Take 3: Harvey (1950) Review

This month’s Genre Grandeur is one I have been anticipating! That’s because of the film I selected for the event! January’s theme is ‘Comedies that feature characters who are either Stoners or Drunk’. After doing some research on the internet, I discovered the 1950 movie, Harvey, would be eligible! Harvey is a film I have been wanting to see for several years. Led by the beloved James “Jimmy” Stewart, so many good things have been said about this film. I was also interested in seeing Harvey because of its release date. Recently, I read an editorial by Jillian Atchley titled ‘It’s A Wonderful Life, James Stewart, and George Bailey’. In the article, Jillian explains there are two kinds of James Stewart films; pre-war and post-war. The post-war films, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, contain depth. I’d also add the post-war films feature higher stakes. Since Harvey was released four years after It’s A Wonderful Life, I was curious to see how deep this story would go. I also wanted to see how James would approach a character who is friends with an imaginary rabbit.

Harvey (1950) poster created by Universal Pictures

Things I liked about the film:

The acting: I have seen some of James Stewart’s movies prior to watching Harvey. What I’ve noticed about his roles in films like The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Rear Window is how there is a certain amount of charm included in his character’s personality. While portraying Elwood P. Dowd, James’ on-screen personality was different from what I’d seen before. In Harvey, Elwood is more laid-back. He also has a gentler persona, not having a care in the world. But there was one point in the movie where Elwood became somewhat philosophical. When asked by Dr. Lyman Sanderson and Miss Kelly how he first met Harvey, Elwood gives a thorough answer that is thoughtful and reminiscent. His answers to Lyman’s and Kelly’s questions not only captivate them, but the audience as well. This conversation shows there is more to Elwood when you look past the drinking and fascination with Harvey.

There were other performances in Harvey I enjoyed seeing. One of them came from Josephine Hull. Portraying Elwood’s sister, Veta, Josephine’s performance reminded me, to an extent, of Frances Bavier’s portrayal of Aunt Bee Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show. Let me explain myself; like Aunt Bee, Veta has her concerns and worries. You can hear the tension in her voice and see the fear in her eyes, illustrating how much Veta had on her plate. But, like Aunt Bee, Veta had her heart in the right place. All she wanted was for her brother to be a functioning and contributing member of society. Even if her actions weren’t always agreeable, Veta put her brother’s needs before her own. Because of her performance’s consistency, Josephine became an actress I looked forward to seeing on screen!

The set design: When I thought of Harvey, impressive set design was not what came to mind. So, when I first saw the set design in this movie, I was pleasantly surprised! A great location is the Dowd family home, which I wish was given more screen-time. While the house boasts a classic Victorian exterior, its interior was shown the most. In the house’s foyer, the stone staircase immediately caught my eye. Bearing a carved design, this staircase felt like it belonged in a castle! Another part of the home that features carved designs are the door frames. Marble fireplaces and stained-glass windows added exquisite details that highlighted the elegance and charm of the house! Another location I loved was Charlie’s! From some character’s descriptions, the bar sounded like a cheap or sleazy place. But when its interior was shown, it actually looked kind of cozy! The wood paneled walls were covered in framed photos. As a viewer, this gave me the impression the establishment is proud of their history. The booth Elwood sits at also gives off a cozy feel! The dark wood, tall backed seats surround a smaller, dark wood table. Above this seating arrangement was a small Tiffany style ceiling light.

Collection of white rabbit images created by freepik at freepik.com Hand drawn vector created by freepik – www.freepik.com

What I didn’t like about the film:

Lack of comedy: According to IMDB, Harvey is partially classified as a comedy. As I’ve said before, comedy is a subjective genre. But personally, I didn’t find this movie very funny. In fact, I only chuckled once during this hour and forty-four-minute film. I could see the jokes the screenwriters were trying to deliver. Unfortunately, none of these jokes stuck the landing. On IMDB, Harvey is also partially classified as a drama. While watching this movie, it felt like the creative team involved leaned too much into the drama genre. There’s typically nothing wrong with having comedic and dramatic elements in a singular story. In the case of Harvey, the balance between these two elements was not there.

Medical negligence: In real life or fiction, members of the medical profession are human. They are not only capable of helping others, but also capable of making mistakes. However, there is a very fine line between making mistakes and committing medical negligence. In an effort to help Elwood, Veta takes him to a mental hospital called Chumley’s Rest. But due to a registration mix-up, Veta gets admitted into the hospital instead. The idea of mistaken identity and being forced to do something against your will sounds terrifying. Paired with the fact this situation is supposed to be played for laughs makes it worse. Because of this and because of how avoidable the situation was, it didn’t sit well with me.

