#32 — Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950)
When we screened Harvey in a “Writers and Their Movies” class I took in college, the professor introduced it by writing a quote on the blackboard. It was from one of her distant colleagues, another film scholar, decrying the film as a dreadful exercise in excusing and glorifying alcoholism. Underneath the quote she attributed it to “The Biggest Idiot of All Time,” or something very much like that. And thus I was introduced to the valuable higher education principle of actively questioning intellectual authority.
Harvey is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Mary Chase that was an enormous hit on Broadway, running for over four years in its original iteration. It is a comedy centered on an outcast, Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a member of a well-to-do family who earns the exasperation of ire of those around him because of his friendship with an invisible rabbit named Harvey, who stands over six feet tall and gladly accompanies Elwood on his daily sojourn to the local bar. The most put out by these unique circumstances is Elwood’s sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), who actively conspires to turn him over to the psychiatric authorities. The relaxed plot follows both Veta in her efforts and Elwood as he explains the various philosophies he lives by to those he encounters, all the while gradually convincing them that Harvey is a figure worth seeing. Elwood’s story is compelling because his ease with life is beautifully enticing. He talks of “golden moments” and the simple value of being pleasant. If there’s a lead worth following, its the one provided by the kind soul who honestly asserts, “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with.” For some of us, the statement “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it” has its own unique appeal, too.
Stewart has no shortage of iconic roles in his filmography, but none fits him so perfectly as Elwood. It draws on his everyman charisma and his penchant for laconic salesmanship, the succinctness of his words only making his pitch more convincing. Stewart long maintained it was one of his favorite parts (he even played it again in a Broadway revival and then for a 1972 television movie, both times with Helen Hayes as his co-star) and the pleasure shows throughout the performance. Director Henry Koster, never a pushy visual stylist, wisely trusts the material and his actors to carry the film. Besides Stewart’s graceful work, Hull is marvelous, imperious but also loving enough that it makes her inevitable acquiescence to the preferable existence that includes Harvey not just understandable, but somewhat admirable. What could be cliched becomes a honest expression of affection. My old college professor was correct: there’s no cause to churlishly take issue with any bit of Harvey.