Mental Illness…As Plague

I’m a big fan of James Stewart films. Whether it’s his early work like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or his Hitchcock films, I generally find his films entertaining to watch.

But one film I didn’t like too much was Harvey. I watched it a few years ago and wasn’t all that impressed. Whenever I speak to my mates about James Stewart films, a lot of them would say ‘Well you must love Harvey’ and it made me feel like I was missing out on something.

So I went back and watched it again, and I still wasn’t that impressed by it. In fact the only thing that really impressed me was the performance of Stewart himself.

I’m afraid my thoughts/reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens, scroll down to the bottom and read whether or not I think it’s worth you watching. But really, Harvey isn’t a film with massive swerves and plot-twists so I don’t think it matters that much.

Harvey Review


Elwood P. Dowd has a best friend who just so happens to be an invisible 6″3 rabbit called Harvey. Well, Harvey isn’t actually a rabbit, but rather, he’s a ‘Pooka’ which is a mythical fairy from Celtic folklore. Harvey isn’t invisible to Dowd of course. He sees him as if he is there and acts under the assumption that everyone else can see him too.

Elwood is a mild mannered guy who doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. He happily gets on with his life with Harvey in tow, and is good and kind to everyone he meets. On its own that isn’t much of a plot – there has to be an antagonist of course – and this comes in the form of his sister Veta (an older woman who could probably have passed for Dowd’s mother) and her daughter Myrtle-May (a woman with a very unsettling face, who certainly wouldn’t get a similar part in 2011). Why are there no kids called Myrtle-May these days?!

Anyway, Veta and Myrtle-May are embarrassed by Dowd. They are trying to be good honest 1950s socialites but Dowd keeps scaring their friends off when he ‘introduces Harvey’.

Having ruined one-too-many social gatherings for them, Veta and Myrtle-May take Dowd to the local asylum to be commited. There only seem to be four members of staff at the asylum – the head doctor, a junior doctor, a nurse and the porter. The junior doctor at the asylum thinks Veta is the mentally ill one (and in fairness, it’s understandable because she tells him that she too sometimes sees Harvey which worries her) and commits her instead, letting Dowd go in the process. While it’s played as a comedy, the thought of a woman being commited, stripped naked against her will and immersed in water as a form of therapy by the porter – who looks like incredibly like Dave Cuthbert (there I go with the ‘in references’ again) – is actually pretty unsettling.

To cut a long story a bit shorter they realise that she’s ok and instead have to find Dowd, who is busy handing out business cards with his phone number to anyone he comes across and inviting them to a party at his house the next day.

The head Doctor goes off to find him first but goes missing, so the porter, junior doctor and nurse start searching, and find Dowd at his local bar where he seems to spend most of his days drinking with Harvey. They take him back to the asylum where they find the head Doctor, who is now acting in a very happy and tranquil way. The reason? Having spoken to Dowd, he now sees Harvey too. As it says in the title, it’s like mental illness in plague form.

The film ends with everyone back at the asylum, and Veta insisting that Dowd is given an injection of a ‘serum’ which the junior Doctor believes will cure him. Bear in mind that throughout all this Dowd is always happy to go along with anything anyone says because he only sees the good in people, so he happily obliges and goes into the Doctor’s office to be treated.

And here comes the moral of the story…

The taxi driver who brought Veta to the asylum comes in to ask to be paid. Neither she nor anyone else can find any money (Harvey is supposed to have hidden their purses/wallets) so she gets Dowd out the office to pay the taxi driver. Dowd chats away to the taxi driver and invites him to the party as well. When he goes back in for his injection, the taxi driver tells Veta about how Dowd is such a nice guy and that is usually the way when he gives people lifts to the asylum. They go in happy and come out miserable – ‘Like everyone else’ – and that he thinks if they are happy and kind, why not leave them that way. Veta then realises the error of her ways and stops them giving the injection.

The end.


As I say above, the moral of the story seems to be that if people are happy and kind and aren’t doing anyone any harm – even if they appear to be mad – then that is probably better than being a miserable sod. True enough I suppose.

The film itself tries to be a comedy, but there aren’t really any laughs in it. It’s an old style comedy really, full of mistaken identity, people just missing each other and gags you can see coming a mile away. Not exactly Arrested Development, but not ‘unfunny’ like Family Guy is these days.

The good in this film comes mainly from Stewart’s performance. He is brilliant as Dowd, managing to pull off the part of something who is genuinely at peace with the world.  In particular, his scene at the bar where he explains to them how he came to met Harvey is so well done that it roped me back in at a point where I was beginning to get pretty bored.

Better yet, his acting with ‘Harvey’ is perfectly believable. While we don’t see Harvey, you could believe that he does, with his physical actions portraying where Harvey is supposed to be at all times.

As for ‘Harvey’ himself, you never see him (although as you can see above, there’s a painting of Harvey and Dowd in his house) . With other people being able to see him and a few reasonably subtle examples of him being there – such as doors opening without anyone visible, Veta’s purse going missing, a rocking chair rocking on its own – I think we’re supposed to believe he does exist. Unfortunately the subtlety of these hints are trampled all over when someone finds a hat with ear holes for rabbits cut out the top. No need for it, and I think it cheapens it.

We can count our blessing the film isn’t made nowadays though because if it was, there would definitely be a CGI rabbit involved. And Judge Reinholdt too probably. *shudder*.

Should You Watch Harvey?

It’s possibly worth watching for James Stewart’s performance alone, but it’s not one of his better films, and while I like to champion the quality of older films to people (Mr Smith Goes to Washington is 72 years old but has a plot which has survived the test of time and could be happily watched by anyone today), I think Harvey has dated badly.

So on that basis, probably not.


3 Responses to Mental Illness…As Plague

  1. Kevin Corstorphine says:

    This is one of those films I’ve always meant to watch but have never got round to. As such I skimmed through the summary! Oddly though you have inspired me to look out for it. Presumably this influenced Donnie Darko – wonder if any interesting comparisons could be made.

    • sgmilne says:

      I’ve not seen Donnie Darko in a long long time but it must have influenced it to the degree of having a giant rabbit I suppose.

      Probably not much else similar.

      And hey, if I’ve inspired you to look it out then the blog has already worked.

      Pass the address for the blog on to anyone you think might be interested. It’d be quite interesting to have it go viral 😉

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