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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It’s a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey once caught a fish that was THISSSS big!!

(1946) Holiday Fantasy (RKO Radio) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Tom Karns. Directed by Frank Capra

There are a lot of movies that are designated as classics, and they get that kind of acclaim for a variety of reasons. Some transcend time and place, bring into focus our basic humanity and reaffirm the basic goodness that is inside all of us, even though we sometimes seem more like the greedy banker than the noble George Bailey.

The aforementioned George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to see the world, but events conspire against him. His father’s building and loan in the picturesque town of Bedford Falls is the only alternative for people to build homes as opposed to live in the squalid shacks built by the town’s greedy, grasping Mr. Potter (Barrymore), one of  filmdom’s all time nastiest villains. Time after time, just when it seems that George is going to get his dream, something happens to frustrate him.

Most of us know the basics of the story. When George hits rock bottom, his business short by several thousand dollars on Christmas Eve just when the auditor arrives and it seems as if he is going to go to jail and his family rocked by scandal, he wishes he had never been born. His somewhat bedraggled guardian angel Clarence (Travers) grants him his wish and he gets to see what the world would be like without him.

The message is that a single person can make a huge difference on the lives of those around them is perhaps not an unusual one but few films have ever delivered it as effectively as this one. A perennial Christmas favorite, the redemption of George Bailey is recognized as the redemption of us all. Like George Bailey, we often don’t recognize what we have right in front of us.

This may very well be Jimmy Stewart’s most defining role. He made a career of playing an unassuming everyman, none more basically good than George Bailey. He’s a good man doing the best he can in trying circumstances; we can all see a little bit of ourselves in George, and in his devoted wife Mary (Reed). The love between them is genuine and uplifting, and much more passionate than movies of the time were generally.

Barrymore, one of the great actors of his generation, plays mean Mr. Potter note-perfectly as a man obsessed with power and possession and in doing so creates one of the most memorable movie villains ever. George Bailey compares him to a spider and so he is, sitting in his web, spinning his plans with a worldview that is cynical, believing the people are basically corrupt and unworthy. It is the difference between Bailey and Potter that represents the two opposing views of the nature of man. We like to believe that we are more like George Bailey, even though oftentimes we act more like Mr. Potter – in our own self-interest with little regard for the world behind us. I do believe he would have found our world very much to his liking.

And yet we still believe in George Bailey. Seeing this movie always brings to mind that we are, at heart, yearning to be George Bailey, wishing that the world worked the way it does here where the good are surrounded by friends who rush to the rescue in our darkest hour. It’s a world where angels get wings whenever a bell rings, where decrepit houses can become homes and where daddies can fix broken flowers with a little bit of glue and a lot of love. It’s a world where prayers are answered and guardian angels walk among us. It is a better world. It is our world, or at least it could be.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a heartwarming classic that uplifts the spirit no matter how depressed you may be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You have the soul of Mr. Potter.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a family classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Film Institute has named this movie the #1 most inspirational film of all time, the #1 most powerful film of all time, the #3 Fantasy film of all time and the #20 film overall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a making of documentary hosted by the late Tom Bosley and Frank Capra Jr. hosts a featurette entitled “A Personal Remembrance.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Formosa Betrayed