Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Elwood P. Dowd's (James Stewart) best friend and constant companion is Harvey, a six-foot-tall
rabbit that only this amiable fellow can see. His constant drinking and obsession with Harvey
eventually drives his sister, Veta Louise (Josephine Hull) to have him institutionalised, only
for a misunderstanding at the hospital resulting in her being the one declared insane and
Yes, indeed it is that simple. There are no bombs going off, no murders committed and no CGI. Just plain old-fashioned comedy timing and wondrous dialogue; just what you would expect from a Pulitzer prize-winning play that had an equally successful showing on Broadway as well as the big screen.
Harvey was written by Mary Chase, and had previously been performed in the theatre before the transition to the silver screen, and the results of that transition featured some excellent performances, but none more so than from Stewart himself. His depiction of the good-natured Dowd is flawless and was enough to earn him an Oscar nomination; simply put he carries the film along effortlessly. Josephine Hull went one better and picked up an Oscar for her role as his highly strung sister; providing the ying to Stewart's yang. As well as this pair, Cecil Kellaway is superb as the disagreeable psychiatrist Dr Chumley; eventually he becomes obsessed with the Pooka (the fairy spirit that is Harvey) himself, despite his off-hand dismissal of it earlier in the story.
There a few skits in the film that allow the viewer to build a great degree of empathy with Dowd, such as his insistence on introducing everyone to Harvey and his innocence in not releasing that his sister, niece and local judge are determined to have him committed. It is these poignant moments that build the connection between viewer and character, yet the simplicity of it all is wonderfully absurd.
As mentioned previously, some of the dialogue is as sharp as today's best comedies. And as befits a gentle-natured movie this era, but unlike many of today's offerings, it is film that could be watched with all the family. Classic is an over-used term when people talk about movies, but it is one that is not out of context with regard to Harvey.
James Stewart, no relation I hasten to add - just sheer coincidence, had a stellar career as an actor. Personally I would rate Harvey up there with It's A Wonderful Life as his two greatest performances. Not a bad pair to have on your CV.
The region 2 DVD is widely available with extras including a theatrical trailer and a special introduction by James Stewart.