Harvey

Synopsis: James Stewart gives one of his finest performances in this lighthearted film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Stewart stars as the good-natured Elwood P. Dowd, whose constant companion is Harvey, a six-foot tall rabbit that only he can see. To his sister, Veta Louise, Elwood’s obsession with Harvey has been a thorn in the side of her plans to marry off her daughter. But when Veta Louise decides to put Elwood in a mental hospital, a hilarious mix-up occurs and she finds herself committed instead.

It’s up to Elwood to straighten out the mess with his kindly philosophy, and his “imaginary” friend, in this popular classic that features a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winning performance by Josephine Hull.

***********************************************************************

Harvey 7.75

eyelights: James Stewart. Elwood. Harvey. its quirky tale. its sets.
eyesores: its theatrical performances.

“I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

I’ve long heard of children having imaginary friends. Apparently this is normal and commonplace, but I’ve personally never experienced it myself (coincidentally, I was also frequently amongst the last ones picked for team sports).

Honestly, I think that this was a good thing: I hate to imagine what this would have done to my already tenuous grasp of reality; I probably would have grown up seeing “invisible” people, talking to “myself” in public, that sort of thing.

Man, did I ever dodge a wise-cracking cartoon bullet!

In ‘Harvey’, Elwood P. Dowd’s own grasp of reality is in question: a wealthy middle-aged man, he spends his days wandering about accompanied by his best friend Harvey. Except that no one can see Harvey aside for Elwood.

This is a constant source of grief for his sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle, who are forced to live with him due to having no fortune of their own: thanks to his eccentric behaviour, they’re constantly being deserted by their friends.

At a loss, Veta contrives to have him institutionalized.

Or, at least, tries to.

The 1950 picture is a feel-good farce based on the hit 1944 Broadway play. It stars James Stewart as Elwood and Josephine Hull as Veta, both of whom were fresh from playing the parts on the stage, in critically-acclaimed performances.

When I first saw it, I was binge-watching everything I could get from my local library. I’d seen it around before but wasn’t at all drawn to it; for some odd reason, I thought that it might be the original version of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’.

Ahem… it’s nothing like it.

The beauty of watching ‘Harvey’ completely cold is that it gradually reveals the story behind Elwood and Harvey, leaving its audience to wonder what’s reality and what isn’t. Adding Elwood’s alcoholism, it’s really hard to know.

So, caught unawares, my first viewing packed quite a punch.

Thankfully, even now it still has a tremendous impact – though for different reasons. Now it’s the quirkiness of the piece, its humour and the dialogues that are its most precious qualities; deliciously, ‘Harvey’ is a little bit of an odd duck.

Or a silly bunny, if one prefers.

Elwood is a terrific character despite his elbow-bending: he’s a friendly fellow who is kind and optimistic. He says there are two choices in life: being smart or being pleasant – and that he was once smart, but he’s since decided to be pleasant.

Honestly, I find this admirable; I wish I were as laidback and affable as he is. And Elwood is extremely generous with people – not by giving them material goods, but by affording them compassion and dignity in their weakest moments.

And he’s delightfully idiosyncratic not just by having an invisible friend, but also with his little routines, such as giving out business cards every time he meets someone new or responding to queries with “What did you have in mind?”.

Stewart is terrific as always, though his body language is often off when he’s accompanied by Harvey, moving around his invisible friend in ways that don’t make sense or clasping his arm at an unusual angle. It was unnecessarily theatrical.

Having said this, ‘Harvey’ is based on a play, so it’s not so out of place; the dialogues and the limited number of locations are a dead giveaway. Plus which it was clearly filmed on sets, adding another layer of artificiality to the proceedings.

But the picture is filled with colourful characters (i.e. not especially eccentric but mildly larger than life), creating situations that make it a joy to watch. And though the humour doesn’t always hit its mark, there are a number of rather droll bits.

It’s difficult discussing ‘Harvey’ without revealing many of its secrets, but it’s crucial to the initial enjoyment of the picture. Personally, I think that its incremental reveal is brilliantly-executed, and that it culminates in the most satisfying fashion.

Granted, it’s an imperfect motion picture, but thanks to its personable cast it’s such an effortlessly endearing picture that its shortcomings are easily overlooked. It’s hard not to enjoy an innocuous and quirky little number such as this one.

I love ‘Harvey’.

But, then, who wouldn’t?

Date of viewing: April 16, 2017

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