Original release: October 13th, 1950
Running time: 104 minutes
Director: Henry Koster
Writers: Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney
Cast: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Charles Drake
I remember browsing the DVD section in a shop years ago and coming across a cover and knowing, beyond all doubt, that it was for a film I’d love. You know the one; it features Jimmy Stewart sat in the bottom left corner with a large curiously shaped shadow looming above him. I’d already come across Stewart before and adored Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as well as his Hitchcock films; seeing him sat there beaming, and with what I could only assume was a giant rabbit, made my feel all warm inside.
I wasn’t until years later that I actually got around to seeing Harvey for the first time but my eyes would always be drawn to that cover. When I finally did watch it, I came to appreciate that image even more, largely because it manages to incite the precise same feeling the film does. It’s one of those movies that may, over time, fade a little in the memory between viewings but when you do get around to revisiting it, you’re able to revel in its warmth and unbridled joy.
The setup sees the ever lovable Stewart playing Elwood P. Dowd, a well-off eccentric with a good natured manner who lives in a large house with his long suffering sister Vita (Josephine Hull) and her painfully embarrassed daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). Vita and Myrtle Mae are constantly attempting to socialise with the other well-to-do folk in their small town but have to do so in the knowledge that Elwood is a few sandwiches short of a picnic – or perhaps a few rabbits short of a warren – and has an invisible friend with whom he passes the time of day.
As if this wasn’t already bad enough, Elwood has no problem introducing other people to this friend, a six foot three-and-a-half inch rabbit named Harvey. What makes Harvey even more unique is that he’s invisible and seems to only reveal himself to Elwood.
When Elwood arrives home during a tea party and the ladies’ guests beat a hasty retreat as a result of his peculiar behaviour, Vita decides she needs to have her brother committed to a sanatorium. Unfortunately for them, Elwood’s affable manner and constantly agreeable nature end up convincing Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) that it must in fact be the slowly unravelling Vita who needs commitment. Naturally this leads to all sorts of comedy as Elwood ambles about the sanatorium’s gardens chatting to Harvey whilst his sister is man-handled by the porter.
Warming the cockles of the heart throughout, Elwood is kindly, soft spoken, and always looks for and then assumes the best in people. He’s taken advantage of and considered a lunatic, but he wears a constant uplifting smile and never seems to have a negative thing to say to anyone. Taking place mostly over the course of two days, the film sees the sanatorium realise their mistake in locking up Vita and a search party heads out to round up Elwood and his friend.
Apparently Harvey is, in fact, not a giant rabbit but rather a pooka who takes the shape of one. This ancient Celtic fairy creature has chosen his mammalian form and has magical powers with which he can enrich the lives of his friends. It’s clear that Elwood considers him to have improved his life no end and when one of the senior doctors also begins to believe that he can see the impish trickster that view is reinforced. Actually, it’s more the case that Elwood plays the role in the lives of those he meets – from the owner of his local bar, to Vita and Myrtle Mae, via the staff at the sanatorium.
In keeping with that is the fact that the film does just that for its audience. The performances are wonderful and hilarious, the plot is charming and the ending will leave everyone with a heart beaming. In the same way that Elwood’s geniality raises the spirits and alters the outlook of those he encounters, so does Harvey manage that for those that watch it. Perhaps not the actor’s greatest role but you can’t really imagine one that’s more “Jimmy Stewart”.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.