Harvey is the film that is often regarded as the one which gave James Stewart his finest performance. I’m fairly new to discovering his talents but it is certainly the finest I’ve seen so far. Harvey is an incredibly sweet and funny film which I’m certain wouldn’t work today. The central character’s innocence and kindness simply wouldn’t sit right in twenty-first century cinema. As sweet as the film is though it is also notable for having a less than favourable view of mental illness and in keeping with Hollywood movies of the time, it depicts the fear and misunderstanding which surrounded illness of the brain although it slightly rectifies its position towards the end.
Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is an overly polite and gentle man who lives with his older sister (Josephine Hull) and niece (Victoria Horne) in their mother’s old house. Despite his amiable personality, charm and kindness, his family are deeply embarrassed by Elwood and try to get him out of the house whenever they have company. The reason for their embarrassment is Elwood’s friend Harvey. Harvey himself is as friendly and polite as Elwood but he happens to be a six foot, three and a half inch invisible white rabbit whom only Elwood can see. After embarrassing Veta (Hull) for the final time, she decides it’s time to institutionalise Elwood.
It is rare to see a film as sweet as Harvey and even rarer to find a character as selfless and kind as Elwood P. Dowd. I can’t think of a more gallant or polite character in any other film. Stewart plays Dowd perfectly and earned an Oscar nomination for his trouble. Stewart eventually lost to Jose Ferrer, the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar but his performance has gone down as one of his finest. Josephine Hull won the film’s only Oscar in the Supporting Actress category and had a difficult character to play in Dowd’s sister, a woman embarrassed by her brother but secretly able to see Harvey too. Besides the two nominated actors there were some other good performances from the likes of the dashing Doctor Sanderson (Charles Drake) and the pretty Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow) but there was also a fair amount of overacting from the likes of Jesse White, Cecil Kellaway and even the award winning Josephine Hull.
The Direction is fairly simple and reminded me a lot of a play. The film itself is actually based on a stage production. At times it feels like you can read the characters stage notes as they ‘enter stage right’ or ‘stand and turn to face the camera’. This rarely detracts from the movie though and is more a problem associated with the era. The delightful script helps to mask a lot of the other flaws in the film but the script itself is responsible for the biggest flaw. 1950 was a time for which mental illness was still a social taboo and many of the characters treat the benign Elwood P. Dowd as though he is something to fear and be ashamed of despite the fact that he is the nicest person in the movie. Later on the film turns on its axis to resolve some of the earlier statements and even though on the whole it is fairly sympathetic to Dowd’s issues, it does come across as being fearful of mental illness and treats it as something that should be hidden away.
Overall Harvey is a clever and funny film with a soft and sweet centre. It’s a lot of fun to watch and Stewart is excellent. There are problems surrounding the issue of mental health but many of those are dealt with in the end. It is a delightful watch and reminded me of a time long past where men were gentlemen and were worried about leaving a woman standing or introducing their friends rather than today when men are twats who park their SUVs in the disabled space because it’s twenty feet less to walk.
- The movie is ranked at number 35 in the AFI's 100 Movies - 100 Laughs and at number 7 in their 10 Ten Fantasy movies of all time.
- Steven Spielberg announced in 2009 that we would be remaking the film but production has since lost interest in the remake.
- The credits list Harvey as playing himself.
- Although James Stewart was 6' 4" he looks up to the invisible 6' 3.5" Harvey.