Silver Screen Standards: Harvey (1950)
Adapted from a hit play that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the 1950 film Harvey celebrates gentle, odd characters whose eccentricities make life more interesting for everyone around them. If you’ve spent much time around such folks, or perhaps are one yourself, you’ll find a lot to appreciate in this classic comedy about an amiable middle-aged bachelor and his invisible pooka pal.
The movie was a particular favorite of its star, James Stewart, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Elwood P. Dowd, and it’s certainly an example of Stewart at his sweetest, a huge shift from his darker roles in films from Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. Henry Koster directs this genial comedy, which supports Stewart with particularly memorable performances from Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Horne, and Jesse White, but it’s the delightfully dotty Josephine Hull who steals the picture as Elwood’s scatterbrained older sister.
Stewart leads as the alcoholic but affable Elwood, whose inherited financial comfort allows him to spend his days drinking in bars with his invisible rabbit companion, the titular Harvey. Elwood’s widowed sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), live with Elwood but are frustrated by the effect he and Harvey have on their social life. Veta conspires with a family friend, Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn), to have Elwood declared insane and committed to a local sanitarium, but the process goes awry when the doctors mistakenly think that Veta is their new patient.
Real mental illness is a serious subject, of course, but the characters in Harvey are not seriously ill. They’re kooky eccentrics of the type often seen in stage plays, screwball comedies, and sit coms. They’re also commonly found in real life, where they are referred to as “characters,” as if to suggest that they belong more to fictional space than humdrum reality. Elwood is certainly a “character” in that sense, but so are Veta, Myrtle Mae, the sanitarium attendant Martin (Jesse White), Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), and even his wife (Nana Bryant). The sanest people in the story are the young doctor (Charles Drake) and his lovelorn nurse (Peggy Dow), and they’re also the most boring, although it’s fun to watch Nurse Kelly fume at the clueless Dr. Sanderson.
Sane as they are, even these two fall for Elwood’s benevolence and gentle charm. Only a truly brutal person could wish normalcy on Mr. Dowd, as the taxi driver (Wallace Ford) makes clear in one of the picture’s most important scenes. “After this,” he warns Veta, “he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” If being normal means being miserable, then sanity isn’t worth it, although the movie’s last few scenes prove that Elwood is less crazy than everybody thinks.
Stewart’s performance is thoroughly enjoyable, especially his scenes interacting with the unseen Harvey, for whom he carries a coat, pulls out chairs, holds doors, and dodges traffic. Every time Elwood meets a new person, he insists on introducing them to Harvey, which Stewart approaches with unflappable patience even as other characters talk over him or attempt to stop him. Given that the story is called Harvey, it’s crucial for us to accept that Elwood believes in the pooka even if we don’t, and Stewart sells us on the reality of the giant rabbit from the start. Stewart, however, claimed that Josephine Hull had the most difficult job in the cast because she had to believe and not believe in Harvey simultaneously. She manages the challenge brilliantly, but every scene with her is a hoot, whether she’s complaining about Harvey or trying to keep Myrtle Mae away from the amorous Martin. Having originated the role onstage, Hull knew her character intimately, and her performance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Hope Emerson in Caged (1950), Nancy Olson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and both Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for All About Eve (1950).
While it’s a shame that Josephine Hull didn’t appear in more movies, we have to be grateful that the few she did make include such hilarious classics as Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), another film in which Hull reprises her original stage role. As a fan of Cecil Kellaway in general, I’m sorry that he doesn’t get more screen time here, but his later scenes as Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanitarium, justify the casting choice.
If you enjoy Jimmy Stewart comedies, try Wife vs. Secretary (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and, of course, The Philadelphia Story (1940), for which Stewart won his only Best Actor Oscar. It’s hard to think of other movies exactly like Harvey, but a number of comedic fantasies feature some of the same cast. For more of Cecil Kellaway, see the enchanting romantic comedy, I Married a Witch (1942). Kellaway and Jesse White both appear in the talking mule sequel, Francis Goes to the Races (1951). You’ll also find White in Disney’s talking cat comedy, The Cat from Outer Space (1978); late in his career he did voice work for animation and thus actually became a talking animal himself. Look for Peggy Dow with a larger role in the very unusual animal fantasy You Never Can Tell (1951), which stars Dick Powell as a German Shepherd reincarnated as a private detective to solve his own murder. Although we never actually hear Harvey speak, I’ve shown Harvey as part of a series featuring talking animal comedies like Francis (1950) and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). You could also pair it with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) if rabbits hold particular appeal.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.
Probably my favorite movie of all time (or at least a tie). I never realized exactly why but now it becomes clearer, with your commentary. It’s a story about the best in humanity.