Archive Review: Harvey (1950)

A story of a man talking to a tall imaginary rabbit seems like a child’s film, but “Harvey” is anything but. In fact, it challenges our tendency to dismiss it as such. It is a case study of a perfectly delusional but perfectly charming middle-aged man who despite those around him believing him insane, ends up making them drive themselves crazy.

Based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-winning play (Chase also had a hand in the screenplay), “Harvey” tells the story of Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), who as mentioned appears to have an imaginary friend rabbit who accompanies him to the bars where he meets people and invites them to have drinks at his house sometime. He appears to have no job and his older sister Veta (Josephine Hull) is embarrassed by his behavior, enough to the point where she finally takes him to a mental hospital to be committed, where farce-like humor ensues.

Stewart, who has always fallen nicely into roles involving naive people passionately committed to something, is an ideal choice for Elwood. He gives the role a dreamy quality few of the other great actors of the ’40s and ’50s could have. Elwood is warm, kind-hearted, complimentary and other than drinking a lot and talking to an imaginary rabbit, seems devoid of any other vices or character flaws.

As the doctors and nurses at the mental hospital get involved, we learn more about Elwood. The film is like a psychological case study in which we become so focused wanting to know what is triggering his delusion that we miss the point. That is until Chase’s wonderful script makes sense of it toward the end.

The film has the vibe of a very straight play adaptation. My guess would be that little of script changed; there’s a lot of expository dialogue in the beginning. There’s also not a whole lot of interesting visual storytelling. About the best thing director Henry Koster does other than not actually show Harvey is include where Harvey ‘is’ in the frame of his shot, which as I read was suggested by Stewart. The film relies mostly on the talents of Stewart and of Oscar-winner Hull as the completely whiny and over-dramatic old coot of a sister and the thoughtful and simplistic wisdom of Chase’s script that preaches that normality is relative and that kindness is the true measure of character.

4/5 Stars

Directed by: Henry Koster
Written by: Mary Chase (play, screenplay), Oscar Brodney, Myles Connoly
Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull


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