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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Harvey (1950)

Harvey says a lot about filmmaking, and possibly only in retrospect after 64 years of the business and art continuing to change. Whether it's evolution or not depends on who is asking, but most people who watch Harvey will be able to explain why it's a great movie. Harvey began as a play by Mary Chase. The play itself, in print, I'd like to believe would be as in-demand as Shakespeare is in print.

That's why the movie works. It begins with a strong script (written by Chase and Oscar Brodney), and ends with an amazing performance by James Stewart that I believe redefines what it means to be a comedic actor. In the middle of all that are amazing performances by, among others, Josephine Hull (who won an Oscar for her role as Stewart's sister), Peggy Dow, and Charles Drake, and great direction by Henry Coster.

Now, I never said it's a perfect script. Harvey, unfortunately suffers from being a product of its time, and there are some jabs at women here and there. There's much worse in some shows and movies today, but it's especially noticeable in a black-and-white movie. There was also a very subtle remark that points to some racism, but, like before, today we still have things like that in today's media. The other problem with the film is Harvey's existence isn't always clearly defined and I thought there may have been some contradictions to how he's "on screen." It's cleared up in the end, and I'm sure re-watching the film will help me fill in some of these contradictions, but they did take me out of the moment once or twice. The good thing is that these contradictions are so rare because this movie is much more than its initial hook.

Harvey has multiple storylines to take the focus away from its main characters (Harvey and his friend Elwood P. Dowd, who's played by Stewart). Also, Harvey and Elwood aren't always hanging out together, which allows some breathing room for the actors and audience to also focus on who their characters are. This works especially well for Stewart as Elwood because Elwood is a remarkable man.

Harvey Portrait
I seriously need to see more of Stewart's movies...Patrick Stewart, too, but that's another story | Copyright 1950 Universal Pictures

When I think of comedic actors, I usually think of people who go for the punchline, one-line, or slap in the face. They are trying to be funny, and usually they are. Stewart, on the other hand, just plays Elwood as the most regular guy in the world, but occasionally he'll have these moments that are just soul-searching. In the context of Harvey, it's kind of funny. More importantly, it's dramatic. I think Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd like he was in a more dramatic role, and more of a side character (if that makes sense). He's just in this world where he talks to a rabbit that's over 6' tall, and lives his kind of bland life. In fact, Harvey is one of the few things that livens it up. Stewart becomes a bystander in this movie, and he does more than play it straight. He plays it straight with (occasionally) no one crazy to react to since Harvey is a pretty calm character himself.

The rest of the film is rounded out by that excellent cast mentioned above, as they try to figure out how crazy Dowd is, and figure out their own problems. It's mostly love-life stuff, and thankfully it's not overly mushy (I think that was also a product of the times, but I'm not sure.)

I don't want to give anything away, but I'll leave by saying that this film is one of the best escapist movies. Just forget your problems for a while and watch it because Harvey shows that sometimes that's the best use of your time.