Based on the Mary Chase play of the same name, “Harvey” tells the story of Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”) and his best friend Harvey, who happens to be a six foot tall invisible rabbit. Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull “The Lady From Texas”), and her daughter Myrtle Mae Simmons (Victoria Horne “Affair with a Stranger”) live with Elwood, and in perpetual mortification with his need to introduce everyone he meets to his invisible friend. After Elwood inadvertently ruins a social gathering at their house by frightening the guests, Veta decides to have him committed to the local sanitarium for treatment.
Stewart is disarmingly charming as Elwood Dowd; his smile and positive nature is infectious even when the viewer thinks the character is acting oddly. He is always kind-hearted, smiling and genuine to everyone he meets. This demeanor earns Elwood much respect at a local bar, Charlie’s, where he and Harvey spend quite a bit of time sipping martinis and talking to other patrons. The regular patrons who are familiar with Elwood even go out of their way to ask how Harvey is faring, and attempt to stand up for Elwood when others try to take advantage of his generosity. Perhaps the most touching scene with Elwood is the one in which he tells one of the sanitarium doctors and a nurse of how he first met Harvey. Stewart’s voice is nostalgic and his eyes are seemingly staring off into nothing, like he truly is remembering something long since past, and his smile gives away his fondness for the memory in a way even his soothing voice does not. In that moment more than any other, he truly is Elwood P. Dowd.
Veta is a more complicated character than she first appears, and Hull does a relatively good job of keeping up with and portraying her many facets. She struggles at both the beginning and end of the movie over having Elwood committed to the sanitarium, showing her genuine love and concern for her younger brother. Veta is comical, but this is due to her grand facial expressions and constant wailing over Elwood and his “imaginary” friend, (at one point she is so hysterical one doctor is convinced that it is her who needs treatment and releases Elwood).
In contrast to Veta is her daughter Myrtle Mae, who throughout the film shows little to no love for her uncle. While Horne plays the part of mild mannered young lady well, she lends her powerful eyes to moments when Myrtle is upset over her uncle, giving an almost feral look to them. Her expressions show her deep determination to lock away Elwood better than any one of her lines regarding the topic, even though there are a few good ones. Contrary to this overbearing behavior, Horne is also expected to play Myrtle as lovestruck throughout a fair portion of the film. This part of Myrtle doesn’t diminish her desire for Elwood’s capture and treatment, but it does temper it whenever the object of her affections (an orderly at the sanitarium) is on the screen. She smiles in these moments, and almost appears to be a different person despite remaining genuine to her more aggressive side. In doing this, Horne perhaps gives the the second best performance in the movie.
Never once is the audience’s experience bogged down by the fact that we never see Harvey. He is as invisible to us as he is to everyone else, and yet it doesn’t matter. Not seeing him gives the audience a way to connect with the characters better, and adds credibility to the film.
Many films of old are being remade into new big production cinematic experiences for the current generation, but a remake of “Harvey” could never hope to do justice to the performances given in the original 1950 masterpiece. Let’s hope Hollywood resists the urge to do what it does best and tries to fix what isn’t broken.