Thursday, September 3, 2009

Harvey (1950)

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, so I pulled my Harvey DVD off the shelf and sat down for a viewing. This 1950 comedy was my grandfather’s favorite movie starring his favorite actor, James Stewart, of whom he could do a spot-on imitation. The film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Mary Chase, follows lovable boozer, Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) who lives with his sister, Veta (Josephine Hull) and her timid daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). The two women detest Elwood’s drinking, but what irritates them more is his faithful companion, a six-foot, three and one-half inch-tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. When Elwood's embarrassing imagination begins to damage Veta and Myrtle Mae’s social status, Veta decides to have Elwood committed to a local mental institution. But when she confesses she's seen Harvey herself, the doctor institutionalizes Veta instead!

While Harvey seems like a run-of-the-mill screwball comedy, it’s actually a very touching film filled with pathos and heart. Elwood, Veta, Myrtle Mae and the rest of the cast find themselves involved in plenty of slap-stick moments and caught up in a string of amusing farces. But, as past New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther so eloquently put it, “the real virtue of this picture is its wonderfully warm and sympathetic presentation of character and its wistfully sweet appreciation of the innocence of a benevolent lush. As Elwood P. Dowd, Mr. Stewart is utterly beguiling and disarming of all annoyance. A faint touch of seeming imbecility, which is somewhat distasteful at the start, is quickly dispelled as Mr. Stewart makes Elwood a man to be admired.”

Elwood’s ability to capriciously charm and befriend those around him is most evident in this remarkable scene where he explains his extraordinary friendship with Harvey (one of the best-acted scenes I’ve ever seen on film):

James Stewart delivered innumerable amazing performances in his nearly 60 year career, but the part of Elwood P. Dowd was among his own personal favorites. During the introductory commentary on the DVD, Stewart recounts his memories of playing the role of Elwood on stage (on London’s West End, not the Broadway production) and in the film and the subsequent joy it brought to him and his many fans over the years. The appeal of Harvey, Stewart presumed, stems from the common regard for a dear friend (whether real or imagined) that one can always turn to for advice and encouragement. Stewart also pays tribute to the delightfully hilarious Josephine Hull, who originated the role of Veta Simmons on stage. Her brilliant performance as the batty and finicky head of the family brings a certain veracity to the film and also won Ms. Hull the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1951.

Ultimately, Harvey delights because of its good-natured humor and its gentle knock at those who automatically condemn ideas outside of socially acceptable norms without thinking for themselves.

It was recently announced that this enduring classic will soon be re-made with Steven Spielberg directing. While I’m skeptical about most remakes of classic films, the one redeeming quality is that they inevitably bring awareness to the original.

In any case, next time you see Harvey, give him my regards, please!


  1. Thank you so much for that wonderful trip down memory lane. I just loved Jimmy Stewart -- he was a wonderful man, as well as a wonderful actor. That clip from the movie was just right.

    A remake of Harvey, unless they can somehow get Jimmy Stewart back from Hollywood Heaven, would just not be the same.

  2. I love this movie; it's one of my favorites. I'm skeptical too about this Spielberg movie. You're right, though, that it will bring attention to the original, much like when he directed "Always" as an homage to "A Guy Named Joe".

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    I think even some people in Hollywood may be hesitant of far it seems Spielberg is having trouble casting the lead. Word is Tom Hanks turned it down and now Will Smith is being considered.

    Well, at least we have the glorious original to enjoy!

  4. 'Harvey' is a perfect movie. It depresses me a bit that Spielberg is doing this. But then, in Spielberg I usually trust so I'm sure he knows what he's doing.

  5. Spielberg may add some special effects, which may be interesting to watch. I could see Will Smith in this role.

  6. Hello, I just came across your blog, and I had to comment on this post. I also just re-watched Harvey again and similarly made a blog post about it. I found that weird and pleasant. But, anyhow, this film always brings a smile to my face. Although, I'm quite skeptical about the re-make...I don't know if I can watch anyone but Jimmy playing the role of Elwood. I guess I'll just be sitting anxiously until I find out who will be casted.