The 1950 comedy “Harvey” is the kind of gimmicky story Hollywood manufactures with alacrity today.
It’s the tale of a simple man who believes his drinking buddy is a six foot-plus rabbit. Wacky high jinks ensue. Fade to black.
What “Harvey” offers above and beyond its one-line pitch is a gangbusters script based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase and a performance by James Stewart that offers different shadings in virtually every scene.
The film arrives on Blu-ray today as part of Universal’s 100 year celebration, and it’s a wonder to watch it anew in its original glory.
Harvey never looked so … lifelike.
Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a genial lush who spends his days chatting with an oversized rabbit only he can see. The very notion of the imaginary Harvey drives Elwood’s older sister Veta (Josephine Hull who won an Oscar for the role) to the breaking point. Her brother is an embarrassment to the family, and she cannot tolerate it any more. So she gently escorts him to a local sanitarium where he can get the help he richly needs.
That trip sets off a series of comedic missteps and misunderstandings, the kind leavened by Stewart’s dry charisma and the film’s crisp pacing. Stewart pulls more than a rabbit of his hat in “Harvey.” He teases out different emotions from Elwood without any cheap theatrical ploys. There’s a sadness within the character, the kind of soul decay that makes him engage the world with a convivial spirit that never wavers.
To hear Elwood wax on about his life philosophies is to witness an actor fully engaged in a story that might have been treated as a lark by lesser talents.
Is Harvey real? Could he simply be a symptom of Elwood’s bar hopping – even though Elwood never slurs a word? Or is Elwood the most well adjustment character in the story?
Chase’s yarn strikes a remarkably modern tone despite its age. The conflicts between the doctor (Charles Drake) attempting to treat Elwood and his faithful nurse (Peggy Dow) are raw and not easily solved by a final act embrace. And the anger flashing between sanitarium officials isn’t the kind typically seen in older, more genial productions.
The film’s whimsical flourishes are restrained and serve the story, not a series of cheap laughs.
The Blu-ray extras include a 1990 recorded message from Stewart sharing his embrace of both the film and that curious co-star.
“You can see that all of us accept the existence of this rabbit, that’s what Mrs. Chase had in mind when she wrote the play,” he says in his scratchy but always warm drawl.
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