An exceptionally amiable, decent and handsome movie, Harvey is probably a little too uniformly respectable to be considered a truly great film. Everything feels carefully measured and in its proper place in Henry Koster’s 1950 adaptation of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Koster takes no significant risks, maintaining an even keel throughout and anchoring the film with Jimmy Stewart’s affable, winning turn as Elwood P. Dowd.
When one thinks of the quintessential Stewart persona, this is pretty much it. He may have subverted that persona with more complex performances in better films like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, but it’s an undeniable pleasure to watch him work here. As Dowd says in one of the film’s most famous sequences, you must either be smart or pleasant. His admission, “For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant” also functions as the film’s ethos, for better or worse.
Stewart’s Elwood is an apparently independently well-off man who spends most of his time in a downtown bar, accompanied by his invisible friend, a 6’3” rabbit named Harvey. Whether Harvey is the product of an overactive imagination, a drinking problem or mental illness isn’t clear to Elwood’s live-in sister Veta Louise (Oscar-winning Josephine Hull), but the situation is seriously putting a cramp in her plans to introduce gawky daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) to upper crust society and find her a potential suitor.
After a disastrous party where Elwood alienates a number of guests with his attempts to introduce them to Harvey, Veta makes an attempt to get him committed at the local sanatorium. But her histrionic manner and admission that she occasionally sees the rabbit too get her committed by psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Charles Drake) instead. What follows is a low-simmer farce where mix-ups of identity don’t escalate to a frenetic conclusion but instead plateau in a wry, bemused finale. It’s not the stuff of genius, but the low-key delights are so plentifully scattered throughout the film, it’s not hard to see why Harvey has attained classic status.