"Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it." That cheerful comment sets the tone for "Harvey," a movie about a lovable guy whose way of dealing with the harshness of reality is simple: Make his own.
Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) hopes to arrange a wonderful marriage for daughter Myrtle May (Victoria Horne) in the upper echelons of society. There's one problem: her wealthy brother Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) has an imaginary pal, a six-foot-three rabbit called Harvey. After Elwood accidently wrecks a party by introducing Harvey to everyone, Veta decides to have him committed.
Unfortunately, when Veta takes Elwood to the sanatorium, the staff come to think that the fluttery socialite is crazy, and is trying to get her sunny brother out of the way. So they lock her up, and let him go. After that mistake is straightened out, the psychiatric staff and Elwood's long-suffering family try to find him.... and Harvey.
If we ever saw Elwood P. Dowd ("Here, let me give you one of my cards") in a car, the bumper sticker would probably say, "Reality is highly overrated." The big theme of the movie is that reality can be harsh, and that it's not necessarily a bad thing to lapse out of it into the fantasies of our own minds. If Elwood isn't dangerous and is otherwise normal, who cares if he has an imaginary friend?
Is Harvey real? The film leaves that up to our imaginations. And in the end, it doesn't matter if Harvey is a figment of Elwood's imagination, or a friendly spirit. It's the effect he has on Elwood that is important. His presence makes Elwood happy and relaxed, and Elwood makes others happy and relaxed -- even the hard-boiled head of the psychiatric ward, who lies down on his own couch and tells his secrets to Elwood.
This actually isn't too screwballish a comedy -- sure, there's the running joke where Elwood politely introduces Harvey to people he meets. And the scene where Veta is committed is hilarious. But it's more of a heartwarmer than a comedy, from Elwood softening the lead shrink to Myrtle May finding love with a lovable blue-collar worker from the sanatorium.
James Stewart gives a wonderfully dreamy performance, slightly smelling of booze and flowers -- his Elwood P. Dowd is mild-mannered, sweet, gallant, courteous, and oh-so-pleasant. And he's learned the value of just enjoying the little things in life, like a flower, a beer or a talk with a friend. And Josephine Hull brings up a brilliant performance as his frazzled sister, with several other good actors rounding off the supporting cast.
Who is crazier -- the happy man with the imaginary rabbit, or the people who want him to be 100% sane and less happy? You make the call. With a sweet, surreal story and a flawless cast "Harvey" is one of those rare movies that does an unspecifiable number on your heartstrings.