James Stewart is sublimely strange and sweet in Harvey as a drunkard with an invisible rabbit friend

James Stewart is sublimely strange and sweet in Harvey as a drunkard with an invisible rabbit friend

How does one go about choosing their favourite James Stewart movie? The great actor’s oeuvre spans a wide variety of genres and moods. For good ol’ fashioned Christmas cheer, it’s hard to go past It’s a Wonderful Life. For political drama, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. For repartee-filled romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner. For thrillers, there’s not one but three great Hitchcock productions: Vertigo, Rear Window and Rope.

These are all fine films (and we haven’t even mentioned his westerns yet), but I have a soft spot for a less well-known production, starring Stewart as a lovely drunkard whose best friend and constant companion is a giant invisible rabbit. If you’ve never heard of Harvey (the title of the film and the name of the rabbit) you may wonder whether you read that sentence correctly. Or perhaps your mind went to Richard Kelly’s nightmarish 2001 drama Donnie Darko, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a high school student haunted by a doomsaying person dressed in a rabbit costume.

But Harvey, which was released in 1950, is the pièce de résistance of movies involving massive human-like bunnies (admittedly, a small genre). Stewart is sublimely strange and sweet as Elwood P Dowd, who is perhaps the most utterly pleasant drunkard in movie history. In retrospect, making him such a warm and friendly person feels like a bold move, given the plethora of bad drinkers that arrived on screen in subsequent years, in films that warn us of the evils of Mr Booze but rarely his friendly, tipsy, have-a-chinwag-with-a-stranger-at-a-bar side.

Elwood’s optimism and sheer affability is established in the first scene, as he happily heads out his front gate and says “after you”, politely gesturing to, it seems, nobody (he’s gesturing to Harvey). Director Henry Koster wisely decides not to show us the rabbit, with one exception: a shot that depicts a painted portrait of Elwood and Harvey placed in front of a mirror, depicting the rabbit in a bow tie with one arm around Elwood’s shoulder.

There isn’t much plot; it’s more like a series of generously paced conversations, betraying the film’s origins as Mary Chase’s 1944 play of the same name. The primary story arc involves Elwood’s older sister, Veta (a fabulously loud and highly strung Josephine Hull), attempting to admit him to a sanatorium. This results in a farce-like scenario: when she concedes to the doctor that sometimes she, too, sees Harvey, he assumes she’s the one who’s crazy, assessing her to be a “cunning psychopath” with a plan to institutionalise her brother before he can do the same to her. On the subject of seeing Harvey: I’ve watched this film perhaps seven or eight times and, after a few viewings, I swear I started to see the rabbit too – perhaps not literally but certainly in the mind’s eye.

Structurally the film is a little shaggy but each time you feel it starting to dip, Stewart (and Harvey) brings it back on track. By focusing on Elwood’s resolutely glass-half-full demeanour, which always looks on the bright side of life, the film has a charming ability to conjure a lot out of nothing. One plot incident, or non-incident, involves Harvey going missing; thank God he arrives at a bar where Elwood is drinking and all is right again. Some of Elwood’s dialogue is just so delightful. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it,” he says at one point. And another: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

Elwood is a person who savours the moment, while most of us tend to look in one of two directions: towards an indeterminate future or an inaccessible past. If this man is crazy, it’s a gorgeous, harmless kind of crazy, evoking the central question of how society treats people it can’t easily pigeonhole. Watch this film a few times and you might start to see Harvey too.

  • Harvey is available to stream on Binge in Australia, on AppleTV+ in the UK and Prime Video in the US. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

Source: theguardian.com