Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Harvey (1950)

I watched Harvey for the first time in many years. Some of it has not aged well, particularly the supposedly romantic/comedic subplots with desperate women pursuing slightly abusive men. The contrived plot inventions of the start make for clumsy, strained comedy, and the adaptation of stage play to film can be inelegant (although this gets better as the film progresses).

However, there's still a certain magic to the film, mainly because of Jimmy Stewart's sweet performance and the film's endorsement of imagination, eccentricity and individualism. My dad was always fond of it for that reason, and for a few great comedic moments – the dictionary scene, and Veta finally noticing the portrait of Elwood with Harvey. The play, which won the Pulitzer in 1945, has remained popular with high schools, and has been filmed for television a surprising number of times, although the 1950 film is surely the best known version. On the DVD, there's an interview with Stewart, who related that strangers would mention Harvey to him more than most of his other roles. He further mentioned that some would ask if he'd seen Harvey recently – and he'd realize after a moment that they weren't kidding. Stewart would diplomatically say he had, and that Harvey was well, and that he would pass on their regards to him. Apparently, a number of people really wanted to believe in a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch spirit called a pooka who looked like a rabbit. The idea of a beneficent, playful magic or guardian angel in the world is comforting.

Despite its flaws, I like the film overall, although as a kid, I disliked a particular line by Stewart as Elwood P. Dodd:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" – she always called me Elwood – "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

At the time, this seemed to be promoting the same anti-intellectualism endemic to so much American pop culture, especially because it suggested one had to be one or the other. I still reject that notion, and would rephrase it – one can be clever without being wise, and clever without being compassionate. One can also be too taken with appearing clever, or powerful, or successful, to remember to be compassionate. That's the problem, and I prefer to take Elwood's words in that spirit. (Hey, art, even fantasy and light comedy, should speak truth on certain matters.)

Stewart's performance is simple and innocent on the surface, but also quite nuanced if one watches closely. Look what he does in this scene, for instance:

Stewart was very gifted at appearing natural, and he makes it look so easy it's easy to take his craft for granted, but there's depth there.

Stewart was nominated for an Oscar for playing this sweet, harmless eccentric, and Josephine Hull, who plays Elwood's sister Veta, won Best Supporting Actress for her work. I'm not fond of the early scenes, but Hull is very fine selling the key scene near the end, when she realizes that taking away what make Elwood "different" and forcing him to be "normal" would both be cruel to him and make the world a little less wonderful. It's central to the film, and if it's a nice way to conclude:


Suzan said...

Thanks, sweetie,

I still love that movie, even though I recognized the women-abusing scenes for what they were as a pre-teen (but just thought "there go those dumb men again").

I also watched it with my Dad and we talked about the sweetness of the portrayals as well as the emotions involved like Vita's, Myrtle Mae's, the Dr.'s, even the Nurse's character. He loved Jimmy Stewart's movies just like I did. What a night that was for me.

I have a slightly different take on that scene though. Having suffered through primary school as a "smarty-pants," I took to heart that message. Not that it changed my behavior that much, but I was always on notice that being pleasant was what was usually rewarded. Right.

Again thanks for reminding me.

I was always looking for that perfect bar myself after viewing that one.

Oh, and I was about 9 when I saw it that first time.

Love ya,


Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Josephine Hull is so much fun to watch in this film - from her concerns to Wilson being a "white slaver" to her efforts to get her daughter a well-to-do beau. She backs up a very fine Jimmy Stewart. What a great film.