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.
Inspired by Nathaniel’s post, again.
As suggested above, let’s do some over-reading. Margo Channing (Bette Davis), captured in a straightforward long shot, is on stage in front of a fake set, starts a row with her agent and her playwright Lloyd Richards in the audience area. The counter shot of her agent and her playwright are side view medium shots. They’re in the real world, they’ve trapped her in the fictional world and she wants either control of the world given to her, or she wants out. They can only bellow towards each other – that’s how distant they feel towards each other.
My first screening suggested that she’s a diva, but it’s more complex than that. Lloyd tells her things like ‘I shall never understand the weird process in which a body with a voice finds itself with a mind.’ Never have I heard the word ‘voice’ to limit another person. He compares her to a piano, which she takes offense for.
Art’s a collaborative process. Lloyd doesn’t get that, many people who might watch this won’t get that in the beginning, Margo gets a raw deal. This is probably why she wants to give Eve the torch and leave and get married. And even that gets complicated since she wants to marry so that she could become a ‘woman,’ as if being an actress makes her less than that.
Those are the few reasons why I preferred this movie over “Sunset Boulevard.” Cynically, the movie is two hours of watching people fight, but that’s what friends do. Its subtle, eloquent script trumps “Sunset’s” Mr. Obvious voice-over. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen “Sunset’s” ending twice before watching the movie in its entirety. That’s gonna ruin things.
In 1950, Marilyn Monroe was good but by no means a great actress. Her greatness would have to wait until 1961, although a lot of you will probably say it happens earlier than that, if you didn’t put a rock in my face already. And it’s not her fault, neither. She’s given bit parts like escorts for men you would rather not be escorts for (in the same year, she played arm candy to George Sanders), with lines full of exclamatory colloquialism that hard to pull off. Someone watching this movie in 1950 wouldn’t even know who Marilyn Monroe was until the end credits, sadly enough.
In a scene with a cop trying to take her away from her bedroom door, she delivers her words with a different emotion each line, going from anger to fear to seduction without transitioning between these three, or just staying with one while discretely sprinkling her lines with the other two. Rita Hayworth could pull off being hot by either being consistently drunk or bitter. But then Rita wouldn’t play this part in 1950.That doesn’t mean that Marilyn doesn’t add any nuance to her role. There’s a childlike quality to her, adding to the sympathy we already have for her character.
Marilyn’s appearance isn’t the only thing worthwhile in the movie. “The Asphalt Jungle” is a very apt title for the film and for that time, since some would say that urban areas doesn’t civilize people but just concentrate the wild ones. An important police officer turns on a switchboard, a box recording voices speaking about crimes. These voices effectively authenticate the chaos happening in the streets. If one cop had been only talking for the rest of his force, he’d just be a limp PS.