Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Melancholy in Harvey (1950)

Title: Harvey
Director: Henry Koster
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

On the surface, Harvey is a light-hearted story. It features Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a gentle middle-aged man whose best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey. For the most part, only Elwood can see Harvey and talk to him (though others might get a glimpse now and then). A question that runs throughout the movie is whether or not Harvey is "real." Is he a figment of Elwood's imagination, or is he an animal spirit of some kind with a presence outside of Elwood's mind? At one point Elwood gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, and the joke is that the staff assumes that his overwrought sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull), is the patient and not him. He's so polite and laid-back, so gentle and courteous. Maybe it doesn't matter that he's hallucinating a giant bunny who's his closest friend.

Movie poster for Harvey (1950)

In many ways, the movie is fun (like when Elwood's portrait with Harvey comes on-screen). And its general tone of kindliness and gentle mischief suits the main character. The movie questions people's need to pathologize eccentric behavior. If Elwood isn't harming anyone, why not leave him alone? Elwood gets along well with pretty much everyone. He sees beautiful things in people, their potential for good. He's able to regard them with patience and love.

In contrast, the movie's authority figures are often petty, small-minded, and driven by their egos. They insist only on their version of reality. One pompous young psychiatrist even gets annoyed with the sensitivity and caring discernment of Ruth Kelly (Peggy Dow), a nurse at the institution. As for Elwood's sister - she wants to accept and love her brother, but she's also afraid to believe in Harvey's existence. She has an inkling that the rabbit is real in some way. But if she allows for a reality where a giant mostly invisible rabbit is real, wouldn't that mean she's crazy? Her efforts to avoid the appearance of craziness often lead her to act in unbalanced, neurotic ways.

Throughout Harvey, Elwood's calm, beautiful thoughts and the charm of his eccentricity shine through. But there's no doubt the movie is melancholy too. Elwood is a ruin in some ways. He drinks steadily. He doesn't seem to have any adult responsibilities; he lives with his sister, who runs the household. His life is made pleasant by alcohol, Harvey, and an appreciation of people's company. There are a few moments when he reflects on himself, and his tone is wistful. "I'd almost be willing to live my life over again. Almost," he says. And, "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I've won out over it." He says he was smart for years, but now recommends being pleasant.

Although he views the world in a kindly way, he needs protection from it. Maybe the only way to cope with other people's hardness, and their ruthless determination to get everyone to think as they do, is to soften the world and see it through a haze. To imagine, as a constant companion, a friend who isn't even human and in that way offers safe relief for loneliness.

Nurse Kelly at one point feels that Elwood truly sees her, and she wonders if she'll ever feel happier than at that moment. Because will anyone else ever take the time to sincerely understand her? She's used to getting talked over. Like Elwood, she lacks ruthlessness. How will she continue negotiating a world where sensitivity and patience have little value or means of expression? A thick cushion of imagination and drink helps Elwood live as a child-like old soul and go about his life largely untroubled. Other people might adopt a similar approach, though less extreme. Some remind themselves to be more kind, to take more time to really listen. Many become callous.

Elwood doesn't skip around bestowing uncomplicated happiness on everyone. He remains on the fringes of his town as a kindly alcoholic who can make people smile sometimes, and sometimes get them to think more deeply about their life. That's beautiful, in and of itself. He has a beautiful soul, and it's bruised deep.

(Image source: Wikipedia.)

2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

I have somehow never see this film though I have heard of it.

It sounds like there is a lot to recommend it.


I like the idea that eccentric behavior should not always be labeled an ailment. I have a friend who has kind of made that point a lifelong theme of his. I will ask him if he has seen this.

HKatz said...

I hope you do get around to seeing it. Yeah, eccentric behavior, if it isn't dangerous to self or others, shouldn't always get attacked or treated like a pathology.