Thursday, July 01, 2010

"What's Up Doc?": A Review Of 1950's Harvey

Directed by Henry Koster
Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Peggy Dow, Jesse White, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, William H. Lynn
Grade: B

In order to relate to this film you must first regress to your childhood; did you at any time have an imaginary friend? If the answer is yes, and said friend was a six-feet-three-inches tall rabbit called Harvey, there is much in this film for you. If not, and the idea of a forty-two year old man talking to an invisible mythical creature is somehow not drawing on your experiences, then never fear, Harvey has enough bite and wisdom to make for raucously fun viewing.

Elwood P. Dowd, and his hearty feelings for friend Harvey, drive his sister Veta up the wall, and force her into a difficult decision about the future of their lives together. This leads to a frantic, sprawling chase, with many others being drawn into the family's troubles. Amidst this talk about Harvey, Henry Koster resists the temptation to dress a tall man in a bunny outfit. Harvey remains invisible for the entire film, only depicted visually once, in a portrait of Elwood and the rabbit together. By not drawing attention to the fantasy elements of the film, Elwood's reverence and insistence upon Harvey is conceded as a natural fixture of a worrisome equilibrious state. This isn't "normal" behaviour, but it is normality for Elwood and his family, who appear to have lived with the situation as it is for long enough.

For all of the implications about mental illness and the need to understand it, Harvey's presence as a legitimate figure is introduced too early, and the film's overall rationalisation of him instigates inconsistencies within the narrative. The problem therein lies in Veta's journey to the sanitarium to have her brother committed. The long appointment she has with the chief psychiatric advisor Dr. Sanderson encompasses hysterical remonstrations of how she simply can't cope with her brother's wild affection for a transparent creature, how it prevents Veta from entertaining guests, and her daughter Myrtle Mae from attracting suitors. The increasingly erratic tone of Veta leads the Doctor to assess that she herself is the insane one. During Veta's initial discussion with the Doctor she confesses to having sometimes seen Harvey, allaying the impression that she believes that he exists. Veta's turmoil in deciding between her brother's happiness and her social status is halted by her wrongful imprisonment, which feels as much of a punishment for her attempted actions as it does a trigger for the film's galavanting antics to be thrust into life. The regret that filters through Josephine Hull as Veta takes shape with every disappearing second of Elwood's impending hospitalisation. She shows such canny ability in using her roundabout hesitancy to demonstrate the impetuous nature of Veta as a loveable fusspot, in her way trying to please everybody even though she really can't. I don't think that Harvey creates enough of a predicament for Veta to allow us to understand why she intends to commit Elwood for believing in someone she knows herself is actually there, even if Hull does an excellent job in making this fact seem like something that Veta is desperate to banish to her sub-conscious.

As Elwood, James Stewart surveys the ratpack of unnecessary commotion before him like an infant watching older children play games he can't quite understand yet. He suppresses the wide-eyed goofiness of his persona to accomodate Elwood's studious pleasantries, since, after all, he is the most capable of seeing past the surface of life. Elwood never once speaks out-of-turn and yet exists to be out-of-turn, and Stewart recognises that the role calls for efficiency and dynamism as much as it does neutrality, encouraging understanding without appearing to, even though you sense that he needs people to like him to survive.

Harvey occasionally takes on this more self-important role as an indictment of how the mentally ill are treated, as a social embarassment that can only be remedied by imprisonment and pill-popping. While John Cromwell's Caged was dealing with the prison system in a much more damning fervour that year, Harvey rather shrewdly skirts about the issue by portraying Elwood as the most utterly harmless, easy-going, pleasant person you could ever wish to meet. It's an easy way of gaining sympathy for Dowd, and works mainly because the film's absence of a fiercely opposing, authoritarian character allows for everyone in Harvey to interact on a similar level. As Capra's You Can't Take It With You reinforced the importance of family and the triviality of finance, Harvey sends a message that generosity, kindness, and imagination supercede social reputation and traditional views of "normality". It reads as a screwball view of stability as culturally-rigid, cruel even, and a celebration of people's weaknesses as an integral, unashamed part of their character.

"Do Unto Others" is an old religious philosophy, but a lovely one, even more prominent than the ears of a giant imaginary rabbit, or Josephine Hull's interesting collection of hats. The beguiling energies of Harvey's stage heritage often assume the task of hurtling us towards an accepting conclusion, but I feel keenly subserviant towards its demands to be liked, since what it offers is so ultimately special. Harvey owes more to the nuances of James Stewart's rich portrayal than some will attest, but there's much to be said for its inimitable brand of faith.


Fritz said...

Josephine Hull gives one of the few performances that can always make me laugh. One of my favorite winners ever.

Btw, did you get a certain 'gay vibe' from the movie? I thought the mention that Elwood always goes to some strange bars and brings home strange men seems rather to point in that direction.

Cal said...

I'll be honest, that never once crossed my mind. That's probably because Stewart/Elwood feels so asexual, but then that might be a case of not wanting to draw attention to it.

I think it's a far-reaching theory, but an interesting one. Have you read anything about this?

Runs Like A Gay said...

Excellent review, that really strikes to the heart of Harvey.

I always think that I should enjoy the film more (partly because the first time I watched it was Christmas Day 1999, I was on my own and riotously drunk at 10 in the morning so could relate to Elwood but I've not watched again in that state).

The genteel approach to damning the mental health system is the films main flaw as you point out. One that's hard to fathom compared with the now standard historical depiction that we get from films like Frances and The Snake Pit.

Vicki S said...

Great review.

I loved Stewart's portrayal - so laid back without being too over-the-top- as you noted.

I think part of the sister's anger with her brother was that he was so unflappable in all circumstances. In a way it almost appears that she felt responsible for undergoing all the stress and taking on an extra dose for her brother because he wouldn't.