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James Stewart in Harvey

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Towards the end of the 1950 film, Harvey, Elwood P Dowd (played by James Stewart in an Academy Award nominated role) says this:

“In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

It is a memorable line, and one that sums up the film quite well. For the picture is filled with lots of smart people, and a few pleasant ones. It, in fact, seems to be the film’s central theme. Dowd is an alcoholic and mentally ill, all of which creates quite a disturbance throughout the film, but is ultimately washed over because he smiles a lot, allows others to pass through the door first, and speaks in a gentle, even voice.

Perhaps I’m being too unkind myself, it is after all a harmless comedy, slap stick and all. At that, it fairs well enough. The catch of the film, if you’ve somehow managed to not hear it before in the 55 years since its release, or forgot to look at the picture on the front of the DVD box, is that Dowd’s best friends happens to be an invisible 6 foot rabbit, named Harvey. Much of the film’s humor, and a great deal of it’s heart, come from that rabbit, which the audience never sees.

The conflict comes from Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hall) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). They have grown tired of Dowd’s antics with Harvey, and the embarrassment of having such a relative has caused untold grief for their social positions. Early in the film they decide to have Dowd committed to an insane asylum. Slapstick ensues when Verta is mistaken for the crazy one.

I found it to be a fine, humorous film. All of the cast members are firing on all cylinders and create a wonderful ensemble cast. Stewart and Hall are particularly fine as Dowd and his sister. The jokes work well enough, at least they are not particularly unfunny, and are pleasant enough. I think this is where my complaint comes in; it is all just too pleasant. Even the Simmons’ are rather sweet and kind while they try to put Dowd away.

It was slightly disturbing to me to watch a man with an obvious mental illness be touted as the film’s hero, and a character that we should all emulate. But again, I’m probably being too unpleasant again. I realize that the film is being more Peter Pan than Awakenings in this aspect. For Harvey seems more fantastical than hallucination, but Dowd never once hints that the giant rabbit might not be real. I know, I know, I’m being too much the tired cynic at this point. Dowd did give me the same brief desire of improvement that Atticus Finch give me while watching To Kill a Mockingbird. Though Finch never spotted giant rabbits, just a black man served more injustice.

It is difficult to complain about a film that really just wishes we would all be happy and kind to one another. Indeed a brief searching of the IMDB’s user comments finds an agreement with everyone that this is a wonderful, joyful film.

It is a heartwarming film, which only managed to kindle a low flame in my heart. This is a weird feeling. It is as I feel the chastisement of a million fans calling me a cold hearted son of a son of a sailor. It just failed to make me laugh enough, or move me enough to declare it wonderful. While I don’t have any hard complaints about the picture, it is not something that I’ll be placing on any top films list.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Absolutely one of my favorite movies. It is about the only thing I have kept on VHS. To be fair, at the end the filmmakers pretty much side with Elwood P Dowd and have other movie characters also seeing Harvey.

    point being, having a drink or two and having an 8 foot rabbit for companionship might not be so bad after all.

  • Shark

    Coupla points:

    The film is based on a Pulitzer prize winning play by Mary Chase.

    There is much more going on in this film than ‘meets the eye’ [pun intended]; a lot of social, political, philosophical, and metaphysical points are being made for the discriminating, intelligent viewer.

    If ya gotta ask what they are, well…


  • Shark

    Oh, and did I mention that this film contains a Christ-figure?

  • Dowd is NOT mentally ill, btw. Harvey is real, as is made abundantly clear by the end of the film.

    BTW, I saw Stewart perform Harvey on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC about 30 years ago and it was quite an experience. Even better than the movie.


  • little Pink Anderson

    There was a review of my performance here now I can’t find it. I would like to add it to my promo pack. Oh yea. I do live in SD now and looking for work. Give me a call 864-357-4482 if you can be of any assistance. Thanks

  • Liz

    A truly beautiful film. James Stewart makes me laugh and cry every time I watch it. For me it is a film that speaks many truths.

  • Yvonne Fletcher

    The reviewer has missed the point of this film completely. When people meet Harvey – and the end film shows that some may well see him – they feel better, happier and more at peace.

    Harvey is a thing that it is competely ridiculous thing to accept, a 6ft 3 talking rabbit is not something most people would readily admit to seeing, but once accepted you’re happier. If you cannot see the religious, ethical and moral overtones I cannot explain them to you

  • Although I adored the film and the depth and poignancy swathed within
    the quaint marzipan antics of the characters,I can mention some aspects of Elwood Pinney Dowd’s personality that even some of the cynical critics have overlooked.

    Dowd is not a pixilated,affable saint. His faults do not stem from his drinking nor his association with creatures of faerie. He could still benefit from professional care to rid himself of the persistent vestiges of selfishness and arrogance.

    Dowd not only dismisses the effect his unusual relationship with Harvey might have on his family but he feels free to gossip and to invite any and all strangers to be his guests.

    While this can show a caring and democratic attitude toward all people,his largess often includes contributions from people who didn’t grant permission before being included in his generosity.

    Dowd is not quite clueless enough to evade responsibility for such actions. Ultimately,he has to face himself apart from his tippling,his pookah pal,his social standing or his friendly,intelligent mien. Dowd has jettisoned almost all of the negative traits of our society. He has set aside most of the roles by which our world judges the worth of a man.

    He endeavors to get through life by existing in a permanent state of ingenuous wonder and congeniality. But we can still see glimpses of what this man must have been like when he was caustic and greedy enough to be ‘normal.’

    If a few allegedly sane characters learn to value the magic of the heart Elwood has attained,he seems to be on the way to facing up to the difference between being child-like and child-ish.

    After all,had Elwood used his connections to bring home a few firemen,Gatsby clones and lonely soldiers along with his hordes of forgotten men,Veta and Myrtle Mae might have had less resentment to foist on their relative’s coney-esque comrade.