions as to the nature of Elwood’s delusion found in the film, there will be plenty of giveaway messages, and one of them is the importance and power of belief.

In 2009, it was reported that Spielberg eyed the Harvey remake, starring Tom Hanks in the lead, but the project never got off the ground. This is probably for the best since Stewart’s role is truly iconic, and Harvey can be considered a classic now, as part of the American cultural heritage as the best comedies of Billy Wilder.

The film takes a number of legal liberties in portraying attempts at confining a person to a mental institution and not all of its cast does as brilliant a job as either Stewart or Hull, but Harvey is still a sweet and delightful comedy that sends the message not to take life too seriously, as well as to be kind, friendly and considerate to others. It is a heart-warming story, with a touch of satire and plenty of situational comedy, elevated by the great performances from both Stewart and Hull. “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I am with”, says Elwood in the story, and the film tries its best to ensure that the audience also have that – at least for as long as the story lasts.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jane says:

    yes, Tom Hanks is ‘our’ James Stewart isn’t he?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stewart’s appeal–that “unassuming friendliness and complete naiveté” is his trademark. It was the perfect role for him. I’m so glad Spielberg left it alone. I don’t think it would stand today. The address of mental illness is too casual for today’s audiences/critics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was a perfect role for him, and it was also his favourite, I believe. I agree about the mental illness issue part and the fact that the whole thing would have been viewed as problematic today. However, the story does have good intentions and this is evident in that it emphasises more non-conformity and the value of looking at life differently. It breaks stereotypes a little too, which is a good thing perhaps since Elwood comes out as a hero of a sort who just wants to be “himself”, and we should not laugh at or avoid him, but appreciate and even celebrate the eccentricity.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. msjadeli says:

    Excellent review. I loved “Harvey” as a kid. Time to give it another watch.

    Liked by 1 person

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