Here is a movie that shows its age but still retains a kernel of its original charm.
It concerns an eccentric but unfailingly kind man, Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmie Stewart,) and his friend, an invisible white rabbit named Harvey who, per Elwood, is 6’3″ tall. Elwood, who has inherited his mother’s house, now shares quarters with his widowed older sister, Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull,) and her old-maid daughter, Myrtle (Victoria Horne.)
Both women are distressed at Elwood’s attachment to Harvey, for whom he opens doors and pulls up chairs, and who accompanies Elwood to local bars for conversations with paroled inmates and bartenders who do not see the rabbit but accept him nonetheless and without criticism. Unfortunately, Elwood’s nuttiness is offputting to Veta’s socially elite friends and is seen as frustrating the chances for Myrtle to find a husband. (Elwood is understood to be a drunk, but we never see him take a sip or appear to be in his cups. This may have to do with cinema standards of 1950, or with the fact that inebriation is not fun to watch.)
The film’s first 30 minutes or so are irritating. Their point is to establish Veta’s hysterical embarrassment with her brother and, finally, her decision to commit him to a sanatorium. At that point, things get a bit more interesting.
The looney bin scenes are absolute period pieces but serve to contrast Elwood’s genial view of the world with those of the people who work in the place and who, against their expectations, come to like the guy and sorta see his point of view. There is also a contrived explanation of what the Harvey the rabbit, whom Elwood describes as a “pooka,” might be.
The nicest moments come toward the end, when Elwood explains himself in his appealing and generous way.
In a country built by itchy people willing to cross oceans or continents in search of something better, there always has been an audience for stories about lovable oddballs. While Harvey is a fictional tale set in a largely fictional past, it still resonates with the basic wish we all have for acceptance of our own personal quirks.
This movie was released five years after opening as a Broadway play that won the 1945 Pulitzer for best drama. It has been popular, off and on, in subsequent screen and stage versions here and in London, but its appeal, like that of another old movie and dramatic standard, Charlie’s Aunt, may have reached its end. As recently as 10 years ago, Steven Spielberg was considering a Harvey remake, but that came to naught.
Perhaps what made the film most appealing on its release was its star. Jimmie Stewart, already a popular screen actor, had been drafted as an enlisted man in 1941 and, from there, trained as bomber pilot, flew 20 missions over Europe and then trained other flight crews. (The 20-mission limit was imposed because bombing missions were associated with unusually high casualty rates, i.e., death.) Other actors served honorably in war films and on USO tours, but Stewart was admired particularly among veterans and their families. His sincerity seemed to come through in 1946’s Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and his unassuming charm works well in Harvey.
The Idiosyncratist has been distracted but not sickened by the current coronavirus. There has seemed to be no point in writing about personal stress when everybody else is in the same situation. The hope is to have something interesting to say in the near future.