After this, he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are.
Harvey, a 1950 film based on a play by Mary Chase that beat out The Glass Menagerie for a Pulitzer Prize, has a lot to say about how we live our lives. Some of the wisdom in Harvey does ring true, but much of it is bathed in a gauzy romanticism.
The main character, Elwood P. Dowd, is a rich, unemployed alcoholic who spends his days drinking in bars and introducing everyone he meets to his friend Harvey, an invisible rabbit. He lives with his sister Veta, who tries to get him committed to a mental sanitarium, but ends up getting committed herself when she admits she sometimes sees Harvey too. The psychiatrist assumes that everything she’s said about her brother was a projection of herself, including Elwood’s drinking.
Veta’s just about to be dunked into a hydrotherapy bath when the hospital becomes aware of the mixup. It’s a sad scenario, but the slapstick nature of the script and Jimmy Stewart’s earnest sweetness takes the edge off — maybe a little too much.
The best parts in the film aren’t the Bugs Bunny-like hijinks, but the quiet soliloquies Dowd gives reflecting on what his time drinking with Harvey has taught him. In one scene, he’s charmed the nurse and doctor who followed him into the bar in an attempt to take him to the hospital, and they end up in the alley with him, transfixed by his infectious personality.
At this point it isn’t clear if Dowd is hallucinating, putting on a performance, or if Harvey is a real being that exists in this fictional universe, but it doesn’t matter. It’s Elwood you can’t help but love. He’s almost unnervingly tranquil and candid. He’s got a deep unconcern with appearing eccentric, but his face and mannerisms aren’t glazed over and frenetic like many in the grips of a psychosis or chasing a fantasy. He seems to accept the loneliness and stagnation of his present condition and has no plans to change it. For all his openness, his whole life seems like failure of achieving true connection. At least, until he met Harvey.
After he dances a little for them, he says he’s too busy to do much dancing anymore. When they ask him what’s taking up all his time these days, Elwood replies:
Harvey and I sit in the bars and have a drink or two, play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fellow.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers. Soon we have friends. And they come over and they sit with us, and they drink with us, and they talk to us. They tell about the big, terrible things they’ve done and the big, wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes and their regrets, their loves and their hates, all very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey. And he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And… and when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back, but that’s… That’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.
Later we find out that a few other people definitely see Harvey (apparently he’s a celtic spirit called a Pooka, a mischievous fairy companion,) especially the psychiatrist, who turns out to be another lonely soul in desperate need of a companion. While everyone is rushing to lock Elwood away, the doctor clings to his new confidante. Harvey is the link between them, but Harvey isn’t even in the room when the doctor starts bearing his vulnerabilities and desires to Elwood. His appearance of always being in control is a mask for how unmoored he feels inside.
There’s a bit of humor in their interaction, but also real intimacy as the doctor lies on his own couch and confesses that he hopes to get Harvey to use his power of stopping time on him so he can lay under a tree in Akron, Ohio and drink beer with a beautiful girl who tells him “Poor, poor thing.” The specificity and sadness of this request is compelling and oddly believable. There’s no one else in the whole world the doctor can tell this to, only Elwood. It’s hard to find the right person to confess to that your greatest desire is to be pitied under a tree in Akron.
One of Elwood’s most compelling quotes comes from early in this scene, and many people see the quote as the film’s thesis, its greatest wisdom. I think there’s a little something more going on that maybe even the play’s author wasn’t aware of when she wrote it.
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.
There are a lot of ways to take this quote, and a lot of people take it on face value as advice that it’s better to be nice and accommodating to people than a know-it-all a$$h0le. Some take it to mean that Elwood’s chosen a “pleasant,” and easy life over pursuing success and goals, also a part of what he means, and in balance there’s wisdom in this approach to life. A lot of people would probably choose a pleasant life over the grind of work, but Elwood’s privileged enough to come from a wealthy family where he doesn’t need to worry about work and striving. But, is what he’s doing with his life really so pleasant?
His soliloquy earlier hinted that his cycle at the bar’s a grind as well, and he lives for brief and rare moments of affirmations from strangers that make him feel warm inside. These conversations are fleeting glimpses of human connection, but nothing lasting. Addictions start off exciting, but become monotonous, and for all Elwood’s sweet smile and narcotic voice tones, there’s a lot to indicate that he’s in a lot of pain and his brand of wisdom isn’t exactly working out for him. He may not be psychotic, but he’s depressed, addicted, and self-medicating not just with booze, but with being liked.
