James Stewart and Harvey, who looks suspiciously like a bartender. Image: IMDb

There is a scene in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, where protagonist Bill Murray realizes there are no tomorrows left for him – and therefore no consequences – so he decides to lead a life of anarchy. “I’m not gonna live by their rules any more!” he declares.

James Stewart’s character comes to a somewhat similar conclusion in the comedy-drama Harvey (1950). Stewart plays a middle-aged man whose best friend is a giant invisible rabbit.

Now, you’re probably thinking Stewart’s character needs his head examined, and so do the characters in the film. Stewart’s sister (Josephine Hull), for instance, tries to have him committed, because living with Stewart and his invisible friend is taxing. Her social circle is shrinking, and her daughter (Victoria Horne) has difficulty finding a husband.

As for Stewart, he is blithely unaware of the stress on his family. He’s a busy fellow, handing out his business card to strangers and inviting them to dinner.

He’s candid about his unconventional views. “I wrestled with reality for over 35 years,” he tells a psychiatrist, “and I’m happy to say I won out over it.”

It’s quite a statement, his telling mental health experts he’s Not Gonna Live by their Rules Any More.

This is why he continually invites people for dinner or drinks, so he can give beautiful monologues about his philosophies. He’s an advocate for Anti-Realism, and we see people in the bar drawn to Stewart and his sentiments.

And yet: The drinking. Why does a man, who professes to be happy with his lifestyle, drink so much?

Josephine Hull (L) wants a nice man for Victoria Horne. Image: elcinema.com

The drinking isn’t the central theme of the movie, but it certainly is an Elephant in the Room. Stewart’s character hides bottles around the house, such as the one in the library. But at least he doesn’t drink alone; Harvey enjoys libations as much as the Next Guy.

The owner of Stewart’s favourite bar seems to accept the invisible sidekick. He asks about Harvey and nods when Stewart gives him the Rundown. Business is Business, after all.

The script doesn’t tell us why Stewart’s character is a heavy drinker, although the death of his mother could be a contributing factor to both his drinking and his friendship with Harvey.

Stewart has no visible means of support, except for an inheritance which enables him to be independent – and eccentric.

Stewart and Harvey ride into the sunset. Image: IMDb

So who – or what – is Harvey? Stewart says Harvey is a Pooka and everyone should have one. The script defines pooka as:

“P O O K A – Pooka – from old Celtic mythology [is] a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one, a benign but mischievous creature.”

Harvey (1950)

Some have suggested Harvey is a byproduct of alcoholism, but we think events later in the film dismiss this theory.

Stewart is, however, thirsty for human contact. When people accept his offer for dinner or drinks, he nearly pounces on them. “WHEN,” he asks.

Is this kind, articulate soul so lonely, so bereft of friends, that he must rely on an invisible rabbit for companionship?

Notice the framing to include Harvey’s presence. Image: mltshp

Harvey is based on the 1944 stage play by Mary Chase, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The original Broadway play ran for a remarkable 1,775 performances, making it one of the most successful stage shows of the 1940s.

Stewart himself starred as the protagonist, Elwood P. Dowd, during part of this run. His co-star, Josephine Hull, appeared as Elwood’s distraught sister for the entire five-year run, and when she reprised her role on screen, she won an Academy Award.

In a “Special Narrative Introduction” to the 1990 VHS release, Stewart says Harvey was his favourite film. He noted filmmakers needed to make rabbit taller than the 6’3″ in the script, because Stewart himself was 6’3″. Instead, they portrayed the rabbit as 6’8″ so Stewart would always look up at him.

Harvey may not be to everyone’s taste, but there are very funny moments, along with some thoughtful observations. It’s a good film to watch when you want to see someone Buck The System in a gentle but unorthodox way.

This post is part of The Mystery Character Blogathon, hosted by PEPS.

Harvey: starring James Stewart, Wallace Ford, William H. Lynn. Directed by Henry Koster. Written by Mary Chase & Oscar Brodney. Universal International Pictures, 1950, B&W, 104 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

32 Comment on “James Stewart: Telling the Experts Where to Go

  1. Pingback: The Mystery Character Blogathon is Here! | pure entertainment preservation society

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