What to do while watching:
What to eat while watching:
Every once in a while, the urge overtakes me to rent a classic. And many times, when I succumb, I get bogged down and bored by the anachronisms, not just in subject matter but in filmic style. Sometimes the classics are as hard to get through as a quart of vegan chili: the first few bites may be delicious, but one gets enough corn before too long.
But every once in a while, there's a classic film that's so perfect and timeless, that the out-of-date usage, the quaint styles of dress, the antiquated personalities charm instead of detract, engage instead of distract. There are classic films that are just plain good. Mary Chase's play, Harvey won a Pulitzer Prize, and the cinematic interpretation carries the story well. It's up there with Casablanca, La Dolce Vita, Monkey Business, and Dr. Strangelove.
Harvey is a 6' 3-1/4" rabbit that can only be seen by amiable town drunk Elwood P. Dowd, played by James Stewart. An independently wealthy gadabout, Dowd spends his days traveling to and from bars, taking time to make friends with everyone and inviting them to dinner. His inadvertent side-line is bringing shame and embarrassment down on his sister and niece, who share his home ever since mama died.
Josephine Hull, Oscar winner, plays Dowd's sister who tries to commit him to a sanitarium and winds up being committed herself. Not just a tongue-clicking fuss-budget, she actually makes an effort to humor Elwood while attempting to take away his fantasy life for his own good. This causes her to be rather neurotic herself, so that we expect that she'll see Harvey too before the movie's over.
The screenplay doesn't go into the kind of psychological depth we might expect from a current story about a troubled family. Everything is kept very light and breezy. Harvey is given enough narrative embodiment to make us feel like he might actually be a real entity. This protects us from worrying too much about Dowd's sanity. Given my familiarity with basic psychology, I assume Dowd's hallucinations come from his alcoholism which, in turn, comes from his unexpressed grief over his mother's death. But this 1950's film doesn't believe in hashing out grief.
The closest it comes is in one of Dowd's characteristically drawn-out monologues. (A drunkard's wisdom is never-ending.) He describes how when he's in a bar, people always talk about their problems, their huge regrets, their formidable crimes. (Tom Waits will quote the line: "Nobody brings anything small into a bar.") Dowd says he likes to listen, and then, when he introduces his new friend to Harvey, that person knows that Dowd has something bigger, more scary, more formidable, and they leave impressed.
I found this explanation surprising and convoluted. It indicated the thinnest dark edge on this lightweight comedy, suggesting that Dowd is well aware of his grief and that he embraces the balm of insanity with all his might. But not for the comfort alone: also for the impression, for the wild romance of being considered a madman. That's scary. Polite and proper as this drunkard may act, there's a darkness in him: he likes people to be in awe of his skewed mind.
But this all comes from my modern-day interpretation. On its own terms,
the film is mainly just a funny romp with enough open questions to appeal
to intelligent viewers. Stewart's opening remarks in the edition that I
watched, recorded in 1990, show him to be a bright person (his god-awful
poetry aside). He also seems slightly upset about not winning an Oscar for
this performance; but, truly, I wouldn't have given it to him either. The
role seems easy to play. And I'm delving far too deeply into this good little
story. Rent it and enjoy.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.