HARVEY - DVD review

I always feel a little sorry for people who tell me they've never seen Harvey.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"I wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, and I'm happy to say I won out over it." --Elwood P. Dowd.

I always feel a little sorry for people who tell me they've never seen "Harvey," and even sorrier for people who have seen it and dislike it. I consider myself a fairly broadminded person, able to appreciate or at least tolerate almost any reasonable point of view, but I can't help wondering what kind of persons are they who would frown upon such a charming and affectionate piece of harmless fantasy. W.C. Fields' famously curmudgeonly line, "Anyone who hates children and dogs can't be all bad," comes to mind.

In a special 1990 introduction to the film, its star, James Stewart, tells us that "Harvey" was one of his favorite pictures. He says he thinks he played his role a little too "cute-cute," but most people would disagree, finding in the lovable tippler Elwood P. Dowd the perfect escape artist, the man who was able to disengage himself from the real world and find his own separate peace without going completely bonkers in the process. The shrewd but gentle Dowd behaves the way we'd all like to and gets away with it most of the time. He disdains the usual hustle-and-bustle universe and withdraws into a cosmos of his own, with a little help from a friendly glass and an even friendlier pooka named Harvey.

Harvey, of course, is an invisible white rabbit, six foot three and three-quarter inches tall. And he's a pooka, in old Celtic mythology a fairy spirit in animal form, a benign but mischievous creature fond of eccentrics and rum pots. In Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, adapted for the screen in 1950, Harvey has come to attach himself to Mr. Elwood P. Dowd, a man in need of a little distraction. Only Elwood can see Harvey, you understand, so people about town tend to look at Elwood as a bit looney. Except those who have seen Harvey for themselves.

Maybe Elwood's just luckier than most. In early middle age, he inherited a Victorian house and a good sum of money when his mother died, and then he found (or was found) by Harvey. His life would never be the same. His favorite hangout is a corner bar called "Charlie's," where the bartender humors him, as do most of the patrons. Elwood is the friend of rummies and down-and-outers everywhere, because, as he explains it, their problems always seem so small when he introduces them to Harvey. He invites everyone he meets for dinner at his house or drinks at the bar. Everyone is a potential friend, and social status is unknown to him.

The movie's opening scene sets the tone. Elwood steps through his front gate (with Harvey, never seen) and is met by the mailman, who hands him a special-delivery letter. "It's a beautiful day," says the mailman. "Every day's a beautiful day," says Elwood. Then without once looking at the letter, he waits until the mailman has turned his back (so as not to offend him) and tears it up, blithely casting the paper to the wind. Would that we could all live so carefree.

Conflict develops when Elwood's older sister, Vita Louise Simmons (veteran stage actress and dear-old-thing Josephine Hull, so good in "Arsenic and Old Lace") tries to hold an afternoon tea in honor of her marriageable daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), but she doesn't want Elwood around to scare away her guests with his odd behavior. A stout woman singing at the tea, "Hip, hip, hip, hip, hippity hop, Love is all I need," never fails to make me smile, if not outright laugh, and I've seen it a dozen times. Well, Elwood does return and does ruin the afternoon for the distraught sister, who decides it's about time to have Elwood put away, committed to a sanitarium, Chumley's Rest. Trouble is, Vita sees the rabbit, too, only she won't admit it to anyone. So has Judge Gaffney (William Lynn), the old family friend, who won't admit it, either.

The major scenes take place at the rest home, where we meet Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway); Chumley's assistant, the handsome Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake); the lovely Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow); and the grumpy Mr. Wilson (Jesse White, a character actor who would later achieve lasting fame as the lonely Maytag repairman). It isn't long before confusion ensues at the sanitarium about just who is committing whom, and Elwood is back at Charlie's. It's there that Dr. Chumley, looking for Elwood, comes to meet Harvey face to face. He can't believe it, but the rabbit apparently has such a calming effect on people who see him that everyone wants Harvey for his own personal friend.

Nonetheless, Harvey has attached himself warmly to Elwood, and there he's likely to remain. Perhaps Harvey sees a genuine honesty about Elwood that he doesn't see in most other humans. Elwood explains his philosophy to the doctor: "Years ago my mother used to say to me, 'In this world, Elwood...you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant." That idea may seem childlike in its simplicity, and for most of us impractical as well. But there's no denying its appeal in an increasingly complex and stressful world. For over half a century people have continued to find Elwood's outlook on life comforting and reassuring, naive as it may be.

I'm pleased to report that while the copy of "Harvey" Universal chose to transfer to disc might not be digitally restored, it is in excellent condition. The black-and-white picture quality is quite well contrasted and reasonably clean, with very little noticeable grain. There are a few shimmering pixels from time to time and a couple of shaky lines, but it's not much. In general, there are few traces of age spots or scratches, so the image is a pleasure to watch.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural sound is of little consequence other than it transmits dialogue adequately. It's clear but limited in range, the tiniest bit harsh, and accompanied by a small degree of background noise.

Of special items, there are only a few-- the aforementioned seven-minute Stewart introduction, a few production notes, cast and filmmaker biographies and film highlights, and an original theatrical trailer. English and Spanish are provided as spoken languages, with the option of French subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
Directed by Henry Koster ("The Bishop's Wife," "Flower Drum Song," "My Man Godfrey"), "Harvey" may, in fact, seem cloyingly sweet at times, but such moments are fleeting. Koster keeps the action moving at a surprisingly brisk pace considering the story's stage origins and the amount of pure dialogue that has to be delivered. Maybe Vita says it best when she remarks, "It's our dreams that carry us on." "Harvey" has little trouble carrying on. On DVD the movie should be cherished by new generations of folks who aren't afraid to be themselves, follow their dreams, and recognize the value of being pleasant rather than smart.


Film Value