Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Movie Review: Harvey (1950)
An invitation to explore the joys of eccentricity, Harvey is a curious mix of the charming and the frivolous.
At the mental hospital operated by the stuffy Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the attending physician Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) initially insists on locking up Veta and releasing Elwood. Eventually Elwood is institutionalized, but oblivious to his situation, he wanders away from the clinic and back to the bars, with Veta, Myrtle, Dr. Sanderson, the nurse Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow) and the asylum attendant Wilson (Jesse White) in pursuit. Amidst the bedlam, Elwood gets the chance to explain to Sanderson and Kelly how he met Harvey, and how the rabbit makes his life an always pleasant and positive experience. Veta and Dr. Chumley finally have to decide on the value of keeping Harvey as a part of Elwood's life, and the lives of others.
James Stewart ambles through Harvey as a man clearly enjoying his own world in the company of his large invisible rabbit, although what lies behind his ridiculously rosy disposition is never fully explained. The screenplay (co-written by Mary Chase and based on her award-winning play) is happy to have Elwood just meander through life spreading his version of good cheer to the general irritation of everyone else, and Stewart plays along, although the shtick gets repetitive and tiresome sooner than expected.
The supporting cast is tied to the land of theatre comedy. Josephine Hull earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of the flustered but determined Veta, although her performance, like the rest of the characters surrounding Elwood, belongs more on the constrained and artificial stage than the more liberating screen.
Without making too much use of the black and white contrasts, director Henry Koster is functional while avoiding distractions and artistic flourishes. He does cleverly create the space for the vaporous presence of Harvey, allowing his cameras to share the belief that the big rabbit is right there next to Stewart.
Harvey is both whimsical and heavy-handed. It's message promoting tolerance for eccentricity is welcome, but the film offers little in terms of thoughtful nuance. The rabbit, after all, is 6' 3.5" tall.
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