Film Review: Harvey

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

So says Elwood P. Dowd as played by James Stewart in this 1950 film based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey.  And a more pleasant man you’ll be hard pressed to find for Elwood will be only too happy to invite you to join him for a drink at his favourite bar or have you round his house for a small informal dinner regardless of who you are or how many words you’ve exchanged. Yes, a very affable chap indeed.

Trouble is, he’ll soon introduce you to his very dear friend, Harvey – a six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch tall pooka in the form of a white rabbit. This is why his sister Veta (Josephine Hull in an Oscar winning performance), who lives with him and is desperately trying to climb the social ladder, resorts to having him committed to a sanatorium because every time she arranges a gathering of the local elite at home Elwood ruins her attempts at networking for a suitable suitor for her not-so-young daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) by stunning the assembled guests with his friend that nobody else can see.

What follows is quite possibly one of the gentlest, most charming comedy of errors I think I’ve ever seen. Dowd, whose penchant for a Martini makes him an unquestionable alcoholic  – a possible cause of his hallucinations – is so likeable and friendly that it’s hard not to overlook his whimsical little peculiarity. Stewart who had played Dowd on Broadway for almost three years prior to this film and would go on to reprise the role on London’s West End in 1975, brings his natural affability to the character and together with his innate talent, he received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. He is and always will be one of my all-time favourite actors.

The film is peppered with memorable characters played by some of Hollywood’s finest character actors. Jesse White as Wilson the gruff asylum attendant and Wallace Ford as the taxi driver have some hilarious moments. But saying that sounds unfair to the rest of the cast for there are many golden moments involving everyone. Indeed the entire 104 minutes is a golden moment.

Director Henry Koster had been nominated for another comedy with fantasy leanings three years earlier – The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant and Loretta Young but it’s arguable that over a 30 year career, Harvey would be his finest hour.