…and the quest to see everything

Hysteria: The siblings in “Harvey”

The first half of Henry Koster‘s Harvey questions my personal expectations of the film as a light studio-era comedy. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) embarrasses his sister Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) in a socialite gathering at their old home. In turn, she wants to get rid of him, placing him into a mental institution, which is admittedly a treacherous thing to do. Then in the twenty-five minute mark, playwright turned screenwriter Mary Chase uses the old switcheroo plot.

The pompous middle management of the institution, led by Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and assisted by the hopelessly devoted Ms. Kelly (Peggy Dow), literally turn their backs on Elwood’s symptoms, interrupting him before the Elwood introduces them to the titular imaginary white rabbit. They make the latter walk off scot-free while Veta cries her heart out to the doctor and gets labeled as hysterical. And only when the hospital staff realizes their mistake is when this movie supposedly oscillates into comedy territory.

A few scenes later, she labours on a detailed description of her treatment at the institution, her soliloquy having no place in a comedy film at all. These scenes feel so uncomfortable that it’s easy to just flick the switch away and tell everyone else that they’re the insane ones for calling this movie a classic. This sounds blasphemous but it’s kind of like Bridesmaids, where depression wedges itself into the comedy.

All I wanted was for the hospital to get the right guy, even though we can argue that both siblings have their traces of insanity. Once Veta is free we have the delight in knowing Elwood. Stewart’s characterization of the man is both mature, as he doesn’t give into stereotypes about people with special conditions, mixed with his eternally child-like voice. There are also the scenes in the bar and afterward, the alleyway, when he tells both Sanderson and Kelly what his drinking buddies think about Harvey, that makes his performance that’s disarming yet more comforting than Mary Chase’s quotable screenplay or words or language in general could be.

Drake and Dow’s matinée idol looks contrast the rest of the actors’ cartoonish appearances. There’s also the specificity within enunciation of certain words, especially Hull and Horne’s affected accents that make them sound either like Americanized Brits or rich middle Americans, speaking just like every upper class character “back then.” Hull’s expressiveness also saves her character from being simply a one-note hysteric, making us sympathetic for those who have to deal with a mentally shook relative. There’s also the cast who – and Stewart inadvertently falls into this as well – never fully reaches naturalism but that makes this movie a time capsule of theatre-based acting.

I also applaud this movie’s brave depiction of homosexuality. Just kidding, but you can argue for it.

This movie is brave because of its collaborative subversion of psychology’s labels, making me think of its limits within certain polarities. We can factor in gender within its ‘insane’ characters. The “white slaver” Wilson could be a “nut” himself, trigger-happy when it comes to wringing Elwood’s neck or shoving Veta around. The male-dominated institution is more lenient towards Elwood’s quiet insanity than Veta’s. In one of her soliloquies she recounts how Wilson strips her and how the other doctors ask her about sexual things, concluding that “they’re not interested in men in places like that.”

The movie makes psychology look like a practice that by nature hunts people down as well as causes for why people are the way they are. Sanderson makes up a story on why Veta wants to confine Elwood. Later, at the alleyway, he asks Elwood where he gets the name Harvey from only to end up dry, simply because he never asks the right questions, just like we shouldn’t. We should just let the eccentric yet pleasant people as they are.

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