Harvey (1950)


They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

(1950) Comedy (Universal) Jimmy Stewart, Josephine Hull, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, Victoria Home, Jesse White, William Lynn, Wallace Ford, Nana Bryant, Grayce Mills, Clem Bevans, Polly Bailey, Fess Parker (voice), Aileen Carlyle, Norman Leavitt, Anne O’Neal, Pat Flaherty, Maude Prickett,  Ruthelma Stevens, Almira Sessions. Directed by Henry Koster

What constitutes normal is really up to debate. There are those who think playing an online videogame for 48 hours straight is simply typical behavior; others may find it excessive. Some feel that obsessively collecting every piece of memorabilia from Gone With the Wind is just the way it’s supposed to be; others are less sure. Others still hear voices and see people and things that aren’t there; for them that’s life. For others, that’s psychosis.

Elwood P. Dowd (Stewart) lives a quiet life in a small town. A bachelor, he lives with his sister Veta Louise Simmons (Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Home) in the home he grew up in, which he inherited when his mother passed away. Charming and pleasant, he is an engaging sort, apt to invite anyone he meets to his home for dinner, someone you’d be immediately drawn to…until he introduces you to his very dear friend, Harvey.

Harvey, you see, is a six foot three and a quarter inch rabbit, or a pooka as he likes to be known. Nobody else can see Harvey except Elwood, and his sister and niece live in a constant state of mortification. Myrtle Mae despairs that she will ever meet a man who won’t hightail it as fast as he can in the opposite direction once he gets to know crazy Uncle Elwood, and Veta Louise can’t invite the society friends she would love to spend time with because one word about Harvey from Elwood and they suddenly remember other appointments or develop headaches.

At last, Veta Louise is moved to action and she enlists the family lawyer, Judge Gaffney (Lynn) to have her brother committed. He is driven out to Chumley Rest, a pretty sanitarium outside of town. The highly emotional Veta Louise begins the paperwork process with Nurse Kelly (Dow) who has the orderly Wilson (White) escort Elwood upstairs. Then, Veta Louise meets with Dr. Sanderson (Drake) who mistakes the overwrought histrionics of the guilty Veta Louise for psychosis and so Veta Louise winds up being committed and Elwood strolls off the grounds contentedly, smiling gently.

It doesn’t take too long before Dr. Sanderson realizes his error. He brings it to the attention of Dr. Chumley (Kellaway) who is forced out of his ivory tower to go retrieve Elwood, but not before firing Dr. Sanderson. A mad chase ensues with Wilson going to the Dowd home to retrieve Elwood but instead discovers Myrtle Mae, who falls instantly for the guy. Veta Louise informs Dr. Chumley that she intends to sue, but discovers where Elwood is and Dr. Chumley goes to retrieve Elwood personally.

Four hours pass with no sign of either Dr. Chumley or Elwood and a worried Dr. Sanderson, Kelly and Wilson go to Charley’s bar to find Elwood. As everyone else is, they are captivated by the sweetness of Elwood and at last convince him to go to the sanitarium. In the meantime, a highly agitated Dr. Chumley returns to his sanitarium and at last confesses the awful truth – he has also seen Harvey.

At last Veta Louise with lawyer in tow, arrives at the Sanitarium. Dr. Sanderson announces he has a formula that can help rid Elwood of his delusions. Elwood is reluctant to take the shot, but when he sees how miserable his sister is, he knows he has to do the right thing. But will the cost be worth it?

Josephine Hull won an Oscar for her performance as the high-strung Veta Louise, but you won’t remember her as much as you will Jimmy Stewart. This would be one of his signature roles, and in many ways is the distillation of his work as an actor. You can’t help but like the guy, delusions and all. Most of the rest of the cast is serviceable and to modern audiences who aren’t classic film buffs unknown but most of a certain age group will remember Jesse White as the Maytag Repair Man from the ‘70s and Fess Parker, who famously played Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett for Disney, can be heard as the voice of the chauffer. Very nice images too; those pre-color cinematographers knew how to make the most of light and shadow.  There are colorized versions of the film but the black and white version is certainly preferable to my mind.

This is a sweet-natured movie with just a light touch of the fantastic. Never laugh-out-loud funny, nonetheless you will be charmed into remembering this movie long after the credits roll. This is one of those classics that stands up after repeated viewings. Although like many stage plays that made the leap to the movie screen it seems stage-y at times and doesn’t have the grand vistas that you would expect from a movie, it still captivates regardless.

This is an absolute classic. It’s a movie you can’t help watching with a quiet grin on your face, or leave without feeling all warm inside. It’s an excellent choice when you need a dose of the warm fuzzies. Harvey has become a part of popular culture, and he is often referenced in asides by the very hip. This is one of those movies they’re talking about when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” But then again, they don’t really need to because it’s already been made.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and charming. One of Stewart’s signature roles. Beautifully shot. A true classic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little stage-y in places.
FAMILY MATTERS: As with most movies of the era, this is perfectly fine for any family audience.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Broadway play would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1945; Hull originated the role of Veta Simmons on Broadway.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Blu-Ray version, released in 2012 as part of Universal’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes a 1990 introduction to the film by James Stewart (shot for the VHS version) and two small featurettes on Universal studios – one on the Carl Laemmle era, the other on the Lew Wasserman era and neither having anything to do with the film. The Blu-Ray also has as an addition the 2001 DVD version in which there is a marked difference in quality between the two discs.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (stream only), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Jupiter Ascending

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A Christmas Carol (1938)


A Christmas Carol (1938)

Reginald Owen as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.