No explanations for Harvey: As the title suggests, a portion of this story revolves around Elwood’s friendship with Harvey, a 6 foot 3 ½ inch, invisible white rabbit. Throughout the movie, I was waiting for an explanation of what Harvey was. I even waited to see if Harvey would show up on screen. Sadly, none of these things happened. Even though suggestions about Harvey’s purpose were given, no definitive answers were presented. Was Harvey truly an imaginary friend? Was he a mythical creature only Elwood could see? Was Harvey used as a tactic by Elwood to test people’s trust? As I continue to write this review, I still don’t know what Harvey is.

Decisions being flip-flopped: There’s nothing wrong with showing a character changing their mind about something. After all, that prevents them from being static. If a character is going to change their mind on something, you need to show the process of that viewpoint being changed. In the case of Harvey, that process was, sometimes, omitted. When visiting the Dowd family home in search of Elwood, Marvin Wilson, an employee from Chumley’s Rest, takes a romantic fancy to Myrtle Mae, Elwood’s niece. During Marvin’s visit, Myrtle expresses no interest in his romantic advances. But when they meet up again, later in the film, Myrtle suddenly wants to pursue a relationship with Marvin. Her change of opinion feels abrupt, with no lead-up to that decision. The omission of decision transitions sometimes left me frustrated.

Heartbeat image created by Freepik at freepik.com. <a href=’https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/medical-logo_763775.htm’>Designed by Freepik</a>. <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/logo”>Logo vector created by Freepik</a>. Image found at freepik.com.

My overall impression:

“What is the point of this movie”? I’m not asking this to be disrespectful or mean-spirited. I’m asking this because I’m genuinely curious to figure out what that point is. Sometimes, a film’s purpose or intended message is either obvious or easier to figure out. But with Harvey, I don’t know what the creative team was trying to say. Was this movie meant to be a cinematic PSA about how those with mental health related issues should be treated with dignity and respect? Is the film supposed to be an exploration of how some adults lose their sense of imagination the older they become? How am I expected to care about the filmmakers’ message when I don’t have a clear idea what it is? Besides being confusing, Harvey was, for me, disappointing. Because of James Stewart’s involvement in this project and because of the inclusion of a 6 foot 3 ½ inch, invisible white rabbit, I thought the movie was going to be whimsical and charming, with a sense of ‘magical realism’. Unfortunately, the 1950 film was none of those things. The lack of comedy and medical negligence did not help either. In all my years of watching movies, I never thought I’d see a James Stewart film I didn’t like. But, as of January 23rd, 2022, here I am.

Overall score: 5 out of 10

Have you seen Harvey? Which film from James Stewart’s filmography would you recommend I review next? Let me know in the comment section!

Have fun at the movies!

Sally Silverscreen

If you’re interested in reading Jillian’s editorial, here is the link:

4 thoughts on “Take 3: Harvey (1950) Review

  1. Aaaahhh! 🙂 Thank you so much for the shoutout and the link! ❤

    When I discovered Harvey several years ago (in either high school or college), it quickly became one of my favorite movies. But the last time I tried to watch it, I had issues with it, too!

    After not having seen it in years, I was so happy when it came my way again some months ago. I remembered the film as whimsical and heartwarming, and I was excited to revisit it. But while I still adored Elwood’s kind and gentle nature, I had trouble getting into the movie’s overall vibe – and I found the mix-up at the hospital so off-putting that I decided to turn it off and try again later. (I was also multitasking at the time.) But I didn’t return to it before it expired, and it hasn’t been available to me again since.

    Your review inspired me to watch some clips from it – to try and remember what it was that I loved so much about it when I first saw it years ago. And honestly, I found those clips charming. 🙂 Somehow, I must’ve made it through the whole thing once back then and experienced all its charms. And knowing what was coming must’ve helped me get past the hospital and other slow or unpleasant moments.

    An important thing to keep in mind with Harvey is that it’s an adaption of a stage play, I wonder if the hospital mix-up in particular was funnier on stage (where everything is played much more broadly and isn’t quite so realistic – and terrifying)? Sometimes play adaptions lose something in translation on the big screen. And, as with most theatre, I think the comedy comes from the dialogue and the characters. It’s more of a subtle chuckler than uproariously (or even visually) funny. (Incidentally, James Stewart was a replacement for the original Elwood on Broadway, but Josephine Hull was the first to play Veta. She also won an Oscar for her performance in the film, too. So you’re not the only one who liked her!)

