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Saturday, 1 December 2012

HARVEY (1950)

“I have wrestled with reality for 35 years and I am happy to report that I finally won out over it.”
(Elwood P. Dowd)

Oh Elwood P. Dowd, how I loved your philosophy of life when I first saw this wonderful fantasy movie one cold and rainy winters afternoon, stuck in my bed and full of the flu. I was an impressionable teenager when, one rainy afternoon with nothing in particular to do other than find some old movie on television, I stumbled onto this gem of comedy- fantasy movie making. I remember that for some reason (and for the life of me I can't remember why) I had been feeling a little sorry for myself and busy evaluating my life (yes I know, I started young!) All I know is that the film, for what I thought would be a brief moment in time took me away from whatever problems were on my mind at the time. It cheered me, inspired me, made me laugh and had an everlasting impact on me which has lasted to this day.

HARVEY, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase, is a classic tale of a middle-aged, amiable (and somewhat eccentric) individual whose best friend is a 6' 3.5" tall rabbit named Harvey, a white rabbit that only Elwood can see. According to Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a benign but mischievous creature from Celtic mythology who is especially passionate about helping social outcasts. Elwood explains at one point that that Harvey has the power to stop time: 
"Did I tell you he could stop clocks? Well, you've heard the expression 'His face would stop a clock'? Well, Harvey can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like — with anyone you like — and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by. ... You see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space — but any objections."

This seemingly idiosyncratic insistence on the true existence of his Rabbit friend have driven his sister Veta (played by the magnificent Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for her performance) and niece Myrtle Mae ( played by Peggy Dow) to the edge of bewilderment. Elwood's family are terrified that Myrtle Mae will never be accepted into 'polite society' and find a husband with her insane uncle Elwood in plain sight. The family make the decision to have him committed to a nearby mental institution.

Harvey is a comedy, a fantasy. It is also a cunningly clandestine intelligent character study of alcoholism, mental illness and high society - all dressed up in a low-key gentle movie.
James Stewart gives one of his finest performances in a large list of memorable performances, and if memory serves me correctly, this was one of his personal favourites. When revisiting this movie its always a small surprise to be reminded that behind the care-free portrayal there is actually a subtly dark performance from Stewart playing this middle-aged alcoholic who claims to all that he keeps company with a six-foot-tall, invisible rabbit. In fact many of the themes and topics within the film such as the effects of alcoholism and how mental illness was treated (or not, as the case may be) in the 1950's have dark undertones.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that this is a 'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' in its treatment of how classifying and labelling someone as mentally ill could be potentially problematic. It is however a prime example of how serious and dark issues can be clothed in a gentle and playful manner, whilst still leaving room for thought and contemplation.

Moreover, at no point are the issues that surround Harvey treated in an exploitative way. He is happy with himself and his life and perhaps more significantly, he makes others happy (especially the strangers that he meets) with their lives. That is perhaps the great skill and magic of Elwood and his invisible friend in that they instill a feeling of peace, contentment and joy to almost everyone who comes into contact with them.

The official movie trailer

Is Harvey real? That's the question that I constantly read when I see accounts of this film.  It could be argued that this question is immaterial as we already know that Elwood thinks he is real and as a consequence of that we are conscious that Elwood's family thinks Elwood is insane and bringing shame on the good name of the family. I would suggest that it isn't actually important whether Harvey is real or not, because to Elwood he is real and it is possibly that belief in Harvey and what Harvey represents to him that bestows this middle-aged man with grace, humility and charm. 
Maybe we all need a Harvey, so that we too can reject of the harshness and selfishness of the world that we live in. maybe we already have one and its a case of finding again the childhood carefree nature that many of us leave behind over the years……. However, the clues at the end of the film leave us in little doubt of the true reality of the  existence of the  6' 3.5" tall rabbit.

Harvey is a charming, magical masterpiece that cleverly balances elements of fantasy, comedy, and human without falling into the trap of ever becoming sugary or maudlin.

So is Harvey real? Of course he is.

The complete cinematic edition of the movie.

I think that it's only fitting that I leave the last words to Elwood - words that perfectly embody his character and philosophy of life…..

"Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us".

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