Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Harvey (1950)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, from my personal collection.

I'll always remember the day in high school when I stayed up for over 24 hours watching a Jimmy Stewart marathon on TCM. I think it was sometime around the 2am mark when Harvey came on, and I've been smitten ever since. Based on the play by Mary Chase, the film stars Stewart as the ever-so-pleasant Elwood P Dowd, whose sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle May (Victoria Horne) are fed up with his titular best friend, an invisible, 6-foot-three-and-a-half-inch-tall talking rabbit. They conspire to place Elwood in a mental institution so that their lives can proceed normally (Veta is intent on marrying her daughter off) but a series of misunderstandings leads them to rethink their decision.

This movie is the very definition of the warm fuzzies. Centered around the unquestionably delightful performance of Jimmy Stewart, Harvey delivers a lighthearted, fanciful story that at the same time delves into deeper questions of family, loyalty, and sanity. Veta feels she is going mad the longer she lives with a brother who makes room in his life for an invisible rabbit- Elwood is so obliging to and so engaged with this unseen force it's almost impossible to not believe Harvey exists. Even though towards the end we learn that this "pooka" does indeed exist, the audience is likely to be convinced long before that through some clever hints and various nods from Stewart.

I love the script so much. It is one of the most quotable films I've ever seen, with so many lines that either crack me up or give me pause. Stewart gets most of the best lines, maintaining a sweet and disaffected air as he inquires politely about those around him and ruminates about his times with Harvey. He embodies the role of Elwood so completely, comfortably slipping into the shoes of this mild-mannered and disarmingly innocent man. His past self is partially restructured through other characters' comments, but it is only this version of Elwood that we see, a man who chose to change his priorities after his mother's death. Of course Josephine Hull (who won an Oscar for her performance) gives Stewart a run for his money as Veta. Her facial expressions are absolutely priceless, and her histrionics after she is mistaken for a mental patient are hilarious.

A big thing about Harvey is how it reminds that everything about mental health science and hospitals in the 50's was just WRONG. Elwood's would-be psychiatrist Dr Sanderson is a super jerk and way sexist, but luckily a good amount of the dialogue around him is a put-down of his character and assumptions. Dr Chumley is an asshole too. Seriously, just crazy superdickery.

Everything about this movie makes me smile, except the end, which makes me cry for about the same reasons as what makes me smile. Elwood is so sweet and gentle, so hopeful and honest. It's heartbreaking. There's something naive about him, despite flashes of his obvious intelligence and world experience. The fact that he chooses to be this way, and doesn't give in to any of the societal and familial pressures around him is the most important point. He gives everyone his business card. He invites everyone over for dinner. He holds doors for people, he asks after his friends' families, he compliments openly. His loves spending time with his best friend Harvey. He must be crazy.


Pair This Movie With: I was excited when I read the Generation X arc about a pooka named Elwood, but that's definitely a me thing. Otherwise this usually puts me in the mood for more Stewart. Can't go wrong with The Philadelphia Story, You Can't Take It With You, or The Shop Around the Corner. Alternatively, Arsenic and Old Lace offers some more Josephine Hull action.


  1. I love old movies, but I haven't seen this one yet. I may be reaching, but I can see this one as the inspiration for Donnie Darko.

  2. A classic with a great story that gets better and better. Good review.

  3. Glad to hear that you're a fan of Harvey. I just caught up with it a few years ago and loved it. The dialogue is so sharp that I had laughing fits a few times, which takes a lot. I can't wait to revisit it again and think it's one of Stewart's most clever performances.

  4. Omgggg, I first saw Harvey during a Jimmy Stewart marathon on TCM and was immediately smitten TOO! Legit this is on of my favorite movies, whenever I'm depressed I bust out this movie. It never fails to make me feel better.

  5. Great review Alex!

    I love this movie!I watched it for the first time years ago and I can still remember it today.

    Jimmy Stewart was the epitome of charm and grace in this film. It's his performance alone that brings Harvey (the rabbit) to life and it's a perfect ensemble cast that bring Harvey (the film) to life and it certainly deserves all of its kudo, acclaim, and audience love.

  6. Ms Mariah: I don't think that's a stretch, I definitely think HARVEY in some way inspired the invisible giant rabbit concept in DONNIE DARKO! Too much of a coincidence otherwise.

    Dan O: It really is better and better every time!

    Dan H: I think it might be my favorite Stewart performance, though I haven't seen all of his films. And gosh I know the dialogue is absolutely top-notch!

    Ashley: Weeeird I wonder if it was the same marathon! This is a cheer-me-up film for me too, there's just something so warm about it.

    Russell: Thanks! It's certainly deserving of the appreciation, and I'm happy to see so many others love it as much as I do!

  7. What a lovely write up! Thanks for sharing your love for this film

    I definitely need to do a bit of a trip backwards, I am so busy with new releases and screenings I often forget how cool an older flick is.


  8. Apparently trying to start a group slow clap while chanting "Harvey... Harvey... Harvey..." makes you look weird. However I contend that since he's a invisible pookah with superpowers, it's only right that we do it every once in a while because he could have completely done something without us knowing it!

  9. Brilliant review!

    Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and he plays in my favorite movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life. Unfortunately, I have never seen Harvey, but I will get to it soon, thanks!

  10. James Stewart is one of the greats. I love the feel of almost all his roles and resent that some people say he was a one-note actor. Harvey is a swell performance

  11. This one is a favorite, and it's also a favorite performance by Jesse White, the hospital orderly. After spending years with these rewatchings, he and the sisters are usually my favorite performers.

    And I'd pair this one with ARSENIC & OLD LACE, then maybe MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, just to see a complete set of films where sisters confirm that it's everyone else who's "pixilated" and crazy - they're not!