Silverscreen standards: Harvey (1950)
Adapted from a hit play that won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Harvey celebrates gentle, oddball characters whose eccentricities make life more interesting for everyone around them. If you’ve spent a lot of time with such people, or maybe you are one yourself, you’ll have a lot to appreciate in this classic comedy about a loveable middle-aged bachelor and his unseen Pooka sidekick.
The film was a particular favorite of its star, James Stewart, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Elwood P. Dowd, and it’s certainly an example of Stewart at his sweetest, a major departure from his darker roles in Anthony’s films Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Henry Koster directs this brilliant comedy, which Stewart backs with particularly memorable performances from Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne and Jesse White, but it’s the delightfully goofy Josephine Hull who steals the picture as Elwood’s absent-minded older sister.
Stewart plays the alcoholic but affable Elwood, whose inherited financial comfort allows him to spend his days in bars with his invisible rabbit companion, the eponymous Harvey. Elwood’s widowed sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) live with Elwood but are frustrated by the impact he and Harvey are having on their social lives. Veta conspires with family friend Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn) to have Elwood declared insane and committed to a local sanatorium, but the trial goes awry when doctors mistakenly think Veta is their new patient .
True insanity is a serious subject, of course, but the characters in Harvey are not seriously ill. They are wacky eccentrics, often seen in stage plays, screwball comedies and sitcoms. They are also commonly found in real life, where they are referred to as “characters” as if to suggest that they belong to fictional space rather than everyday reality. Elwood is certainly a “character” in that sense, but so are Veta, Myrtle Mae, the sanatorium attendant Martin (Jesse White), Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) and even his wife (Nana Bryant). The most sane characters in the story are the young doctor (Charles Drake) and his lovesick nurse (Peggy Dow), and they’re also the most boring, although it’s fun to watch Nurse Kelly take care of the unsuspecting Dr. Sanderson is angry.
Healthy as they are, these two also fall for Elwood’s benevolence and gentle charm. Only a truly brutal person can wish normality on Mr. Dowd, as the cab driver (Wallace Ford) makes clear in one of the film’s key scenes. “After that,” he warns Veta, “he’ll be a perfectly normal person. And you know what stinkers they are!” If being sane means being miserable, then sanity isn’t worth it, though the film’s final few scenes prove that Elwood isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks.
Stewart’s performance is thoroughly entertaining, especially his scenes in which he interacts with the invisible Harvey, for whom he wears a cloak, pulls out chairs, holds doors, and dodges traffic. Whenever Elwood meets a new person, he insists on introducing them to Harvey, who Stewart approaches with unwavering patience, even when other characters are talking about him or trying to stop him. Because the story is called Harvey, it’s crucial for us to accept that Elwood believes in the Pooka even when we don’t, and Stewart sells us the reality of the giant rabbit from the get-go. However, Stewart claimed that Josephine Hull had the most difficult job in the cast because she had to believe and not believe in Harvey at the same time. She rises to the challenge brilliantly, but every scene involving her is a hoot, whether she’s complaining about Harvey or trying to keep Myrtle Mae away from the smitten Martin. After originating the role on stage, Hull knew her character intimately, and her performance won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, beating Hope Emerson Locked (1950), Nancy Olson in Twilight Boulevard (1950) and both Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for All about Eve (1950).
While it’s a shame Josephine Hull hasn’t appeared in more films, we have to be thankful that the few she’s done include such hilarious classics as Harvey And Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), another film in which Hull reprises her original stage role. As a fan of Cecil Kellaway in general, I’m sorry he doesn’t get more screen time here, but his later scenes as Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanatorium, justify the choice of cast.
If you like Jimmy Stewart comedy, give this a try woman vs. secretary (1936), You can’t take it with you (1938), The shop around the corner (1940) and of course The Philadelphia Story (1940), for which Stewart won his only Academy Award for Best Actor. It’s hard to think of other films Exactly How Harvey, but a number of comedic fantasies feature some of the same cast. For more from Cecil Kellaway, see the enchanting romantic comedy, I married a witch (1942). Kellaway and Jesse White both appear in the Talking Mule sequel. Francis goes to the races (1951). You can also find White in Disney’s Talking Cat Comedy, The cat from space (1978); late in his career, he worked as a voice artist for cartoons, effectively becoming a talking animal himself. Look for Peggy Dow with a bigger role in the very unusual animal fantasy You never know (1951), in which Dick Powell plays a German shepherd who is reincarnated as a private investigator to solve his own murder. Although we never actually hear Harvey speak, I showed it Harvey as part of a series of talking animal comedies like Francis (1950) and The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964). You could also pair it with Who tricked Roger Rabbit? (1988) when rabbits are particularly attractive.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen writes our monthly silver screen standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic films on her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifelong learning groups and senior communities. She is the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its continuation Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watchingand she is also co-editor of two books on the works of Jim Henson.