Thursday 14 January 2010

Harvey (1950)

Director: Henry Koster
Star: James Stewart
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It happened entirely by chance, but I'm happy that my journey through the IMDb Top 250 started with James Stewart in Vertigo and continued with James Stewart in Harvey. Both are notable roles by a fine actor but for very different reasons indeed. Vertigo required Stewart to play a man progressing through a strong set of character changes. Initially he's a competent detective unable to come to terms with a particular failing, he tries to redeem himself and indeed becomes a hero, only to descend through mental illness to something scarily close to stalking. He's a man trying to come to terms with his own humanity, the sort of role that naturally requires an actor with a serious amount of dramatic talent and a particularly deep repertoire of technique.

By contrast, Harvey requires someone to co-star with a six foot tall invisible rabbit, surely a challenge but as different a challenge as could comfortably be imagined. Jimmy Stewart's performance in Harvey is very light and fluid, one of those deceptively clever portrayals that carries a lot of depth without ever seeming to. I love the easy way he played the role but, surprisingly, he didn't. He revisited it many times over the years on Broadway and eventually in a TV movie, and apparently his take on it got darker and darker with each performance. As I've seen the two films, Vertigo and Harvey, Stewart's roles seem very different. As Stewart himself saw them, they got closer and closer over time to being the same.
All I really knew before watching Harvey was that the title character was a giant invisible rabbit, though technically he's a pooka, a mischevious critter from Celtic mythology who tends to associate with social outcasts. They're certainly easy to find in Ireland but here the pooka makes do with Elwood P Dowd, Stewart's character, who is unsurprisingly a bit of a nutcase. It's inferred that he's an alcoholic, but he only takes a drink once during the entire film. Maybe they didn't want to play up the Irish connection too much. I didn't know that the superbly intricate script was adapted from a Pulitzer prize winning play by its author, Mary Chase, or that Josephine Hull won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for portraying Mr Dowd's elder sister. Stewart once suggested that Hull had the most difficult role in the film, since she had to simultaneously believe and not believe in the invisible rabbit.

Like all the best plots, Harvey has to do with looking inside ourselves at who we are and why. Dowd enjoys life more than those around him and many of his acquaintances look past his eccentric habit of talking to his giant rabbit friend. However those closest to him, especially his embarrassed sister, Veta, are horrified by it. After all, how is she going to improve or even maintain her status in life if her brother invites Harvey to all her parties and persists in cheerfully introducing him to everyone? When she fails to keep him away from the house at all critical moments, she resorts instead to committing him to an asylum. Unfortunately Dowd naturally charms the staff and thus it is Veta who ends up committed. This comedy of errors fuels the plot until its surprising conclusion.

While it is James Stewart who is inextricably connected with Harvey in the minds of the public, through his long association with the story on stage, television and film, it is Josephine Hull who took home the glory and she came to the part from the stage also. She's an elderly lady who has plenty of strength even though she flounders in the face of her brother's eccentricities. Such a powerful performance suggests that I really should know who she is, but it turns out that she's known primarily as a stage actress and she only made six films. At least a quick glance at her credits tells me that I'll see her again later in this project in Arsenic and Old Lace in another role that she originated on stage.
In 2004 I didn't recognise any of the other cast members at all, which didn't bode well for my plan to discover many of the great actors through this project. I thought at the time that maybe one new discovery was enough for then, but seven years and over three thousand movies later I find that there simply are no other great names here. The only other one that leaps out at me now is Cecil Kellaway, a South African character actor with a five decade career that saw him frequently steal scenes from the stars and only get better with age. He played a lot of doctors and priests and other respected figures. He was the Monsignor in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the Professor in The Shaggy Dog and the Dean in William Castle's Zotz! There are a few other lesser faces recognisable now also, like Charles Drake and Wallace Ford.

Possibly the biggest star of the film, above both Stewart and Hull and certainly above Kellaway, is the message that the film has to offer. My stepson Shawn, only thirteen years old at the time, watched Harvey with us and, while he initially hated the crazy thing, he got gradually drawn in deeper and deeper to the point of wanting to watch it again. He kept laughing aloud at how Dowd kept turning everything around, which I think captures the essence of the part. There are always different ways at looking at anything, some of which are positive and some negative. What does it hurt us to choose the positive even when it might seem strange? In Mr Dowd's case, his choices nearly get him locked up in a mental institution, but even when all seems worst he never fails to see the good side of it all.

That's definitely a lesson for all of us and there aren't too many Hollywood classics that teach us a lesson, especially one that we're happy to hear rather than the classic Disney sort of overt preaching. Moreover, it's a massive achievement for a black and white film to entertain a thirteen year old kid in the 21st century who would usually much rather watch Cartoon Network or professional wrestling, but Harvey achieved exactly that in my household. I can't think of a much higher compliment. And now I want to see it all over again.

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