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14. Harvey (1950), dir. Henry Koster

I saw this a few weeks ago at the Cottage Road cinema with ms_siobhan and planet_andy. As usual, the evening began with a selection of vintage adverts and a short Pathé news-reel feature - this time dedicated to 'The Fascinating Art of the Yo-Yo', and including a demonstration from Art Pickles, 1954 World Yo-Yo Champion! Art could apparently strike a match using a yo-yo, and also operate two of them at once.

The film itself was a bit of an odd one. It stars James Stewart, of It's a Wonderful Life fame, and shares with the earlier film both an interest in celebrating the virtues of wholesome small-town family life, and an element of magical realism. Stewart's character this time is Elwood P. Dowd - a nice but eccentric fellow in his mid-forties, who embarrasses his sister and niece by behaving as though he has a giant invisible rabbit named Harvey as a friend. On one level, the narrative arc of the story is sweet and optimistic. Gradually, we are given to understand that Harvey is real, and is a manifestation of a benevolent fairy creature known as a Pooka who has been looking after Harvey for some years. We as the audience never see him, but other apparently sane characters do - although usually at moments when they are stressed or anxious themselves. Meanwhile, Elwood wins everyone over by being kind and charming and generous, and they all learn to love him and to live with his little eccentricity after all.

The film seemed to conceive itself, then, as a parable about accepting people's foibles, and becoming better and happier for it. But (again rather as with It's a Wonderful Life), I found I felt uncomfortable about swallowing it wholesale. This time, I think the main barrier was actually the suggestion that Harvey was real all along. It's not that I usually mind magical realism per se - in fact, like most fantastical story devices, I generally love it. But in this particular case the problem was that it got in the way of the metaphor about acceptance. For the other characters, discovering that Harvey was real was a major step towards their acceptance of Elwood - but that also meant that they didn't so much learn to understand his strangeness, as to recategorise him as 'normal' after all. Meanwhile, it was all too clear that had they not done so, Elwood would have been committed to a sanatorium, subjected to hydrotherapy and injected with a serum that (according to a taxi-driver) would turn him from a calm and happy man into a miserable, tense one. To me, it just felt inappropriate to skip lightly over these subjects, or indeed over Elwood's obviously all-too-real alcoholism, with the suggestion that they didn't really matter, since Harvey was real after all.

Still, James Stewart is awfully easy on the eye, and he got to deliver some great lines - like, "I'd just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying." So by no means a wasted evening, and it still had that Cottage Classic magic - but just with a slightly weird edge.

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Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
draxar
Dec. 5th, 2011 02:14 am (UTC)
I heard of the film through a rather unusual source; this song; specifically from about 1:45 onwards.
strange_complex
Dec. 5th, 2011 09:38 am (UTC)
Heh - excellent! Though it sounds like the song is written with the assumption that people already know the film. I guess someone must have explained the reference to you?
draxar
Dec. 7th, 2011 02:26 am (UTC)
Given that the third of the 'guides' is from a little known arthouse film, my guess is that the assumption is that most people won't realise the guides are references to films at all (all of them are though), it's just a little gem for those who look deeper.
itsjustaname
Dec. 8th, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC)
I love the movie, especially the Ed Hickey bit you quoted the first line of. It's just perfect in Jimmy Stewart's drawl.

I was walking down along the street and I heard this voice saying, "Good evening, Mr. Dowd." Well, I turned around and here was this big six-foot rabbit leaning up against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that because when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name

Seeing James Stewart in the stage play of Harvey which preceded the film is one of my if I had a time machine things to do!
strange_complex
Dec. 9th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Ooh, didn't know there'd been a stage play. I wish I had known beforehand, actually, so that I could have looked out for how the use of settings had evolved from the theatrical context. I can kind of see in retrospect that there aren't very many major scene changes, and the same settings (the family home, the sanatorium, the bar) are used for a long time when they occur, rather than flitting back and forth more filmically. But would have liked to look out for that while watching. Absolutely agree about Jimmy Stewart's drawl, though - it is a thing of beauty!
itsjustaname
Dec. 11th, 2011 11:14 am (UTC)
One major change I am aware of is the picture of Harvey which doesn't exist in the stage play and was argued against by a number of the people involved in the play and film. I agree with them, I think you should never see Harvey.
strange_complex
Dec. 11th, 2011 11:34 am (UTC)
Yes, that's usually the best way - as it is with films of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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