Universal // 1950 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // August 29th, 2012
"Years ago, my mother used to say to me, she'd say 'In this world, Elwood, you can be oh so so smart, or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart...I recommend pleasant."
The other day, my wife and I were watching the defendant; our 11-year-old daughter was on the sofa reading. Every now and then she'd look up to see what was going on; presently, I noticed those looks were becoming more frequent. The madcap comedy of errors, presided over by the singular calming presence of Jimmy Stewart, had slowly won her over, and she was giggling with delight by the end.
Harvey is based on the play of the same name by Mary Chase. The play is more infamous than famous in literary circles, as it won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for drama, beating out, would you believe it, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Perhaps the Pulitzer committee, like Elwood's mother, recommended pleasant over smart.
Universal brings us one of Jimmy Stewart's favorite films -- Harvey -- as part of its 100th Anniversary Collection.
"I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."
Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart, Rear Window) is an affable sort of guy, one who enjoys the simple pleasures of walking about town and stopping for a drink or two at the local watering hole. Oh, and he also has an invisible friend, a 6-foot-3.5 -- inch-tall rabbit named Harvey. Elwood talks to Harvey, opens doors for him, and frequently asks for his advice. Many people in the town recognize and appreciate Elwood's generosity of spirit; he's quite popular at the local bars, where the bartenders don't even blink when Elwood orders two martinis, one for himself and one for Harvey.
This behavior has driven his sister Veta (Josephine Hull, Arsenic and Old Lace) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) to distraction. Veta tries to have Elwood committed. However, in making her case, she gets so worked up that the psychiatrist, Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake, Valley of the Dolls) locks Veta up instead. The misunderstanding sets off a madcap string of misunderstandings, plans, recriminations, and general chaos.
Through it all, Elwood walks unfazed, calm and serene, maybe with Harvey at his side...or maybe not.
Wilson: "Who's Harvey?" Miss Kelly: "A white rabbit, six feet tall." Wilson: "Six feet?" Elwood P. Dowd: "Six feet, three and a half inches. Let's stick to the facts."
Trivia: While the script said that Harvey was six-foot-three-and-a-half, Stewart always thought of him as six-foot-eight-inches, so that Stewart, who was six-feet-four-inches could look up to him.
Harvey may not be the greatest of movies, but it is certainly one of the most charming, particularly when Harvey starts pulling strings ever so slightly. There are any number of reasons for the movie's enduring popularity; chief among them is Stewart's performance. He hits all the right notes here, never going over the top. Ironically, it's the supposedly crazy character who grounds the film. It's really a role Stewart was born to play. All the performances are solid -- in fact, Josephine Hull picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her trouble. Another reason is the way that the movie plays with the conventions of the screwball comedy. In a standard screwball comedy, whether it's Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace, or What's Up, Doc?, a regular person encounters a free spirit and gets dragged into a whirlwind of adventure. Here it's really the opposite -- you've got a bunch of people who have worked themselves into a right tizzy over Elwood: Veta and Myrtle Mae just want to have him locked up, Dr. Chumley and Dr. Wilson want to cure him, but all Elwood wants to do is go about his business. Elwood would be likely regarded as the nicest man in town, a man whose mere presence can spread oil to calm troubled waters -- were it not for Harvey.
While this re-mastered 1.37:1/1080p high definition transfer isn't in the same league as the recent Casablanca (Blu-ray) 70th Anniversary Edition, it is still fairly impressive. There are some hints of excessive DNR here and there -- Universal used a new technique to mitigate the effects of DNR; it's not quite perfect -- from what I can determine, it removed film grain in order to fix film blemishes, then reapplies the grain. Scenes with excessive white may look a little off -- the credits are a disconcerting example. Director Henry Koster used careful lighting to frame many of his shots, and his efforts do not go to waste here -- wonderful contrast, with deep, deep blacks. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is clear, though there's not a lot going on to challenge anyone's speakers.
Note: The DVD included with the package is just the 2001 DVD; it does not have the restored transfer.
The "romance" between Dr. Sanderson and Miss Kelly is forced, even more so because it comes across as so hopelessly dated. Peggy Dow makes it somewhat palatable with an innate sweetness, but at times you get the impression that she's more interested in Elwood.
For a film selected as part of Universal's 100th Anniversary Collection, the studio stiffed Harvey on the extras. We get a trailer, as well as an introduction to the film recorded by Stewart for the 1990 VHS release. Now let's make sure we're clear: This is a movie so beloved that they recorded a special introduction for the VHS release, but Universal can't put together anything new? That's just wrong. We get a couple of 8-minute documentaries on Universal, once covering the Carl Laemmle period and one covering the Lew Wasserman era. These two shorts are included on several other Universal Anniversary discs as well.
FYI: The disc loading sequence, instead of including a built-in preview, uses BD-Live to download a current preview. If your player has a flaky connection, you could have trouble.
Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) recently starred as Elwood P. Dowd in a Broadway revival of Harvey. The production keeps the 1940s setting, which is something of a shame; with the truly ridiculous pace of modern life, the play would certainly lend itself to a modern retelling. No, Donnie Darko doesn't count.
The Blu-ray itself looks splendid, but Universal gets a month in Chumley Rest Home for providing such a meager set of extras.
Why, thank you, Harvey...I prefer you, too. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy