ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: Harvey
WEEK 8- "H"
Nominees: Harvey, High Noon, The Hustler, Hard Boiled, Heathers
Background: Harvey is based on the popular and Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Chase play from 1944. This movie adaptation from 1950 brought in two of the play's main Broadway stars for the silver screen treatment, James Stewart and Josephine Hull. Both ended up being nominated for Academy Awards for their roles, with Hull winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Though fitting of the style but not directed by Frank Capra, Harvey is a big hit with Stewart fans and its fanbase has supported the movie as an endearing classic for over a half-century. The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Harvey as their #7 fantasy and their #35 comedy on their "100 Years..." sub-lists in those categories.
The film itself surrounds the quirky character of Elwood P. Dowd, played by Stewart. He's an unashamed optimist and all-round nice guy who kicks back all day, grinning through live, with his best friend Harvey The rub is that the best friend Harvey he introduces everyone to, speaks to, and regards of highly is a six-and-half feet tall invisible rabbit. Harvey, as Elwood later explains, is a "pooka," a mischievous creature of Celtic mythology that even has the ability to stop time. Befriending him years ago, Elwood believes this illusion fully and has never been convinced otherwise. His gallivanting around with this fantasy and attitude has made him an unmarried joke to his society family, particularly to his high-strung sister Veta Louise Simmons (Hull).
Fed up with having to tolerate Elwood's weirdness, Veta seeks to have him committed to a mental hospital, only to comedically talk her way into getting herself mistakenly pulled into therapy for being crazy. Elwood's charm warms just about everyone he meets when he talks about Harvey, from local bar patrons to the medical staff at the mental hospital, including young Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow), and the experienced hospital head Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kelleway). The questions that stir the film grow to surround Elwood's sanity, Harvey's existence, or what treatment is suitable for a case like Elwood.
Reaction: 3 STARS-- The film Harvey is a big dose of Jimmy Stewart. If you can't handle that warble or earnestness, this was a long hour and forty-five minutes. I, for one, can appreciate this version of Jimmy and still know that his better performances are in a dozen other movies. It's still a fun performance and plenty of great actors have taken a role or two off to do something cute like this without losing their edge. If we can forgive funnyman Robin Williams from taking a dramatic role every now and then, we can forgive when Stewart goes the other way around. Four years later he would make Rear Window.
I can forgive that progression. Elwood Dowd is quite the weird wallflower and Stewart plays him as casual as could be. Amiable is an understatement. Other than a straight comedian or Cary Grant, I don't know who else could do the part this as affectionately. You can really tell that he loves the part and knows it well (from his stage performances as Dowd prior to the film version).
The other big dose that Harvey dishes out is cinematic syrup. You know what I mean. That magical fictional world where very little goes wrong and everything is sunny and chipper. The inner cynics in us who know the stresses and realities of the real world can only handle so much of that. It's all about your tolerance level. Some will find the film cute and endearing, while others will need to see an ophthalmologist to correct their eyes that have rolled back into their heads to repeatedly. With the syrup comes a plethora of dated cookie-cutter over-simplicities, placism, sexism, stereotypes, and story elements like Josephine Hull's exasperated sister to the way-too-easy romance between Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly.
With those two doses delivered, one has to remember that Harvey is meant to be a fantasy and a comedy. It wasn't aiming to address societal concerns and even it's biggest attempt (institutionalization vs. normalcy) was glazed over pretty simply with few ruffled feathers. I put Harvey on a level of watching a holiday film or something like The Muppets from last winter. You know going into it that it's going to be squeaky clean, unchallenging, and with little doubt of peril. Put it in the "cute and harmless" file or shelf. Like the acceptance Elwood gets in the movie itself, just let it be what it is and not look to make fantasy more normal for normal's sake. That being said, even the most cynic movie fan might do a double-take at the end of the movie to wonder if the pooka of Harvey really exists in this fantasy.
LESSON #1: BEING PLEASANT OVER BEING SMART-- Some may watch Harvey and label his overflowing happiness as over-trusting, over-accommodating, or even gullible. Is that so bad? Can't the ultimate "half-full" person like Elwood show us a way to live life with a little less stress and a little more pleasantry? I sure think so. Not everyone needs to push the envelope and over-think every decision for causes or for torches to bear, like when a character challenges Elwood to have some righteous indignation. In taking a page from Elwood here and there in your everyday life, you might just find yourself less flustered, less stressed, and less riled up at anything that could bug you. That doesn't make you a slacker or mean that you don't care. It just means you're looking at the bright side first and dealing with it more positively.
LESSON #2: DEALING WITH THE FAMILY EMBARRASSMENT-- Make no mistake. No matter how nice Elwood is about everything, on some level, he's an embarrassment to his society-minded sister and family. We all have that weird uncle or cousin that we're afraid to bring around company at family outings. Elwood is right there with Randy Quaid's Cousin Eddie from the Vacation series and Mater from Cars. They mean well, but are commonly misunderstood and looked down upon. Too often, those stuck-up family members want that embarrassment to change when they should appreciate them for who they are, hence the next lesson.
LESSON #3: DON'T TRY TO CHANGE A PERSON WHO IS HAPPY-- In building up from the chosen demeanor of Lesson #1 and handling the misunderstood embarrassment of Lesson #2, we've come to this simplicity: Don't take away a person's happiness, no matter how obscure it is. Elwood likes the kinship of his Harvey. So, it's weird. Is he happy? He sure is. So, let it go. You don't have a weird tick of some sort in your life? Just because one person's trigger for happiness doesn't conform to your idea of "normal," doesn't make it a bad thing. It just makes it different. Husbands and wives know what I am talking about. Your spouse, regardless of gender, has that one habit, food, or activity that is their personal solace that drives you batty from its opposition to your way of doing something. If they are happy and it isn't harming anyone or anything, let it go. Let a person have their quirky happiness. I don't even need a lesson to talk about imaginary friends or figments of a person's imagination. It all boils down to happiness, just like choosing to accept or not accept Harvey versus your level of taste or cynicism. I'll stop there before I cite the Declaration of Independence's unalienable right of "pursuit of happiness." Even I know when it's going to far. That's a broad stroke of the paintbrush...