I wonder what life must be like from the perspective of Elwood P. Dowd, because it sounds like he’s clearly a man who needs help with trying to keep up with the pace of everything around him. But to talk about why Harvey is a thing of beauty should already be easy enough, for it is a film about a man trying to cope with a world that moves so fast around him to a point of being overwhelmed. Quickly enough it only became clearer to me what it was that I absolutely loved about Harvey, aside from the fact that it carried what was easily one of my favourite James Stewart performances. It wasn’t just a fantastic James Stewart role that we were watching here. It was perhaps him at his most down-to-earth and relatable.
James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd is a man like any other, but to his own peers he is a peculiar case because he says that his best friend is an invisible human-sized rabbit (“pooka” as he says) that only he can see who goes by the name of Harvey. The idea of a friend that can only be seen by him only led people around him into thinking that he needed help, for he was a man who is mentally unwell as they say. No one knows exactly what is Elwood’s condition, because it is never explicitly stated. It doesn’t need to be. We recognize that Elwood is a man who needed help fitting into the world around him, and his means of coping was through communicating with Harvey. Everyone said he was insane, and thus they alienated him. But looking at how even today we still have people turned down on a count of this characteristic, for being merely “strange,” I found myself sympathizing all the more.
Looking back at Harvey once again, I was thinking about how the outside world had seen me because of the fact I was an outcast. I was always afraid to talk with others and my family had never taken kindly to this. I rarely even managed to make friends in elementary school or high school on the count that my own social skills were never the best, and whenever I was alone I had a tendency to talk to myself. My parents never liked that about me. In the same way I look at how Elwood’s own peers had thought of him because of the fact that the concept of an invisible rabbit being one’s best friend should sound insane. But given the state of Elwood’s life (his family is clearly falling apart and he is still trying to make friends), perhaps the formation of a friend only visible to the self is how we cope, so we can let our minds free after being overwhelmed with our realities.
We’re looking at a portrait of mental health in a comedic light, but Henry Koster isn’t expecting one to laugh at the expense of Dowd – which is something I appreciate greatly. Koster is inviting oneself to believe that Harvey is present, so that you can get a grasp at how people just like Elwood function as a part of the society that they are living in. The film is funny in the sense that it’s poking at the normative point of view that refuses to understand what Elwood is going through, and coming down to terms with how they find a means of functioning properly, Harvey has only found itself at its most moving. We know already that Elwood Dowd is a man who seeks out the best from everything, but at the same time he knows already about all the bad and is seeking an escape from it.
I still struggle just on the count of trying to explain the sort of person that I am for a crowd of people because I’m afraid of being alienated on the count that I’ll be seen as insane. I can’t help the fact I have autism, and I try my best to see what’s good in other people, and yet I just can’t connect because I struggle at coping with their pace. Elwood’s world is one that shows two halves of the spectrum, one that’s supportive (the local bar as well as its regular customers who have come to know Elwood over the years have accepted the fact Harvey is around), and one that never took kindly (his family puts him down because his behaviour isn’t “normal”). Harvey isn’t afraid of begging the question about why everything must be so “normal,” and why should the odd ones be put down in shame rather than be seen as people who we should understand more. Because we only get the impression Elwood is a man with an infectious personality, yet he is put down on the count his “friend” makes him “odd,” and these people aren’t willing to understand why he is the way he is. And the way James Stewart embodies this characteristic only makes me smile thinking about a man like Elwood.
Only time will tell if I’m ever able to find myself able to cope well with moving from one stage of my own life to another. But the fact that a film like Harvey is inviting oneself to look at the world from how such a person is seeing everything happen around them only makes me all the more thankful that they exist. Considering the time period in which it was made, the fact it still resonates beautifully in this day and age with how it portrays mental health only makes it all the more commendable. It isn’t a film that plays everything safely like many films of the era, it’s a film that builds itself upon a crucial aspect that bonds people together, the concept of understanding. And age has only made the brilliance of Harvey more relevant than ever.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via MCA/Universal.
Directed by Henry Koster
Screenplay by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney, Myles Connolly from the play by Chase
Produced by John Beck
Starring James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake
Release Year: 1950
Running Time: 104 minutes