I first saw Harvey around the age of nine. It’s a pretty clear memory because I saw it in a motel room on a weekend family outing in St. Augustine, Fla. (Thing were so primitive back then that the black and white TV in the room picked up its signal on rabbit ears, which I guess was a nice touch considering the movie at hand.) At that age, I thought it was just wonderful — despite a mild disappointment that we never actually saw Harvey (except, of course, in the painting). I am considerably less beguiled by it today — which some will say is a typical example of a critic “overthinking” a movie. I won’t entirely deny an element of truth in that, but it’s less deliberate than ingrained by time and seeing more movies than most people would consider quite sane.
Setting aside the dubious nature of the theme of the movie, there’s the problem that director Henry Koster (whose best work was probably those six Deanna Durbin movies he made) is locked in a losing battle with the screenplay. Despite some obvious “opening out” of the play, it always feels like a play. The scenes all play like scenes with little sense of flow. The dialogue — despite some clever lines — is too constructed and never sounds real. It’s not that the results are too theatrical, it’s that they feel like canned theater. Koster is partly to blame. The actors move as if they’re on a stage. Nothing feels spontaneous. It doesn’t help that both Stewart and Hull (yes, I know she won an Oscar for it) are impossibly broad. I’m not sure anyone could have done much better. The biggest cinematic departure is the literalization of Harvey, who increasingly opens and closes doors like the invisible man — and I’m not at all sure this was a good idea. Many, I’m sure, find it utterly charming. It’s not that Harvey is bad — as a faithful reproduction of the play, it’s fine — it’s that it’s stagy and convinced of a profundity I don’t see.
I won’t deny that the film has a lot of very vocal supporters (I may hear from some of them), and I don’t begrudge them their delight. I simply can’t get onboard with them. Goodness knows, it has — more as a movie than a play — a long arm. In 1990 in Belfast, Northern Ireland my wife and I were compelled by curiosity to go to a restaurant calling itself Harvey’s American Pizza (even knowing how truly awful Brit pizza is). It turned out that not only was the pizza far from American, but no one named Harvey was associated with the establishment. Our waiter — apparently thinking we were Canadian — explained that Harvey was “the most popular name in America, because of the James Stewart movie.” Well, there was obviously nothing to say in response to that. Trivia hunters take note — the ubiquitous bust of Koster’s wife, Peggy Moran, shows up on a table in the Dowd library (see photo above). Koster promised to put his wife in all his movies — and this was how he kept that promise.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Harvey Sunday, March 15, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.