Harvey (1950)

harvey movie poster

Towards the end of the 1950 film, Harvey, Elwood P Dowd (played by James Stewart in an Academy Award-nominated role) says this:

“In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

It is a memorable line and one that sums up the film quite well. For the picture is filled with lots of smart people, and a few pleasant ones. It, in fact, seems to be the film’s central theme. Dowd is an alcoholic and mentally ill, all of which creates quite a disturbance throughout the film, but is ultimately washed over because he smiles a lot, allows others to pass through the door first, and speaks in a gentle, even voice.

Perhaps I’m being too unkind myself, it is after all a harmless comedy, slapstick and all. At that, it fairs well enough. The catch of the film, if you’ve somehow managed to not hear it before in the 55 years since its release, or forgot to look at the picture on the front of the DVD box, is that Dowd’s best friend happens to be an invisible 6-foot rabbit, named Harvey. Much of the film’s humor, and a great deal of its heart, come from that rabbit, which the audience never sees.

The conflict comes from Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hall), and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). They have grown tired of Dowd’s antics with Harvey, and the embarrassment of having such a relative has caused untold grief for their social positions. Early in the film they decide to have Dowd committed to an insane asylum. Slapstick ensues when Verta is mistaken for the crazy one.

I found it to be a fine, humorous film. All of the cast members are firing on all cylinders and create a wonderful ensemble cast. Stewart and Hall are particularly fine as Dowd and his sister. The jokes work well enough, at least they are not particularly unfunny, and are pleasant enough. I think this is where my complaint comes in; it is all just too pleasant. Even the Simmons’ are rather sweet and kind while they try to put Dowd away.

It was slightly disturbing to me to watch a man with an obvious mental illness be touted as the film’s hero and a character that we should all emulate. But again, I’m probably being too unpleasant. I realize that the film is more Peter Pan than Awakenings in this aspect. For Harvey seems more fantastical than a hallucination, but Dowd never once hints that the giant rabbit might not be real. I know, I know, I’m being too much the tired cynic at this point. Dowd did give me the same brief desire for improvement that Atticus Finch give me while watching To Kill a Mockingbird. Though Finch never spotted giant rabbits, just a black man served more injustice.

It is difficult to complain about a film that really just wishes we would all be happy and kind to one another. Indeed a brief search of the IMDB’s user comments finds an agreement with everyone that this is a wonderful, joyful film.

It is a heartwarming film, which only managed to kindle a low flame in my heart. This is a weird feeling. It is as if I feel the chastisement of a million fans calling me a cold-hearted son of a sailor. It just failed to make me laugh enough, or move me enough to declare it wonderful. While I don’t have any hard complaints about the picture, it is not something that I’ll be placing on any top films list.

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