Two Cineasts’s review published on Letterboxd:
"In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me."
(James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd)
CHARMING, FULL OF HUMOR AND DEEP LIFE DEPENDING QUESTIONS
Hi everybody, I'm truly shocked and surprised about the low registered views here on Letterboxd, about a film which really has earned more popularity. So I will try to give you a detailed picture why "Harvey" is considered a classic with good reason. "Harvey" is with only one word charming. A comedy with such a deep background and a critic on society how people react to someone who is "different", is more current as one would think it is and that from the much more conservative year 1950. This pic is timeless with a range from slapstick humor to thoughtful commentarys about the nature of happiness and mental health. Sophisticated dialogues paired with a perfect timing are creating a warm and charmingly atmosphere you either see as pure funny entertainment or as inspiring 106 minutes that leave room for interpretation and interesting perspectives at the life as a whole. Despite you're now in the mood or not, make it yourself comfortable and give number 71 of "Our top 111" list a chance, as it will raise your well-being immediately.
Elwood P. Dowd is a middle-aged wealthy man living in his house with his sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae. Both really suffering from Elwoods best friend Harvey a giant six foot 3,5 inches tall rabbit only Elwood can see. The people around him and especially his family are thinking he is insane so Veta finally decides to put Elwood into a sanatorium. But Elwood P. Dowd is eventually not so different as anyone assume and may be wiser than everybody thinks he is.
"Does Elwood see anybody these days?"
"Oh, yes, Aunt Ethel, Elwood sees 'somebody'."
(Grace Mills as Ethel Chauvenet to Josephine Hull as Veta Simmons)
"Harvey" is based on Mary Chases 1944 released Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Mary Chase adapted her own story for the big screen and co-wrote the screenplay together with Oscar Brodney. Universal paid Chase 1 million for the rights to her story, a absolutely record at that time. This 1950 movie adaptation should not be the last one as in the following decades there has been several tv adaptations and different versions of the theatrical play. Stewart already played in the original play, alongside Josephine Hull who played Veta in the film too, and again 1972 and 1975 the last time in another stage revival. Elwood P. Dowd is present in all scenes on stage while in the film it's very different and he needs to share the screentime as we often change the perspective to another therefore more important character as in the theatrical version. The whole events are happening on one single day and due to the much more importance of the others among Elwood all perspectives are perfectly captured.
"Harvey" isn't only a sappy feel good movie but it's also extremely witty pointment perfectly paced and structured. Elements it probably adapted from the source material but in great fashion. Seeing this movie is quite easy to imagine it's happening on stage as the design and the camera work are really similar. The movie begins with the introduction of Elwood P. Dowd and explaining everything we need to know at this point of the story in exactly one minute. Stewarts experience is shown in the level of comfort as embodying the lovely Elwood. The tightly written script brought to life by the fantastic cast and the often really long and continuous takes give the fully committed actors/actresses the chance to really shine. Especially Josephine Hull the winner of Best Actresses in a Supporting Role. James Stewart unfortunately couldn't win the only other nominations for Best Actor. Hull delivers a magnificent performance to see her inner turmoil conflict between her deep love for her brother and her frustration how Elwoods behavior scaring away all her potential friends and her social circle. James Stewart said one time that Hull mastered the most difficult role as she needed to believe and not believe in Harvey at the same time. The body language and facial expressions delivering us together with the great comedic timing absolutely notable scenes. Hull is however stealing the show a little bit everytime she is in a scene. She is always on the brink of going crazy and believing in Harvey as well because she is used to do so much compromises in the past and her daily life. Veta is the perfect contrast to her brother, an emotional nervous wreck whose grip on her own sanity may be questionable.
The film is constantly manoeuvering between being funny and tender. It is the exceptional and skilled performance of everyone included that preventing the film to veering into ridiculous. Every side character has a personality and the interaction of them ensure laughing out loud moments.
The film more specifically Harvey was many times referenced over the years like in "The Shawshank Redemption" the character Andy Dufresne described a fake person he created as "a phantom, an apparition, second cousin to Harvey the rabbit". Or another prominent example is Russell Crows John Nash in "A beautiful Mind" who is suffering from schizophrenia and says: "Have you met Harvey?", only to reveal it was a joke with the words: "There is no point in being nuts if you can't have a little fun."
