“The Wonderful Pulitzer Prize Play… becomes one of the Great Motion Pictures of our Time!”
Director: Henry Koster
Cast: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow
Synopsis: Due to his insistence that he has an invisible six-foot rabbit for a best friend, a whimsical middle-aged man is thought by his family to be insane – but he may be wiser than anyone knows.
Every movie provides a form of escapism for its audience, but there’s only a select few that take you to a place from which you’d rather not return. Most of the movies that achieve this rare feat are pretty old, too, because we now live in a grasping, cynical age in which too many are in constant pursuit of instant self-gratification. As a society, we don’t care about others the way we used to, and gain pleasure from scenarios which favour misery and suffering over anything remotely uplifting or life-affirming. A lot of people would scoff at the kind of philosophy promoted in a film like Harvey, a funny, gentle movie who’s eccentric hero, Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart – It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo), realised long ago that in this world you need to be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Elwood recommends pleasant. You may quote him.
He lives with his sister, Veta (Josephine Hull – a familiar face who has made far fewer films than you would think) and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), and for a while now his best friend has been an invisible 6’ 3” white rabbit named Harvey. Naturally, Elwood’s insistence on talking to an empty space as if it were occupied by a giant living creature causes a certain amount of consternation amongst the female members of the household, especially as Veta is attempting to assimilate her daughter into polite society in the hope of bagging her a suitor. Reluctantly, Veta decides she must have her brother committed to an asylum, but her attempts to do so somehow result in her being locked up in a padded cell while Elwood walks free…
The role of Elwood P. Dowd has Jimmy Stewart written all over it. In fact it’s impossible to imagine any other actor of a similar age pulling off the part so successfully. Stewart was handsome, despite his gangling frame, but he also had a vagueness and whimsical charm about him that was perfect for the part of Dowd. The rest of the cast, led by Hull and Horne, provide solid support. The panicky dowager and desperate, frustrated spinster are stereotypes stretching back to Hollywood comedies of the 1930s, and they’re usually intensely annoying, but for some reason they work in Harvey. Maybe it’s because Veta has such a hard time of it, both physically and mentally, that we can’t help but sympathise with her, and because Myrtle Mae is played with comparative restraint by the versatile Horne. Cecil Kellaway (Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin) also excels as the pompous head of the asylum who eventually finds himself lying on the couch in his office telling Dowd all about his happy place (“Wouldn’t that get a little monotonous?” enquires Dowd. “Just Akron, cold beer and ‘poor, poor thing’ for two weeks?”). Only Charles Drake (Now, Voyager, It Came from Outer Space) and Peggy Dow as the obligatory love interest are a little too bland to hold our interest.
While Dowd’s perspective on life is a seductive one, and the film has bundles of charm, it just falls short of being a bona fide classic, thanks largely to some contrived situations that rely too heavily on characters not behaving the way normal people would. The film’s message is a simple one which the movie ultimately conveys in a heartwarming fashion, and these manic moments, most of which are in the earlier scenes, are at odds with its otherwise gentle nature. It’s still worth watching, though – especially when your faith in human nature is at low ebb.
(Reviewed 29th June 2015)