(MGM) Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry Mackay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair. Directed by Edwin L. Marin

“God bless us, every one.” It’s a line that has become part of popular culture and has been that way for nearly two centuries now. It was common enough when Charles Dickens wrote it back in 1843 but these days it refers to the classic tale.

You know the details. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen) is a penurious money-lender whose grasping, greedy ways and hateful, aggressive attitude have made him the terror of London. He is visited on Christmas Eve by his jovial nephew Fred (Mackay) who invites him to dinner, which he does every year. As he does every year, Scrooge declines, expressing his disapproval to Fred’s betrothal to Bess (Carver), a poor woman who Fred nonetheless loves with all his heart.

Receiving his message better is Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), his long-suffering clerk who suffers Scrooge’s rages stoically and tolerates his insults meekly. When he asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge begrudgingly gives it, lambasting his employee to be at work all the earlier the next day. He reluctantly pays Cratchit his pitiful wages and the two depart. The fun-loving Cratchit has his top hat knocked off by a snowball thrown by some young boys which prompts an impromptu snowball fight. Eager to join in the fun, Cratchit lofts a snowball and knocks the hat off of…his boss. The hat unfortunately is crushed under the wheel of a coach. Scrooge sacks him on the spot and to add insult to injury, demands a shilling to compensate for the hat.

Cratchit walks away morosely but the sight of a swinging goose neck on the back of a shopper soon restores his good humor. He bustles from shop to shop, ordering the best meal he can afford. When he gets home, his good-hearted wife (Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s real-life wife – and for those who love trivia, they were the parents of actress June Lockhart who appears in an uncredited role as Belinda Cratchit, one of their young children) and his beloved children are waiting. He loves them all – but perhaps the crippled Tiny Tim (Kilburn) the most.

The miserly Scrooge in the meantime arrives at his home, empty and silent as the grave. He goes inside to light a candle and is startled to see a face appear on his door knocker. It is the face of Marley (Carroll), his partner who passed away seven years previously that very night. He slams the door and heads up to his bedsit to warm himself by a meager fire. He hears a loud booming noise like a great door had been opened, then the unmistakable sound of chains being dragged across the floor and in walks Marley, bound and fettered.

At first Scrooge doesn’t believe in Marley and dismisses him as the results of indigestion. He summons the local bobbies to remove the intruder but they arrive to find the room empty. Angrily, Scrooge sends them on their way but is startled to see Marley still there. Now convinced of Marley’s validity, he listens to his message. Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer a fate as sad as his own unless he changes and there was only one chance of that – but he would need to be visited by three spirits in order to do that – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rutherford), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Braham) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Corrigan). We all know what happens after that.

This version has been shown on television many, many times over the years and is something of a Christmas tradition for many. Despite the technical limitations of the era (the special effects are primitive by our standards and some of the sequences of the spirits flying over London look a bit silly today) the acting is as good as you’ll find in any of the many filmed versions of the story. Particularly good is Gene Lockhart as Cratchit and even if he looked a bit well-fed to be impoverished (although in truth most onscreen Cratchits have been on the chubby side) he manages to capture the unshakable faith and unstoppable cheerfulness that make up the core of the character. Mackay does Fred very well indeed, and is a bit less callow than most of the other actors who have played the role; in my book it’s a little bit closer to the way Dickens wrote him.

Kilburn in my estimation set the standard for all those who tackled the role of Tiny Tim thereafter. His look, his gentleness and his ability to project cheer and joy has essentially become the way we mostly characterize the role. In fact, his recitation of the line I quoted at the beginning of the review is most often seen when the line is needed in advertising or in features.

The drawback here is that the studio wanted this to be an uplifting family film, so nearly every unpleasant element has been eliminated, including the character of Scrooge’s fiancée and the death in childbirth of Fan, his sister. If it wasn’t for that, the movie would have gotten a higher rating as so many familiar elements are missing that it feels like the movie is truncated.

This is one of the most classic of Christmas stories and many of our current holiday traditions can trace its roots to the original Dickens novel. It has been made and remade literally dozens of times on television, in animated form and as live action movies for television and the movies including the latest version starring Jim Carey that was previously reviewed here. While the 1951 version is probably the best known – and the best – of all of the many versions, this one set the standard that almost all of them have derived from at least partially and it is certainly worth seeing for that reason alone. Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly here in the States, but it is easily available everywhere. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

WHY RENT THIS: Gene Lockhart and Barry Mackay are memorable in supporting roles, and Terry Kilburn was one of the best Tiny Tims ever. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen delivers his most memorable performance as Scrooge.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers speed through the material, skipping over entire sections of the story to finish at an astonishing 69 minutes. Some of the material is sorely missed. The special effects are primitive and at times painful to watch by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most movies from the era, it is no problem for modern family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first version of the classic Dickens tale to be made as a talkie and was meant to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but Barrymore was badly injured in a fall on another movie set and was unable to perform. He personally recommended Owen to replace him in the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several short features, Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” in a film that was reportedly only played at an MGM Christmas party and an animated short called “Peace on Earth” that, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the only filmed entertainment to be honored thus.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

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