Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Peggy Dow, Jesse White, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, William H. Lynn
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.
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.
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.