Wednesday 11 April 2012

Movie Review: Harvey (1950)

An invitation to explore the joys of eccentricity, Harvey is a curious mix of charming and frivolous.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a middle-aged, easy-going, always smiling peculiar man, who enjoys a drink -- many drinks -- in the company of an ever-present large, invisible rabbit he calls Harvey. Elwood insists on introducing Harvey to everyone he meets, effectively scaring away most friends and relatives with what appears to be unhinged behaviour, and driving his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle (Victoria Horne) to distraction. Elwood also extends a dinner invitation to every stranger, barfly and bum he encounters, finally convincing Veta that he needs to be institutionalized.

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 a part of Elwood's life, and the lives of others.

Although it's heart is firmly in the right place, Harvey is more intriguing than funny, and the obvious attempts at humour have not necessarily aged well. The message is obscured by behaviour that frequently borders on silly, and the film at times feels most appropriate as a crude parable most suitable for children.

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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