Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your mind (yet), the headline of this article says exactly what you think it says. There is a 1950’s film about a six foot tall imaginary rabbit and it will (almost certainly) change your life – but we’ll get to that in a just a minute.
So, I sometimes watch these lads on YouTube called the Vlogbrothers, a doublet of hardened YouTube veterans who have been posting short bi-weekly videos on the internet since 2007. A while back, I was particularly struck by one of their videos, entitled “Perspective”. This particular video features one half of the duo, John Green (a cool fella, despite his tendency to write vaguely insipid novels) as he chronicles the calamitous series of events that led to him spiralling into a bad depression during his time as a struggling twenty-four year old author.
Green goes on to detail a long list of elements which guided him on his journey through recovery. Such remedies included daily therapy, anti-depressants, and watching the 1950 film Harvey, directed by Henry Koster (I realise that watching a film is not in any way a cure for depression – Green has a propensity for glamorizing serious issues in a way that is borderline offensive). However it wasn’t Green’s irritating, mental- health-trivialising anecdote that got me interested in watching the film (no shit), it was the film’s plot.
Harvey is a film about a man named Elwood P. Dowd; (played radiantly by the great James Stewart) an amiable, impossibly jolly drunkard who spends his days wandering from bar to bar across town, befriending strangers and always making sure to introduce them to his good friend Harvey. Alright, now here’s where things start to get slightly weird but stay with me: Harvey is a six foot tall white rabbit, invisible to all except Elwood, who is so sure of Harvey’s existence that he even opens doors and buys drinks for the Brobdingnagian bunny. Astonishingly, the exclusively white citizenry of this 1950’s American small town (a people and time universally renowned for tolerance and acceptance) are horrified by Elwood, and label him a ‘daft inebriate’. Elwood somehow maintains his impossibly positive manner throughout the film despite being shunned by almost everyone he meets, and everyone he loves. So there we have our story – unflinchingly jovial man and his invisible giant rabbit friend wander around 1950’s American town and get themselves into all sorts of trouble.
“So what exactly is so “life changing” about this film?” I hear you cry. A number of things, for starters: the themes and issues this film tackles, and the way in which it tackles them. Harvey is rich in clever and insightful social commentary that is as relevant today as it was in 1950. The film deals heavily with the maltreatment of neuroatypical people, particularly the failure of mental health institutions in the twentieth century. When Elwood’s pontifical sister Veta (portrayed by Josephine Hull, in a performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) attempts to have him institutionalised, a series of outrageous events unfold which lead to Elwood walking free and his sister being falsely imprisoned (not a major spoiler, I swear). This critique of psychiatry is about as subtle as a dig in the jaw, as the institution’s workers are exposed as charlatans. The film’s ending also touches heavily on the subject of mental health, and what it means to be “normal”. I don’t want to spoil anything for you before you see the film, but look out for a brilliant monologue delivered by a taxi driver, who reminds us all that some of the worst people you’ll ever meet are considered “normal” by societies standards; and as he so eloquently declaims: “You know what stinkers they are!”
At its core, Harvey is a comedy of errors; a comedy of confusion. The tireless but fruitless efforts of the mental institute’s orderlies to capture Elwood and imprison him are hysterical to watch; and Elwood’s cluelessness (or perhaps indifference) at the fact that the orderlies are trying to harm him is equally as hilarious. Time and time again throughout the film, characters find themselves bound up in awful situations as a result of their own malice; and it is here where the film’s supernatural subtext comes into play. All characters in the film have vindictive intentions in one form or another, though all of these intentions seem to revolve around bringing unwarranted harm to the incorrupt Elwood; yet somehow, despite being the red dot on everyone’s radar, Elwood remains unharmed and quite merry throughout the course of the film. Perhaps Harvey, the giant white rabbit, serves as sort of guardian angel to Elwood, (if religion-based analyses tickle your fancy) sent by some “higher power” to protect and nurture an untainted soul. However, I prefer to view Harvey as being something much simpler – as some sort of symbol for pure human kindness (after all, what says love and kindness like a giant white bunny?)
I think this interpretation makes a lot of sense, and the movie really becomes brilliant (perhaps even…“life changing”) when you start to view Harvey as an intangible symbol for pure love and kindness. Harvey is invisible and thus inexistent to all except Elwood (the only character who appears to know the true meaning of kindness and compassion), and his presence in Elwood’s life allows the drunkard to enjoy an existence of unwavering contentment. Perhaps what scared the townsfolk about Elwood wasn’t his invisible friend Harvey. Perhaps they were scared of a man who embodied nothing but unfailing, overwhelming kindness; a man who could not be corrupted by money, greed or power – as so many of us are.
The beauty of Harvey is in its simplicity. It’s a movie about how important it is to be kind – overwhelmingly, unapologetically kind; because even if your own sister tries to have you locked away in a mental institution; even if the entire world is after you; even if you’re shunned and turned away by everyone around you, you’ll still have your kindness. You’ll still have Harvey.