Harvey - 1950
This somewhat ethereal comedy film directed by Henry Koster features two star players, one we can see (Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart) and the other we can't, a 6-foot tall white rabbit that walks on two legs and wears clothes. There is one exception where the audience does get a glimpse of the magical Lagomorpha, that's when Dowd, accompanied by Harvey, are shown posed together in a dignified oil portrait that gets put on the mantle inside Dowd's large, old fashioned home that he shares with his older sister Veta.
At the beginning of Harvey, we're under the impression that only Dowd can see Harvey and no one else, but this changes. Veta (Josaphine Hull), who is burdened with the social opprobrium of having a "crazy" brother, confesses to a psychiatrist at "Chumley's Rest," a sanatarium near town where she wants Elwood committed, that sometimes she can see Harvey. This statement results in Veta being falsely identified as the "crazy" family member and held at Chumley's while Elwood is allowed to leave. Then the important Dr. Chumley himself gets involved in the case, and he, too, learns he can see the rabbit...
Is Harvey real? Or is this a mild, small-scale shared psychosis? We don't know since the movie, which is written by Oscar Brodney and Myles Connolly from the play by Mary Chase, concentrates the most on the humor generated by the shenanigans taking place by the identity mix ups at the sanitorium, and the coming and goings of a talking rabbit that we never hear or see but impacts the characters on the screen all the same.
Not that we're supposed to just accept everything without any obvious questions popping into our heads. How and by what power could a six-foot rabbit engage and talk with people isn't explained, though Harvey is identified by the Doctor as a "pooka," a kind of pixie animal-spirit derived from old Irish mythology. But, Harvey only plays with explanations but never commits to anything except the frequent comedy and a little bit of biography of Elwood P. Dowd, who revealingly says that "in this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."
Other Hollywood films deal with the theme of mental strain and collapse in serious ways, but Harvey goes at it from a direction that puts it into the company of films like Arsenic and Old Lace, with similar expert comedy dialogue coming out of outlandish situations. Stewart smoothly moves through the story and is always calm, unruffled, understanding and putting a positive spin on things, meanwhile he is often surrounded by gesticulating, frustrated, upset people who seem to presented by the story with the question "and these are the sane ones?"
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page July 2021