‘Harvey’, is one of those films that you watch as a child and fondly remember for the rest of your life. It has a silly premise revolving around a man whose best friend is the titular character. Harvey. The catch is he happens to be a six foot three and a half inch tall invisible rabbit. Having an invisible friend is something many children can relate to but the amazing thing about this film is how it is so able to remain with you even as you put away childish things. I have seen this movie many times over the years and each experience is filled with the innocent wonderment I held in my youth. Recently a Blu-ray edition was released as part of Universal Studio’s centennial celebration. This hundred year mark has provided a great excuse for them to cull through their vaults filled with cinematic history and give a new generation an opportunity to discover these gems and steadfast fans a chance to revisit old favorites. The movie is a lighthearted journey through the life of a man thought crazy by most. It is a fantasy that suspends mundane reality and offers the viewer a respite from normal life. Most important of all is despite its veneer of simplicity the story is a delightful crafting of many layers each able to appeal to the audience in a different fashion. It is not the kind of movie that has the audience rolling around laughing. Yes, there are laughs but like the film itself they are gently dispensed funded on a sense of humanity. You might be under the impression that the high definition video is wasted on a black and white movie made over sixty years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 1080p resolution afforded by the reveals details I have never seen before. The textures on the clothing come alive; as the weave of the fabric gives realism to the picture. Directors of that era were expert as using the lack of color as a distinct medium; employing the light and shadows with incredible effect. This is remarkably sharpened by the high definition making it like seeing the movie the first time.
Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is considered by everyone as a pleasant man, gentle, kind and friendly. There is something about him though that friends and family consider uncomfortably strange; Elwood’s best friend is an invisible rabbit, just slightly taller than Dowd’s 6’3" wiry frame. Has Elwood is quick to explain Harvey is a pooka, a mischievous creature described in Irish and Welsh folklore. It seems that their kind have a perchance for people that don’t fit in with society. Although Elwood is amiable enough he is not prone to making friends, at least not with tangible human beings. His close relationship with Harvey is a subject of great consternation for the family he lives with, his sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull), who is mortified by her brother’s eccentricity. Veta lives for the social register, always seeking for a means to elevate her status. This is all but impossible when the matrons of society meet her brother and he introduces them to Harvey, pointing to empty space. For Veta familiar bonds are not stronger that the compulsion for social climbing. The only option that she can think of is to have her brother declared insane and committed to a sanatorium.
This movie is crafted along the lines of a slapstick farce. The premise is beyond belief by design and made to support the brilliant performances seen here. The classic use of this humorous method has certain critical requirements to work and this movie is an ideal example of how to accomplish this goal. A simple foundation can support madness in the execution and the use of a popular plot device of the mix up. When Veta meets with a psychiatrist in the mental institution she innocently enough confesses that after such a long time appeasing her brother she has seen Harvey herself. The doctor misinterpreting the statement proceeds to have Veta admitted. Elwood remains blissfully concerned with the machinations of his sister. She approaches Judge Gaffney (William Lynn) for a legal commitment and considering Elwood is frequently in his cups the strategy is quite plausible.
In 1951 this film garnered a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Stewart and a Best Supporting actress win for Hull. The movie remains one of the best comedies thanks to these performances and the timeless nature of the story. Dowd was clearly not a danger to himself or others; the only motivation Veta had for removing him from the home was her own embarrassment. The question posed to the audience is which is crazy, talking to an invisible rabbit or being so consumed by the need to be approved of by the ‘right’ people that you would toss your own brother in an asylum. When Elwood explains himself to a doctor and his nurse there is such remarkable pathos in this character that you cannot help but to be moved no matter how many times you experience it. The question of what is normal and what is sane comes up throughout the film and considering the actions of the others Elwood just might be the sanest man in the room. There is a gentle quality to this movie that is juxtaposed to some of the finest slapstick humor ever seen on film. You cannot help to cheer on a grown man who likes a drink or two and is friends with an invisible rabbit. During his long career Mr. Stewart was on one of the finest actors every to step on a sound stage. His range was such that he could play any role from a stalwart FBI agent to an all American hero with complete commitment to the part. This performance is arguably one of his finest achievements so incredibly convincing that you’ll believe in Harvey yourself and perhaps envy Elwood for his innocent approach to the complexities of life.
Special Introduction By Film Star James Stewart With Photographic Montage