Harvey is a pop culture icon and this little gem for me is an absolutely groundbreaking movie as it's one of the first thematizing mental issues in such a forward and direct way. The film has found the perfect way between comedy and drama only possible by Stewarts own magical abilities and the overwhelming charisma he sprays as his presence is saving his character in becoming to dopey. As Stewart himself said more than one time Elwood P. Dowd was his favorite role he ever played and it's easy to see why, even though it's not the most demanding performance but it's the one where he can bring all of his natural charm and good-hearted nature into the role. Elwood P. Dowd is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. He is inspiring with his magical ability to make those he meets feel better about themselves and to elevate those special qualities in those around them. He is one of the loveliest characters ever created for a film and the most pleasent human being. Every new encounter is a new opportunity to meet a new friend what seems to be easy as he is always kind, never loud, always gentle, but never mean-spirited, or angry. Every day as Elwood says himself is a beautiful day. He doesn't look down on anyone and welcome everybody with open arms. The characters but also we as an audience can't but begin to admire his wonderful positive attitude towards life and all living beings.
"I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I'm with."
(James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd)
My personal interpretation and thoughts:
Every character especially the medical professionals need to decide what the definition of insanity is. So as nearly everyone assumes Elwood is crazy let's assume for a moment he is and the not likely event happens someone obviously and perhaps similar sick, who is running into you in some streets and is talking to an imaginary person. Everyone would probably react the same, would step at a distance because something that seems not "normal" is mostly first of all frightening and negative, but there is more behind the obvious, an unique story. I'm not an expert but I would say nobody is born, in this case, with an imaginary friend as companion. As mentioned in the movie itself most of the time this is caused or triggerd by a trauma. The film treats the topic very humble and with much respect.
"Harvey" feels more important than it looks on the first time delivering certain messages: To let people be as they are and show more tolerance as you can never know what's behind your opposites obviously looking appearance, why this person is now, how he/she is. This movie shows that everyone should first of all take a look to themselves before judging others. To accept yourself, have a certain calmness is making happier and everything so much easier and on top of that you seem more confident and more sympathetic. Under the surface of a really comical plot "Harvey" has so much depthness to offer and asks important questions like: What kind of life is one of value and is someone "different" lesser worth? Is it preferably to be "normal", fully aware, worried, conflicted and miserable or is it perhaps better to accept something outside the norm if it makes someone a better, more loving individual?
Elwood treats all people he meets with respect and genuine attention. One of the themes raising by that is that it is probably more important how we treat others as others treat us and their opinion about us. In german there is this proverb I translate afterwards: "Was du nicht willst, das man dir tu, das füg auch keinem andern zu." Means: You should not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
"Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."
(James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd)
Now it is possible that some of you find it problematic that Elwood is portrayed as this light-hearded inspiring man because you can argue that he is an alcoholic spending most of his (and Harveys) days in bars drinking and is mentally ill and doesn't fit in society even though he is supposingly make a lot of friends. "Harvey" could be criticised for portraying hallucinations and mental illness as not harmful for the people themselves and the people around them. You always should be sceptical and don't believe everything works out in real life as in movies. But "Harvey" is at the same time so light-footed and tender in the tone and has definitely a connection to fantastical like a fairy tale and shows the importance messages I mentioned before. I personally don't see this critic points as really important, in the case of this movie. And you also have some signs in the plot eventually everything is anyways a bit different then you thought, but I say no more to that topic.
Normally an important ingredient for a good story is a strong character arc. The protagonist should start at a certain point and then change the course of the film, and ends up evolved and changed to the beginning. But every rule has some exeptions and "Harvey" is definitely one of them as the movie is not depending on otherwise working plot structures. "Harvey" is on its own and it's perfect how it is, a little bit like Elwood tries to convey. "Harvey" achieves to not only laugh about an invisible friend but rather to think about it. Roger Ebert used to say that the mark of a fine film was inverse to the number of times you looked at your watch. So either "Harvey" is a great movie or I just don't have a watch.