Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day Ninety-Seven: Harvey

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #200
Year: 1950
Director: Henry Koster
Starring: James Stewart and Josephine Hull

One of the best things about writing this blog is watching movies that I had no interest in seeing before I started the project, added to my Netflix Queue when I began it, hyped through the roof for myself after reading about, and being incredibly satisfied when I actually watch them. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, and as soon as I found out there was a movie where he's followed around by a 6-foot-tall rabbit that only he can see, I got unbelievably excited – and I got more excited yet last week when Netflix made it available for Instant Queue. Harvey defied my expectations, but was still brilliant in a completely different way than I anticipated.

Before I did much reading on Harvey, I imagined that a movie about a man and his six-foot-tall invisible rabbit friend would be mind-bending, dark, and proto-Lynchian. That's not the case at all. It's a comedy of errors in which the main character happens to be followed around by a giant rabbit. Whether the rabbit really exists or not remains elusive at first, but at a certain point, it's acceptable as an audience member to believe that Harvey really is a pooka following James Stewart around. From there, the large, colorful cast of characters whose opinions on the rabbit's existence and reactions to each other drives the plot and generates the comedy. It's funny, but still, there's some kind of natural reaction that one has when taking for granted that there's quite possibly an invisible rabbit in every shot that makes the mind work harder than it generally would while watching an otherwise standard comedy film. James Stewart does everything right and then some in selling it, sometimes making it obvious that Harvey is around with sight gags like holding doors open and pulling bar stools out for ostensibly nobody, but more often giving incredibly subtle cues to the audience to indicate the rabbit's presence. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and though I haven't seen Cyrano de Bergerac for which Jose Ferrer won the award that year, I'd have a hard time giving it to anyone but Stewart.

I think this film finds itself ranked among the greatest movies ever sixty years after its release not because of its comedy but because of its undeniable weirdness. It must have had some influence, however slight, on Donnie Darko, the quintessential giant humanoid rabbit movie. Mostly thanks to the wonderfully bizarre premise and James Stewart's brilliant performance, Harvey is a movie that I constructed sky-high expectations for in my mind only to have them all met. This will be a very easy movie for me to recommend to those who ask, now and always.

The Good: The possibly-because-of-low-budget, possibly-to-keep-the-mystery fact that we never actually see Harvey. Is he real?

The Bad: I'm not sold that the head psychiatrist actually *gets* Harvey. From what I can tell, he got drunk and simply believed James Stewart's character. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

The Skinny: #200 sounds exactly right to me.

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