US (1950) Dir. Henry Koster
Time for ol’ MIB to strike another classic film of his never-ending “To Watch” list, in the form of this quirky comedy from 1950, originally a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play written by Mary Chase, who also adapted her work into the screenplay for this cinematic outing.
Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is an amiable chap around town, with a smile and kind word for everyone he meets, be they a stranger or friend. He lives with his elder sister Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull) and his niece Myrtle-Mae (Victoria Horne) and regularly frequents Charlie’s bar downtown, run by Mr. Cracker (Dick Wessel). Oh, and Elwood’s best friend is an invisible 6 ft 3 ½ inch tall white rabbit named Harvey (playing himself).
Veta is embarrassed by Elwood’s insistence that Harvey is always present as it impinges on her social life. After her latest gathering is interrupted by Elwood and Harvey, Veta calls upon her lawyer Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn) to have Elwood committed to the Chumley Rest sanitarium, but Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) thinks Veta is the mad one and commits her instead, setting off a chain of events that impacts everyone’s lives.
Behind the goofy premise is a very sharp dissertation on the differing ways people approach life, and how we perceive those whose path veers towards the unconventional. It also asks questions about the value of life and what we may be missing through protocol and regulation dictating the arbitrary standards we adhere to.
Given Chase’s play first appeared in 1944, this thoughtful philosophy seems remarkably progressive and advanced for a period when the world was still at war and most liberties we have today were still verboten taboos. It has been suggested Chase just wanted to make people laugh during this period of turmoil, but her history as a prank-pulling journalist and children’s author suggests Chase was quite the liberal thinker.
This message of social acceptance comes to light in the closing moments of the film, or at least its ramming home does; Chase’s story isn’t so heavy handed in that respect, preferring to let things play out naturally – well, as naturally as a farcical yarn about an invisible rabbit can be – framing Elwood as a much maligned victim of other people’s hang ups rather than his own.
Obviously the initial concern is that Harvey is a symptom of Elwood’s drinking, which is out of control if Veta is to be believed, but she comes across as a fussy curtain twitching type, so her opinion is quite unfair given the sibling relationship here. However, while Elwood likes a martini at Charlie’s he is never in a permanent state of inebriation and always has his wits and manners about him, making this doubly unfounded.
Myrtle-Mae also believes her spinster status is in direct correlation to being the niece of the local crackpot and sides with Veta in having Elwood committed. But this comes back to bite Veta on the backside in a huge way when she confides in Dr. Sanderson that she has seen Harvey herself, he is convinced that Veta is the one who needs treatment and she is deflecting an attempt by Elwood to commit her by striking first.
So Elwood gets off scot-free until Sanderson is made aware of the colossal mistake he has made, and not only has to try to placate a distraught Veta who wants to sue the sanitarium but also has to find Elwood and bring him back for treatment instead. From the audience’s perspective we still don’t know what exactly Elwood has done wrong or if he is in need for help, other than he hasn’t been the same since his mother died.
Which begs the question why hasn’t the older Veta broken down as well? There, in a nutshell (nut case?), is the story’s central conceit – just who is the crazy one? Elwood is composed, carries himself with poise and never raises his voice or becomes irritated by anyone, whilst everyone else at one point ends up in a tizzy, running around like their pants are on fire.
A leitmotif of Elwood inviting people for dinner seems random yet it’s clearly a sincere gesture. Elwood is also able to read situations better than others, like nurse Kelly’s (Peggy Dow) affection towards the oblivious Dr. Sanderson, or how Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) needs someone to listen to him like he listens to others.
Harvey – based on a Celtic myth of a benign apparition called a Pooka – is both a catalyst for opening everyone’s eyes up to the truth and possibly a metaphor representing divine intervention. The film’s most famous quote is attributed to Elwood’s mother but Harvey is the one who instigates Elwood putting it into practice – to wit:
“My mother used to say to me ‘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.”
The cleverness of the script and its manipulation of the perception of both the characters and the audience is light years ahead of its time and still holds up today as a masterclass of holding a mirror up to stuffy societal attitudes. It may not be as incisive as modern works but its gentle charm works in its favour in getting its message across without bludgeoning us over the head with it.
Ordinarily James Stewart would be singled out for praise for what is one of his signature performances, but this film is full of great turns from the whole cast – Josephine Hull is a captivating ball of nervous energy as Veta, whilst Jesse White adds some colour as the uncouth sanitarium orderly Wilson for a start.
We are far too cynical these days for such a delightful slice of whimsy like Harvey to be made so it is a true blessing that this classic and joyous screen version exists. Isn’t that right, Harvey?