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Retro movie spotlight: Harvey

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In his 1950 film, Harvey, directed by Henry Koster, James Stewart delivers an atypical performance, proving that he is one of the most versatile actors of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. In a 1990 interview, Stewart said he considered his role in this film one of his all-time favorites from his six decade career. Stewart portrays Elwood P. Dowd, a polite, pleasant, and likable 42-year-old man whose only downfall is that he has a friend named Harvey, a 6 ft tall white rabbit, that only he can see.

1. Plot summary

Elwood is unfailingly courteous to Harvey, opening doors for him, offering him drinks at the local bars, and introducing him to anyone with whom he becomes newly acquainted. This little eccentricity is causing no end of grief to Elwood’s sister and her daughter; they can’t even host a social gathering at the house without Elwood coming and (unintentionally) frightening everyone away. Finally, the family plots to have Elwood committed to a local mental hospital.

Due to a convoluted misunderstanding, Elwood’s sister (played by Josephine Hull, who received an Academy Award for her performance) is committed instead, and it is up to Elwood to set everything straight. Elwood charms the hospital staff along the way, helping one of the doctors and nurses to finally admit they are in love with each other. Through Elwood’s good natured ways, his niece and Wilson, one of the hospital’s direct care workers, fall for each other as well. In the end, Elwood’s family decides that they would rather have Elwood at home as he is, eccentricities and all, than try to change him.

2. Positive elements

Harvey, based on the play by Mary Chase, casts eccentricity in a very favorable light. So what if Elwood has an imaginary friend and is, in his overall approach to life, basically still a child? At least he’s happy and friendly—far friendlier than what a taxi driver in the film calls “normal” people. Elwood explains his philosophy of life: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” In another scene, he tells the hospital staff, "I've wrestled with reality for thirty five years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it."

Hollywood has long had a reputation for portraying people with mental illness as dangerous, violent, maniacs. Elwood is portrayed, though, as being by far the most laid back, warm, congenial character in the film. His way of life, however unconventional, is the envy of the hospital staff that come to befriend him.

3. Negative elements

Yes, Harvey presents eccentricity in a favorable light. Yet, at the same time, how the film portrays eccentricity and mental illness is also the chief criticism. This examiner worked for almost four years at Mississippi’s largest psychiatric hospital, so it’s difficult to view Harvey without drawing out some real life applications. By presenting the whole tale in such a light hearted, comedic manner, the real horror of mental illness is slurred over.

Elwood’s hallucination causes him no distress, no debilitating nervousness. It simply makes him more jovial. In reality, those who suffer from hallucinations often find their lives unlivable. The suicide rate among people diagnosed with schizophrenia is ten times that of the general population.

In one scene, the doctor offers to inject Elwood with a serum that would make his hallucinations stop. As if curing mental illness was that simple! In several scenes, Elwood’s family (and even the hospital staff) patronize him by playing along as if they see Harvey as well. This is meant for laughs, but the damage that such unethical treatment would do to a psychiatric patient is hardly a laughing matter. How could a person losing touch with reality help to regain his grip if even the hospital staff humorously play along?

As a psychiatric hospital employee, you would expect Wilson to have some level of sensitivity towards people with mental illness, but he is portrayed as thoroughly looking down on them. He uses physical force on patients when it’s not remotely necessary. He calls his place of employment a “nuthouse” and uses plenty of other non-flattering slang to refer to the sanitarium’s clients. Much of his behavior is clearly meant for laughs, but with mentally ill people being the butt of so many of the film’s jokes, it’s easy to see why some of the film’s humor might come across as offensive/insulting.

4. Conclusion: An alternative way to interpret the film

In one scene, Elwood calls Harvey a pooka, which is later explained to be a mythological Celtic fairy spirit that appears in the shape of an animal. The film closes with a scene that is perhaps purposefully left somewhat ambiguous. The hospital director and Elwood are discussing Harvey, and it is clear that the director has come to believe that Elwood really is telling the truth. The scene implies that the doctor is able to see him as well, and that Harvey is real.

If the film did intend to suggest that Elwood’s imaginary friend perhaps isn’t imaginary after all, that would of course turn everything previously said about mental illness on its head. Maybe Elwood’s family can’t see Harvey because they don’t believe in him. Perhaps Elwood really isn’t ill; maybe he just has eyes to see what everyone else around him is too busy or too disillusioned or too grown up to see. One is reminded of a George McDonald quotation from his book, The Princess and the Goblin—“Seeing isn’t always believing; sometimes believing is seeing.” McDonald, a religious man whose Christian faith permeated all of his writings, surely has something to say to our modern, skeptical society which finds believing in the miracles recorded in the Bible as difficult as being asked to believe in an invisible white rabbit.

In the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella’s little daughter, Karen, is watching TV while eating breakfast one morning and Harvey is on. It is the scene in which Elwood is explaining to the doctor how and when he first befriended Harvey the 6-foot white rabbit. Frustrated, Ray turns the TV off. Karen asks why, saying it was funny. Ray tells her it’s not funny—“The man is sick.”

This scene takes place shortly after Ray has started to hear the voice—“If you build it, he will come”—and is questioning his own sanity. Little wonder Ray has little patience for movies that would joke about hallucinations. Of course, the point of Field of Dreams was that Ray really was hearing a mysterious voice beckoning him to build a baseball field on his farm; he wasn’t sick at all.

Perhaps the fact that Field of Dreams borrowed an excerpt from Harvey was the directors’ attempt to communicate that Elwood P. Dowd and Ray Kinsella have something in common—the ability to see and hear things other people don’t, and the ability to go on believing, even when people around them think they’re “crazy”. Perhaps being able to see things a little unconventionally, not allowing reality to be a straitjacket (pardon the pun) that chokes out imagination, is the sanest way to live.

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