Even if you aren’t familiar with Harvey by name, the film has become such a pop culture icon that the premise is likely familiar to you – a man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit. The movie can be dismissed as light fluff, but I think that would be a mistake – Harvey is fun and funny, and an example of Jimmy Stewart at his most aspirational. It may not be his best film ever, but it is certainly one of his most upbeat and it boasts one of the most charming characters in cinema.
Our film follows a wealthy drunk called Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), whose best friend is a six-foot tall rabbit named Harvey that only he can see. Elwood lives with his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), and their aspects of climbing the social ladder are threatened by Elwood’s attachment to the bunny. They worry he has gone insane, and decide the best solution is to have him committed, but events don’t entirely go to plan. Elwood charms a psychiatrist and a nurse with his positive outlook on his friend and life as the head of the mental institution, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), tries to help Elwood as he too begins to experience the thrall of Harvey.
James Stewart considered Elwood P. Dowd his most personal role (and one he was desperate to play on screen, having taken the role on Broadway for just that reason) and, with a back catalogue that reads as his does, that says a lot about him. Elwood is a deceptively complex character – Stewart plays him as the nicest man you are ever likely to meet, but one who is not generous in an unrealistic way. Stewart imbues him with a lot of humility and genuine personality, and he is guaranteed to warm the viewer’s hearts – in the hands of a lesser talent, Elwood would probably have come across as naïve, misunderstood or just a touch simple, but that is not the case here. That, and having to share half of your scenes with someone who isn’t that and making it look as seamless and authentic as Stewart does, is more of a testament to his ability.
It’s hard to be in Stewart’s shadow, but the rest of the cast are good too. Hull took home an Oscar for this movie, and she is delightfully amusing throughout. Her performance touches hammy without ever being hammy, and that suits perfectly here. Of particular note also is Peggy Dow as a nurse known only as Miss Kelly, who brings a bit of emotion to her role as a love-struck assistant pining for her psychiatrist boss. The cast of supporting characters here are really to serve as an opposition to Elwood, and to make us pose questions – Elwood make not be normal, but would you want to be?
Is Harvey real? The film is very open-ended on that respect, and it is one of the important aspects of the movie – if someone’s perception of reality is different from yours, that doesn’t mean it is any less real. It seems that Elwood sees life not as it is, but as it should be. The two of them bring a measure of happiness to everybody they encounter, and although the film is nice and funny, it is also very touching in places. Elwood’s speech about the value of Harvey in his life as he sits outside the bar was filled with poignancy – perhaps it’s the way Stewart tells it, perhaps it’s the beautiful simplicity of the sentiment, but it is a standout scene.
The whimsy that Harvey conjures up is a bit forced in places, and sometimes the plot mechanics are a bit leaden – it relies a bit too much on Stewart’s performance, but the intriguing premise and the unexpected depth of this gentle film make it one to seek out.
Director: Henry Koster
Cast: James Stewart (Elwood P. Dowd), Josephine Hull (Veta Louise Simmons), Peggy Dow (Ruth Kelly), Charles Drake (Dr. Lyman Sanderson), Cecil Kellaway (Dr. Chumley), Victoria Horne (Myrtle Mae Simmons)
Running Time: 104 Mins