“I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”
Noncomformist Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) spends his days drinking in bars and chatting with his invisible rabbit friend, Harvey. When Elwood’s sister (Josephine Hull) becomes convinced that his quirky behavior is preventing her grown daughter (Victoria Horne) from finding a suitable husband, she takes him to Chumley’s Rest Home, where a well-meaning young doctor (Charles Drake) targets her as the delusional one instead; meanwhile, Elwood befriends the asylum’s founder (Cecil Kellaway), who soon believes that Harvey is real.
- Cecil Kellaway Films
- Jimmy Stewart Films
- Mental Illness
- Play Adaptation
Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play was an enormous hit with post-war audiences, opening in 1944 and running for 5 years before finally closing and re-emerging as a feature film. It’s an unusual, whimsical fable which poses the enduring philosophical question of who’s really crazy in this world — those who live life peacefully while talking to an imaginary 6’3″ rabbit, or those who care more about social status than inner happiness? Because Elwood is ultimately not the only person who “sees” Harvey, it’s difficult to know just what to make of him; he should perhaps be viewed as simply a fantastic reminder that attitude is the essential key to happiness. Elwood, for instance, likes to invite anyone and everyone he meets to “come have a drink” with him, and this open-minded acceptance of all humans — rich (the asylum owner’s wife) or poor (the asylum’s gate-keeper) — is a poignant, important lesson.
With that said, despite its cult status, I don’t find Harvey all that compelling as a film; considering that it’s a comedy, there aren’t nearly enough laugh-out-loud moments or lines. The central dilemma of whether or not Elwood will get committed to Chumley’s is self-evident (how can we not know the outcome ahead of time?); and the unrequited “love affair” between stodgy Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and loopy Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow) — which supplements the central story — is amusing but ultimately beside the point. It’s the performers rather than the story who make Harvey worth watching: Jimmy Stewart — who lobbied for the role, and reprised it again years later — is perfectly cast as the nonconforming, good-natured Elwood; Josephine Hull, who won an Oscar playing Elwood’s frantic sister, is appropriately ditzy (though I prefer her more subdued performance in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, where she’s the “crazy” one); and the remaining supporting actors — particularly Dow, Kelloway, and Horne — are all fun to watch.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd
- Josephine Hull as Veta Louise
- Peggy Dow as pining Nurse Kelly
- Cecil Kellaway as “Harvey convert” Dr. Chumley
- An intriguing premise for a comedic fantasy
Yes, for its status as an Oscar-nominated crowd pleaser. Listed as a cult movie in the back of Peary’s book.