    As for the depth that Jimmy Stewart brings to this particular picture, I think it’s found not only in his philosophical moments (like you mentioned), but also in his ambiguity. I think we’re supposed to wonder what’s up with Elwood – especially the first time we see the film. But even after it’s clear that Elwood’s harmless and Harvey indeed seems to exist – if I remember correctly, there are just as many unanswered questions about Elwood as there are about Harvey. I don’t believe we’re ever given any concrete detail as to how Elwood used to be (when he was “smart” rather than “pleasant”, as he says) or why he chose to change. Not only that, but I detect the slightest touch of sadness or melancholy in him as well. (Why? I have no idea.) That’s a lot of ambiguity to play around in, and James Stewart does it beautifully.

    And as for the story’s point, I think it’s about the right to be uniquely yourself and live life on your own terms. Elwood apparently used to be different (I assume more conventional), but made the decision at some point to just be fully himself. And part of being himself is to be open and honest about the fact that he’s friends with a giant rabbit. 🙂 People may see him as crazy, but he is happy with his life – which enables him to spread kindness to others. The injection they were going to give him at the hospital would take Harvey away and turn Elwood into a “perfectly normal human being” – but Veta realizes that would also take away what’s special, and even magical, about him. If he were “normal”, he wouldn’t be Elwood! 🙂

    Those clips jogged my memory enough to make me want to give the film another chance the next time it comes my way. In the meantime, I discovered a TV movie version of the play from 1972 on YouTube (also starring Jimmy Stewart). Television adaptations are generally more faithful than big screen ones, so I’m looking forward to watching it and seeing if it plays differently. 🙂

    PS – I must say, you have quite the eye for visual detail! You pointed out things about the set design I’d never noticed before that will enhance the film the next time I see it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading my review, Jillian! When you share your thoughts on this film, it makes a little more sense. As I reflect on how the movie is about Elwood simply being himself, that overarching message seems so straight-forward and simple. Simple messages in film aren’t a bad thing, I just didn’t catch this one. While I didn’t know ‘Harvey’ was based on a stage play until I watched the movie, I was aware of the made-for-TV film. Therefore, I’m not sure what parts of the 1950 cinematic production are straight from the play’s script or creative liberties for the film. I’ll have to check out the 1972 version. Hopefully I enjoy that one more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Harvey came around on TCM again recently, and I caught it before it expired from Hulu Live – AND I watched the whole thing this time. 😉 I also took the opportunity to watch the TV movie version of the play I had discovered on YouTube.

    After watching them both, I feel the story is more metaphorical than something that’s supposed to be 100% realistic. Taking it too seriously spoils its magic and its message, which I think is basically that “normal” is relative and kindness is what’s important.

    It illustrates that point in rather exaggerated ways, like with the mix-up at the institution that bothered us both. All the “normal” characters say and do things that sound crazier than anything Elwood ever said or did, to the extent that Veta seemed like the patient instead of her brother. (And the doctor, and even Nurse Kelly, went by appearances and didn’t listen when Elwood kept trying to introduce them to Harvey, while supposedly “crazy” Elwood pays much better attention to people.)

    If you don’t think about the reality of the story too much – how Elwood’s drinking and aimlessness would be unsustainable and concerning in real life, how terrifying a mix-up at a mental institution would be to live through (not to mention the fact that anyone who claims to see a pookah would actually be crazy) – it’s makes worthwhile points in a whimsical and charming way.

    As I suspected, it does play differently as a play. For example, we never SEE the hospital mix-up. Veta just comes home looking disheveled and tells Myrtle Mae and the judge about her ordeal. And the way she describes it IS rather funny. But it’s a whole other thing to see it with your own eyes, and gets worse if you think about how terrifying that experience would be. (I imagine it all plays even better on an actual stage in front of an audience, which would remove the whole scenario from reality even further.)

    But the play can’t open up the world like the movie can. All the scenes take place in the living room or the mental hospital – no Charlie’s. 😦 One storyline that was removed entirely was the romance between the doctor and Nurse Kelly. 😮 I wonder if this version was abridged (since it was less than 90 minutes) and that element was just cut for time. But since we never see Charlie’s, they can’t go dancing, so maybe they really don’t have a romance in the original play. :/

    I recommend giving the version on YouTube a try to see if you like it better. Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood again (and, in some ways, is even better than he was in the original film), and I LOVED Helen Hayes as Veta (though I know you like Josephine Hull). If you do try it out, I’d love to know what you think. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for revisiting my review, Jillian! I honestly wish I had read your thoughts on ‘Harvey’ before I saw the 1950 film. Maybe then I wouldn’t have found it so disappointing. I will check out the TV movie version in the future. This time, though, I’m going to keep your words in mind.

      Liked by 1 person

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