There are few joys as tangibly satisfying as watching a gifted actor giving a marvellous performance that tantalizes as instantly as it absorbs the viewer into its believability. Henry Koster’s Harvey (1950) is not a great film. But James Stewart is a superior talent, so effortless in the delivery of his lines that he easily imbues the character of Elwood P. Dowd with whimsical credibility. Mary Chase’s play had been a celebrated smash on Broadway, with Stewart assuming the role for nearly two years; enough time to ease into his genuine comedic timing. On film, Stewart breezes through the part of a middle-aged social drinker who prefers to be pleasant rather than smart in his dealings with people. A great actor could easily fake such sincerity. But Stewart was the real deal both on and off the screen and that alone makes his performance uniquely sincere.
The screenplay by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney and Miles Connelly adheres closely to Chase’s original show. We open on the Dowd residence and Elwood P. (Stewart) exiting the front door with his best friend Harvey, an invisible 6 ft. 3 inch white rabbit. The rest of Elwood’s family, including his easily flustered scatterbrain sister Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) and her bitter spinsterish daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) share Elwood’s palatial home but are frequently embarrassed by his congenial insistence to include Harvey in their social plans. Believing that Elwood has clearly lost his mind, Veta and Myrtle usher him out of the house during a society luncheon and recital designed to procure various ‘connections’ for Myrtle that will hopefully land her a husband. Unfortunately, Elwood gets wind of their plans and hurries home, attempting to introduce his transparent friend to the ladies who understandably flee in giddy confusion.
Veta has had quite enough. Even though their late mother left the Dowd estate to Elwood she is determined to have her brother committed to Chumley Rest, a quaint sanatorium. Her motives are partly predicated on her own humiliation, but more genuinely to see that Elwood receives the much needed care he so obviously needs to get well and rid himself of his delusion. On a pretext Veta gets Elwood and Harvey to accompany her to Chumley Rest, leaving him in the taxi while she goes in to explain the situation to nurse, Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow) and Doctor Lyman Sanderson (Charles Drake). Unfortunately, Veta’s fractured rationalisation through tears coupled with an admission that she has occasionally seen Harvey herself convince Miss Kelly and Dr. Sanderson that she, not Elwood, requires institutionalization.
Veta is forcibly taken to solitary confinement by orderly Marvin Wilson (Jesse White). In the meantime Elwood, wandering the institution’s grounds, casually meets the wife of its managing physician (Nana Bryant) who has come to collect her husband, Doctor Willie Chumley (Cecil Kellaway). Enchanted by Elwood, Mrs. Chumley offers to help him find Harvey – whom she misinterprets to be a real person. However, when she tells her husband about Elwood and Harvey in the presence of Dr. Sanderson and Miss Kelly, everyone realizes what a terrible mistake they have made in locking up Veta.
Sanderson and Kelly go in search of Elwood whom they discover at Charlie’s, a downtown bar. After some congenial conversation, Elwood recognizes an obvious romantic affection between the two and encourages Sanderson and Kelly to share a dance before Marvin bursts in to demand that Elwood go back with him to Chumley Rest. In the meantime, Dr. Chumley has vanished and Marvin suspects Elwood has had something to do with his disappearance. But actually, Chumley has experienced and extraordinary encounter with Harvey; one that realigns his stern clinical outlook on life for the better.
Back at the sanatorium Chumley confides his experience to Elwood who explains that Harvey is a pooka – a spiritual guide manifested in animal form who can only be seen by those who have faith. “Years ago,” Elwood explains, “…my mother used to say…in this world…you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” Chumley inquires whether Harvey might choose to stay with him to fulfil his lifelong fantasy of going to Akron to lay under a tree with a good woman. Elwood suggests that Harvey might concede to such a road trip.
Veta and Myrtle, Wilson, Dr. Sanderson and Miss Kelly arrive at Chumley Rest and Sanderson suggests that a simple injection on an experimental drug will snap Elwood back into ‘reality’. Veta demands that Elwood accept this needle and Elwood willingly agrees to satisfy his sister before their cab driver suggests that such a shot will only ruin Elwood’s optimistic outlook on life – in effect, making him just like everybody else. Veta begs Elwood not to take the injection and everyone decides to go home, including Harvey who has chosen to stay with Elwood rather than go on with Dr. Chumley.
As farcical fantasy teetering on the edge of screwball comedy Harvey is enjoyable enough. Its kindly philosophy never becomes preachy in its tolerance toward those who see the world slightly askew from the rest of society. But the simplicity of this message tends to get bogged down in the story, the rest of the world becoming a manic, cynical cliché. The romance between Sanderson and Kelly seems strained at best; the characters so one dimensional and silly that they fail to capture our attention or garner our respect, thereby diffusing our appreciation for their final starry-eyed discovery of each other. The same can be said of the burgeoning relationship between Marvin and Myrtle – unexpected and unbelievable in every way. She first lures him to her side with an egg sandwich. Afterward, he can’t keep his hands off her. Oh please!
The most enchanting aspect of the film (and it is both enchanting and inspired) is James Stewart’s central performance as the unerring optimist, so open-minded and unspoiled by the world around him that he cannot conceive of the wily machinations that would seek to institutionalize him simply for having a positive attitude. Stewart is the gem of the piece and the glue that holds everything else together. Moreover, he is able to convince us that a life-sized rabbit is just the sort of travelling companion someone like Elwood Dowd would have. Midway through the film we are shown a painted portrait of Elwood with Harvey visualized in a concrete form. The image is rather spooky, and quite unnecessary, because by this point in the plot Stewart has already made Harvey as real to the audience as any of the film’s flesh and blood co-stars. The genius in Stewart’s performance is that it makes us ‘see’ Harvey in our own imaginations.
Harvey’s debut on Blu-ray isn’t quite what I expected. Universal had previously announced this release for Spring 2012, then pushed it back until September. Although the B&W full frame image tightens up over its DVD counterpart, with certain scenes yielding a remarkable amount of clarity and fine detail, on the whole the visual quality tends to be somewhat softly focused with contrast levels occasionally bumped. The main titles contain some rather intense film grain that all but vanishes afterward, suggesting that perhaps more than a hint of undue DNR has been applied to smooth out the image. Contrast levels are inconsistently rendered. Sometimes they appear bang on, while at other moments the image looks too bright with weak black levels and a midrange loss of tonality in the gray scale. Age related artefacts are also detected including a vertical scratch near the end of the movie. Bottom line: I don’t think Universal did all that it could have with their original film elements to make them ready for this 1080p release and that’s a genuine shame.
The audio is DTS mono and adequately remastered for this presentation. Extras are the other great disappointment; only the same tired old video intro from 1990 voiced by James Stewart, some production notes and two 100th anniversary featurettes that have already been released on other Universal catalogue titles. Boring! Bottom line: for those who love Harvey, the Blu-ray represents a very modest upgrade from Universal’s previously issued DVD. While the improvements are indeed there and welcome they aren’t enough for me to recommend a repurchase of this title on Blu-ray. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)