Friday, July 31, 2015

Harvey Review

Growing up as a kid who enthusiastically enjoyed Saturday morning cartoons, I'd notice famous movies spoofed all the time, but was usually too young to get the reference. I'd hear about an invisible giant rabbit named Harvey in several movies and cartoon shows, most notably in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Well, I finally got around to seeing the Jimmy Stewart classic, Harvey (1950), and I've got to say it's a sheer delight.
Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy drunk who starts having visions of a giant rabbit named Harvey. Elwood lives with his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and her daughter (Victoria Horne), and Veta worries that Elwood has gone insane. In the process of trying to have him committed, Veta admits that she occasionally sees Harvey herself and a comedy of errors ensues. The director of the mental home, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), tries to reconcile his duty to help Elwood with his own growing experiences with Harvey. Elwood and Harvey soon become the catalysts for a family mending its wounds and for romance blossoming in unexpected places.
Harvey is a comedy-drama based on the stage play by Mary Chase. The original Broadway production of Harvey opened on November 1, 1944 at the 48th Street Theatre, ran for 1,775 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1945. It has been adapted for film and television several times, most notably this 1950 film starring the legendary James Stewart. Josephine Hull first preformed her role on the Broadway version of Harvey before the film was produced.
Harvey is a comedy, and it is indeed funny, but it's significantly watered down compared to contemporary comedy films. I tend not to like modern comedy films since they tend to mistake loud, annoying, and bombastic character for funny characters and confuse crude jokes and innuendos for humor. Harvey revolves around situational humor, comical misunderstandings, and ironic impropriety. The story is dialogue driven and full of charming and amusing characters. The lack of physical comedy and emphasis on dialogue may bore some younger audiences who are used to loud bombastic characters flailing around in a vain attempt to be entertaining. At no point was I truly laughing out loud, but I was consistently amused by the antics and charmed by the characters. My favorite was easily Veta who is a proper, high-class woman who becomes highly flustered and exasperated as her attempts at propriety and social protocol are innocuously and unintentionally foiled by Elwood's innocent antics.
Harvey was produced during the enforcement of The Hays Code, the squeaky clean set of moral guidelines to which movie and TV studios had to adhere. In this case, The Hays Code made the story a bit ridiculous, even for a movie about a six-foot-tall talking rabbit. Elwood is frequently referred to as an alcoholic. We see him order drinks only a couple of times, but only once in the entire movie do we actually see him drink anything. The Hays Code would not allow him to be shown getting drunk on film. Elwood's alcoholism is a plot device, but we're never shown anything to suggest he's actually an alcoholic outside of people saying he is. A drunk who never drinks nor is ever inebriated is hard to believe. Why should we think Elwood is an alcoholic without proper reason to think so? Seeing someone with an alleged drinking problem act like a perfectly pleasant and well-mannered individual significantly trivializes a very serious condition. Elwood may be drunk and may be delusional, but he's also happier, less neurotic, and more content than the so-called normal people who surround him and claim to be looking out for his best interests. Is that the best way to depict alcoholism? In the end, it's a very clean movie even if that cleanness seems a bit unnatural on occasion.
The sets and camera work in Harvey were excellent. Many large sets were used that emphasized depth. Frequently there was the main action in the foreground, usually dialogue between two characters, with one or two additional characters in the background busying themselves with something and interjecting some dialogue with the characters in the foreground. This gave a sense of depth and made what was originally a stage production seem less confined to a stage. There are also a lot of wide shots, many of which were suggestions by James Stewart himself. These wide angle shots were used so that "Harvey" would be in the frame. This was brilliant as it drew attention to the fact that Elwood was conversing and interacting with a character who is basically not there.
Harvey is a good, clean movie with a full cast of charming characters and amusing situational humor. It's not without its flaws, though. It's a bit slow, even by 1950's standards, and it lays on the sweetness rather heavily at times. It handles (or rather doesn't handle) alcoholism in such a misleading way that I'd be worried that impressionable children might derive some erroneous conclusions about it. Overall, it's a good, solid, and charming movie which I enjoyed. I recommend seeing this classic at least once, though it may merit a discussion about alcohol consumption with young children afterwards.

James Stewart is such an icon of classic cinema. What is your favorite James Stewart movie? Comment below and let me know!

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