1950 - unrated - 104 Mins.
|Director: Henry Koster
|Producer: John Beck
|Written By: Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney
|Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake and Cecil Kellaway
|Review by: Bill King
Late in the film, James Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd has a good talk with Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake). He explains to him how he met Harvey, how he and Harvey like to go out for drinks and how they both meet interesting people with problems. Elwood says that after he introduces them to Harvey, they walk away as if cleansed by the experience. He says he never sees those same people again, presumably because they have no more reason to enter a bar and drink away their sorrows. Elwood has a personality so endearing, so amiable, that anyone listening to him can feel a great burden lifted off his shoulders.
How about a drink Harvey?
"Harvey" is the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary friend Harvey. Harvey is a giant rabbit, over six feet tall; only Elwood can see and talk to him. Onlookers see a crazy guy talking to himself, but those close to him know about Harvey and tolerate it; all except his sister Veta (Josephine Hull), who can't stand Elwood's imagination any longer. She finds embarrassment in his tendency to strike up a conversation with anybody, which is soon followed by an introduction to Harvey. When Veta plans to hold a dinner party for many of her friends, she asks someone to keep Elwood out of the house through the duration of the dinner. The plan fails, and Elwood returns, excited at the number of guest in his home. He starts introducing everyone to Harvey, and of course no one sees him. After the guests leave, Veta makes up her mind to have Elwood committed to a mental hospital.
This is where Dr. Sanderson works. Veta comes in to fill out the paperwork, but Dr. Sanderson thinks she is the crazy one, because she becomes hysterical and claims to be able to see Harvey. The good doctor thinks Veta has a drinking problem, and tells one of the orderlies to take her to the washroom for a bath. Meanwhile, Dr. Sanderson explains to Elwood that she requires hospitalization. The dialogue is carefully written in this scene to implicate Veta and let Elwood off the hook. Elwood, of course, being the gracious one, understands what the doctor is saying and signs the paperwork to have his sister committed. Once that error is realized, the hospital staff searches far and wide for the eccentric Elwood, who had just recently commissioned a painting of himself and Harvey.
The obvious question to ask is whether Harvey is real or not. There is compelling evidence to support either claim. The picture is often framed so that Harvey occupies the same space, and objects move for no reason. The man in charge of the hospital, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), even succumbs to Harvey's influence and is frightened by him. On the other hand, not once is Harvey ever seen on screen. Elwood talks to him, and he even stops in mid-sentence when Harvey "interrupts" him. Harvey becomes a real character by the way others respond to the idea of him, not so much because he inhabits any space.
Elwood P. Dowd is one of the most gracious and good-natured characters I've ever seen. He smiles constantly throughout the film, as if his only reason for being is to please others. When teamed with Harvey, he has this positive affect on everyone around him. No other actor could have played the part better than James Stewart. Stewart is the best actor ever to take on the persona of the everyman. He was the ordinary guy who found himself in adverse situations. Later in his career, he added a more complex dimension to his acting style, and that can especially be seen in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.
His role in Harvey is a comedic one, but it harkens back to his days as George Bailey. Elwood and George (from "It's a Wonderful Life") had an obsessive need to ensure everyone else was happy, usually at the expense of their own happiness. George Bailey sacrificed a lot in order to prevent the town of Bedford Falls from falling into the corrupt hands of Mr. Potter. Elwood, with Harvey at his side, sacrifices his public image in favor of maintaining a friendship with an imaginary rabbit; but that friendship, as Elwood explains to Dr. Sanderson, changes people for the better.
"Harvey" was based on the Broadway play of the same name, and James Stewart played the lead on stage as well as this film version. His performance is central to the film's success, and although he garnered a lot of acclaim, it was Josephine Hull who took home an Academy Award. Her performance as the worrisome Veta has a frantic quality to it - the result of years of spending time with a brother who believes in a giant rabbit. The plot of the film is perpetually silly, but James Stewart, one of American's greatest actors, adds an extra layer of complexity to the movie to give it its meaning.