The cast/crew bit: directed by Henry Koster, starring Jimmy Stewart & Josephine Hull
The ten-word synopsis: Man befriends 6’3.5″ giant rabbit only he can see.
Vertigo may have topped the AFIs list and It’s a Wonderful Life might be the most charming film ever made, but for my money, James Stewart never put in a better performance than that of Elwood P Dowd in Harvey. The man affectionately known as ‘Jimmy’ is the kind of actor who is just immensely likeable, perhaps more so than anyone before or after him, and Harvey is, as an actor, his coup de grace.
Stewart plays a man who sees a giant bunny rabbit named ‘Harvey;, a rabbit who is essentially his only friend. Mild mannered and extremely pleasant, lead character Elwood sits alongside Truman Burbank and Stewarts’ own George Bailey as one of the most genuinely likeable characters in cinema history. The film is essentially a existentialist psychological thriller with an extremely light tone, refreshingly so, as we explore whether Harvey is real or Elwood is insane. There’s evidence for both sides, but the film is designed in such a way that you to want Harvey to be real. The ending, as such, is very satisfying, even after a daft chase around an asylum that didn’t feel that well thought through.
Elwood’s family are also very well portrayed, in fairness, and work in their own right, rather than just something for Stewart to be charming towards. The likes of Josephine Hull and Peggy Dow don’t impress as such, just simply avoid being swept up in the all-conquering path of the masterful Stewart. The casts’ performance is all the more remarkable, given that half the time they’re acting against nothing, considering the films’ title character is invisible.
Credit must also be given to the wonderful screenplay for crafting Elwood as such a wonderful character. Adapted from her own stage play, Mary Chase adds pizzaz to the concept with some brilliantly quotable lines and a few laugh-out-loud moments. In fact, if I may get personal for the duration of a sentence, Elwoods’ philosophy on life, as told to him by his mother, is my favourite movie quote of all-time, and probably wins it half the points awarded to it bellow. (“My mother use to say, Elwood, in this life, you must either be oh so smart or or so pleasant. For years, I tried smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”)
The film, as a whole, is slightly jaded around the edges, but that’s OK, because the story it’s telling is fresh, original and works. And considering it was first released in 1950, the film still looks up to scratch, the black and white visuals already looking crisp enough on the 2004 DVD release, with a Blu-Ray version due next month.
The question this review is answering isn’t so much “Is Harvey worth watching?” but “Is Elwood P. Dowd worth meeting?” and the answer to that is most certainly yes. It’s not a larger-than-life performance, it’s the kind of show Gary Oldman has made into an artform in recent years. It’s all in what he doesn’t do, the little turns of the head, raises of the eyebrow, the textures in his voice… They say it’s theatre that is truly an actors medium, with film belonging more to the director. However, something more must have been carried over when adapting Harvey from stage to screen, something that allows Jimmy Stewart to stand-out in the kind of way very rarely seen.
7 people getting run over by trucks every day out of 10