Is finally winning the heart of a person you have admired from afar for years always the ideal happy ending? Harvey (1950) makes us wonder in a barely-developed subplot. Before I explore this theme of hinted romance, let’s discuss the purpose for this character study here at PEPS, where we usually publish simpler film reviews.
This weekend, PEPS is hosting The Unhappy Valentines Blogathon in honor of our favorite film couples who don’t live happily ever after. When I announced this blogathon, I knew that I had to write about Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) and Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow), since it was this implied attraction which gave me the idea for this blogathon. The last time I watched this film, I was struck by this underexplored romance, which is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it when I watched the film occasionally in younger years. However, it captivated me this time, brought to perfect life on the screen by the exceptional talent of these actors, so I decided to share my thoughts with you for this St. Valentine’s Day Blogathon.
Anyone who is familiar with the story of Harvey might think that a review of this film would be more appropriate for an Easter blogathon than a Valentine’s Day celebration! Elwood P. Dowd is a middle-aged man from a small town who spends his life simply enjoying himself. The nicest fellow you’d want to meet, he takes time to help people, chat with friends, invite strangers over for dinner, and always have a drink or two at his favorite local bar. There is just one thing that is a little unusual, shall we say, about Elwood. His best friend and constant companion is a pooka, who takes the form of a 6’3 1/2″ foot tall white rabbit! His name is Harvey, and he is invisible to everyone except Elwood. Naturally, Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise (Josephine Hull), and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), who both live with him, think he is absolutely insane. For that matter, so does most everyone who comes in contact with Elwood and is subsequently introduced to Harvey, although many of his friends think of him as a lovable crackpot and are used to his invisible friend. Veta Louise eventually decides to put Elwood away “for his own good,” encouraged by her lawyer, Judge Omar Gaffney (William Lynn), so she tries to bring him to a local insane asylum. There, chaos ensues when the psychiatrist, young Dr. Raymond Sanderson (Charles Drake), thinks Veta Louise is the crazy one and that Elwood is institutionalizing her! At the hospital, Elwood meets Miss Kelly, the beautiful nurse who is in love with Dr. Sanderson, unbeknownst to the strictly businesslike psychiatrist. It is there that our focus begins.
From the first time that Elwood sees Miss Kelly, he is struck by her beauty. He makes his admiration known for her in such a chivalrous way that he is nothing but gallant. In fact, it was his subtle gallantry which kept me from realizing that he was romantically attracted to her when I was younger. I thought that he was just friendly and liked her as a friend, which he does, of course. However, upon re-watching this film through more mature eyes, I realized that Elwood looks on her as a lovely, sweet, and charming woman. Even Elwood realizes there is more to life than rabbits!
From the first time we meet her, we know that Miss Kelly is in love with Dr. Sanford and has been for some time. However, he doesn’t know she is alive, to coin a phrase. True, he knows that she is his colleague in medical business and an efficient nurse, but he is totally unaware that she is a lovely young lady who is in love with him. Then, Elwood P. Dowd enters their lives. He is sincere, sensitive, and appreciate of the beauty all around him. Thus, he is able to appreciate Miss Kelly, and he unashamedly tells her so! In contrast, Dr. Sanford is grumpy and harsh with her at times, acting like a confirmed workaholic bachelor instead of the handsome young man that he is. For me, his good looks and youth don’t make up for his oafishness.
Because of Dr. Sanford’s clumsy yet vague apologies for trying to institutionalize Mr. Dowd when they first meet, Elwood mistakenly infers that Sanford and and Miss Kelly are confessing having some kind of affair to him! He refers to this false impression numerous times throughout the film, although the two medical personnel never really understand his references. These leads to some very comical moments. It might also deter Elwood from even trying to seriously court Miss Kelly, since he believes she is already “spoken for.” However, it doesn’t keep him from bringing her flowers and telling her how beautiful she is.
Some might consider any possibility of a romance ridiculous, since Elwood is crazy. However, I believe that he is just a very simple, trusting soul who is able to see beauty, magic, and wonder in the world which others miss. That’s why he alone can see Harvey. Others might say that Miss Kelly never takes him seriously or feels anything but pity for him. I don’t believe that either, though. If you watch her expression throughout the film, you will realize that she is genuinely moved and touched by Elwood’s admiring, sincere compliments. His gentility makes her question her attachment to the very unromantic and unappreciative Dr. Sanford. A woman as sensitive and kind as Miss Kelly can’t help but by affected when a man tells her, “You’re so lovely,” even if he does see giant rabbits!
Ultimately, Elwood helps Miss Kelly win Dr. Sanford’s heart, since he knows she loves him. His gentle intervention also helps Sanford realize how wonderful Miss Kelly is. However, I can’t help wishing that Miss Kelly had realized Sanford wasn’t for her, instead choosing the dreamy Elwood. Although Elwood still has his best friend, Harvey, a pookah is no replacement for true love!
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