The dark side of Elwood’s sweetness is his deep need for constant approval. He’s never riled up about anything, and though he offers gentle influencing suggestions of his own (usually inviting others to go to the bar for another drink,) it’s rare he’ll turn down anything you ask of him. His agreeableness leads him to go into a room to get an injection of an unknown “serum,” with no knowledge of what it will do to him, just to please his sister.
While he’s getting prepped for a shot of something that’s supposedly going to make him forget about Harvey, the cab driver comes in looking to be paid, and “saves” Elwood by offering up his romanticized theory about the mentally ill.
Cab driver: Listen, lady, I’ve been driving this route for 15 years. I’ve brought them out here to get that stuff [antipsychotic injections], and I’ve drove them home after they had it. It changes them. On the way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride, they talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets and look at the birds flying. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain’t no birds, and look at the sunsets when it’s raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip. But afterwards, oh-oh. They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me, “Watch the lights! Watch the breaks! Watch the intersections!” They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me and my buggy. Yet, it’s the same cab, same driver, and we’re going back over the very same road. It’s no fun. And no tips.
Veta: My brother would’ve tipped you anyway. He’s very generous. He always has been.
Cab driver: Not after this he won’t be. After this, he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are.
Even for what was known about psychology and mental health in the 1940s when this was written, this conclusion is far off base. First of all, it’s drawing a clear line between people who exhibit symptoms of mental illness and everyone else, and secondly, it’s saying that suffering from these symptoms makes someone a better person and is preferable to getting treatment and feeling healthier. His speech also fetishizes and exoticizes mental health struggles, putting them on a weird pedestal that feeds into ideas of exceptionalism. It’s like reverse stigmatization and feeds into the idea that living with the intense distress of severe mental health problems is an ideal to seek out.
Harvey’s presence as a real spiritual specter furthers this dilemma by presenting Elwood, his sister, and the doctor, the “crazy” non-normies in this scenario, as having access to another world, another dimension. His claims that people who would go to a mental hospital are always nicer than other people, and that treatment turns them into assho|es is insulting to everyone. Almost all people experience something like the symptoms of mental health issues during their lifetime, even if they are limited to the circumstances of losing a loved one or suffering a temporary life setback. The line isn’t so distinct between “crazy,” people and non-“crazy” people as is often portrayed in fiction like this.
Things like depression, anxiety, paranoia, PTSD, eating disorders, psychosis, and trauma often give us dark thoughts that lead to sometimes unpleasant behavior. Sometimes things like depression can make us slow down and look for things like sunsets to feel better, maybe focus in on those things more, but more often than not, depression robs us of the ability to even enjoy the little pleasures of life. Looking for the beauty of life and appreciation of kindness and good in our fellow man are great things to strive for, but it isn’t something only possessed by the mentally ill that leaves if you get cured. There isn’t a real cure for “mental illness,” but there are treatments that help, and a whole lot of that treatment involves working with a therapist to be a more appreciative person who looks for the good in life. Treating mental illness isn’t a cold endeavor with the aim to mold sweet, exceptional people into faceless, angry-but-productive automatons. I’m pretty suspicious of that serum as well, it sounds like a tranquilizer, and Elwood’s already pretty tranquil, but it seems absurd that Elwood was about to become a huge jerk and his personality was saved by the cab driver’s speech.
It seems that the reality is more that Elwood is a genuinely nice person, but he has some severe self-esteem issues, he’s probably depressed, and he’s had trouble finding his place in the world. There’s a wistful look in his eyes at all times, hinting at a bit chaos, swirling sadness under his soothing demeanor. His mother has just died, and he’s lived a life of privilege that, instead of helping him find his way, has given him more of an excuse to do very little and give into his impulses. People do like him, something he endlessly craves, but he doesn’t seem to have a true friend beyond Harvey. Thankfully, though, in the context of the film, Harvey is a real being and not just a projection of Elwood himself, so Harvey is a true connection and companion in his life. Elwood P. Dowd has a life partner, he just happens to be invisible to most people.
Fun fact: Although it may seem hard to believe, Harvey isn’t an inspiration for Donnie Darko. The 2001 film’s writer and director has said that at the time he made Donnie Darko, he had never seen, or even heard of Harvey. The idea was more based on his love for Watership Down, which was originally meant to be taught in Drew Barrymore’s character’s class.
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