February 24, 2017

Harvey (1950)
Grade: 48/100

Director: Henry Koster
Stars: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Charles Drake

What it's about. Based on Mary Chase's highly successful Broadway play. Chase also wrote the screenplay, and stage actress Josephine Hull reprises her role from the play. Hull won the film's only Academy Award, in the Supporting Actress category, while James Stewart was Oscar-nominated as Best Actor.

Stewart is an amiable man who lives in an inherited mansion with two freeloading relatives, sister Josephine Hull and grown niece Victoria Horne. Hull attempts to raise the family's social stature, to improve the prospects of a favorable match for unloved and desperate Horne. But Stewart is best friends with Harvey, a 6' 3" rabbit that only Stewart can see. Stewart's determination to introduce "Harvey" to everyone he meets makes their home a social pariah.

Stewart is welcome, though, at a certain local bar, where he pounds away martinis with a stool reserved for his invisible friend.

Hull decides to put Stewart away in the local mental asylum. There, aged Cecil Kellaway is the head doctor, Charles Drake is the junior doctor, hottie Peggy Dow is a nurse, Jesse White is an orderly, and Clem Bevans is the gatekeeper. Dow is, for some reason, in love with the blockheaded Drake. White, while looking for Stewart, encounters Horne at the Stewart mansion, and the two begin an unlike romance.

As it turns out, Harvey, though never seen, does exist, and supernaturally arranges matters such that Stewart is never committed, and can continue his congenial existence at his favorite bar.

How others will see it. The story of Harvey seems to have been in a crowd-pleaser in all of its forms: as a 1940s Broadway play without Stewart, as a 1950 feature film, as an early 1970s Broadway play starring Stewart, and as a 1972 made-for-television film with Stewart, and Helen Hayes in the Josephine Hull role.

It is an iconic role for James Stewart, tailor-made for his ingratiating, lovably stammering persona. Stewart, who in real life was a World War II hero as a bomber pilot, eschewed "tough guy" roles outside of westerns.

Harvey did well at the box office, but struggled to make a profit due to the cost of obtaining the rights to the hit play. It has remained a favorite of Stewart fans over the years. At imdb.com, the movie has a respectable 46K user votes, and a lofty user rating of 8.0. Women grade the film somewhat higher than do men, and women over 45 award the highest score, 8.6 out of 10.

Presumably, audiences, and female audiences in particular, like the happy ending. James Stewart has Harvey, Peggy Dow has Charles Drake, Victoria Horne has Jesse White, and Josephine Hull has an Oscar to place on her mantle. It's a happy ending for everyone except Cecil Kellaway, who can always buy a train ticket to Akron if Harvey won't take him there.

How I felt about it. The message of Harvey is inescapable. James Stewart isn't crazy. Everyone else is. Just in case we missed the filmmakers' intent, taxi cab driver Wallace Ford gives a speech contrasting the engaging (and generously tipping) behavior of eccentrics with their griping (and sans tipping) personality after they have been "cured" by Charles Drake's hypodermic needle.

In other words, it okay to waste your life downing martinis in a bar with a 6' 3" rabbit that nobody else can see. As long as you're happy. Marry an ugly hospital orderly and stuff his face with onion sandwiches. Marry doltish Charles Drake. As long as you're happy. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Apparently, it is much more important than accomplishing, which is what actually distinguishes us from bunny rabbits.

There is a problem with the story. James Stewart doesn't seem to realize that nobody else likes his invisible rabbit. In fact, they are generally aghast when introduced to it. Since Stewart seems otherwise perceptive, one has to wonder whether he is completely clueless, or simply enjoys messing with the heads of those he meets. Then again, he doesn't understand that nobody wants his business card.

The script can be hackneyed, also. The dialogue between Drake and Dow, in particular, is bad. Dow, for some reason, is in love with him, or worships him, despite Drake's rude and condescending behavior. Although a trained nurse, it seems that all she is good at is smiling. But Drake's sudden change of heart toward Dow is as predictable as the morning sunrise, since it steers the romantic subplot toward another happy ending.

I understand that Victoria Horne is desperate for a man. But what she sees in the unromantic Jesse White, who kidnapped her aunt earlier that day and is about to do the same to her uncle, is hard to discern. Does Jesse White even need a love interest? She'd be better off with the cab driver.

We are expected to sympathize with Josephine Hull, who wants to put her brother in a straight jacket so that he won't interfere with her tea parties. We are supposed to laugh when she is carried off like a sack of potatoes by Jesse White.

On the whole, the film's charm is lost on me. I disagree with its message and denouements. The dialogue is unnatural, and the characters are stereotypes. I recommend instead another 1950 James Stewart film: Winchester '73.