Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me

No 129 - Harvey
Director - Henry Koster

Never before has a blog quote basically explained the whole film. Because James Steward's Elwood is one of the nicest human beings ever put on film.
He seems to glide through life in a beautiful naive and friendly haze. He manages to be utterly unassuming, utterly approachable and yet bulletproof. No one seems to be able to take advantage of this man's delightful demeanour.

What I found most interesting (besides Frank Skinner doing the music.... not the same one I presume) was the ambiguousness with which they portray Harvey.
There are some little touches which are played near the start, which help to keep it hidden whether he is real or not - I noticed near the start a lovely moment as the scene cuts just before Elwood and Harvey pick up their drinks.

So we never know whether 1 or 2 drinks are drunk. Incidentally, I love that they sit in little old man pubs and drink martinis. It is such a weird juxtaposition. Or maybe it was a more common drink in the '50's.

Gradually as the film progresses, it becomes clearer whether Harvey is a figment of Elwood's imagination or whether he is 'real' (the explanation Elwood gives is that Harvey is a Pooka).

However... despite Elwood's questionable sanity, he remains the straight man in a film which embodies the classic farce structure and which is filled with mistakes, misdirection and mistaken identities. It also seems entirely populated by frantic and hysterical nutjobs. Special mention has to go to Elwood's sister Veta. A woman so annoying and so utterly selfish and stubborn (she basically wants Elwood institutionalised so she can have parties without him embarrassing her) that I spent the whole film wanting her to get her comeuppance. However this is a nice film and has to end happily, but in the hurry to end thusly, I found Veta's change of heart a bit rushed.
To be honest, most of the subplots feel quite slight and rushed - the romances in particular, just seem to happen with no real explanation (although at least Dr Sanderson and Nurse Kelly get a back story hinted at).

Luckily though, old Jimmy Stewart is fantastic. his performance is so delightfully light and frothy and perfectly, hysterically, timed. It really feels like he has a sparkling dialogue going on, even though we can only hear one side of the conversation.
Whilst Stewart is effortless to watch, where he really shines is where he begins to talk about his relationship with Harvey, and where - for one brief moment - that happy go lucky veneer fades away and you see a man who is quite sad. Either with himself, or with the state of the world.

Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us.

As he sits down, his face becomes more sombre, and it is just a lovely piece of acting. Just wonderful to watch.

In fact, the film manages to take a much sadder tone than I was expecting, made even more prominent when you realise just how madcap and farcical the rest of the film is. The institution offers to give Elwood an injection that will stop him seeing the spirit/imaginary Harvey. The final scenes all hinge on whether this injection will take place, and when asked why he should do it, Elwood is given the reason that he has to stop seeing the fantasy. Start seeing his duties and responsibilities.

And if that isn't the most poignant and depressing metaphor for growing up I don't know what is.