Written by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney, and Myles Connolly
Directed by Henry Koster
In American media, the dichotomy between smart and kind is often raised. I think it’s important to note what “smart” means in these instances. To be smart in the United States is not to be intelligent. Intellect is an entirely different concept. American smartness is on par with the idea of cunning, being able to outwit others and ensure you are on top of the heap. We can see this in how people with a talent for capitalist exploitation are heralded as brilliant people. They are smart because they find a way to play the game, screw over people not as bright as them, and end up higher on the ladder of power. A smart person in America simply does evil and manages not to get caught. So, when Elwood P. Dowd says, “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant”; it means something more profound.
Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) is strange compared to those around him. He grew up in a wealthy family and is undoubtedly content, but he hasn’t let his privilege turn him into a snob. Everyone he meets is a potential friend, whether he crosses paths with them on the street or at his favorite drinking hole. Dowd’s best friend is Harvey, an invisible 6 ⅓ ft. tall white rabbit that only Dowd can see. Harvey is apparently a pooka, a creature from Celtic mythology known for being mischievous but never evil. Dowd’s sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle, have become social outcasts because the “important” people see Dowd as a lunatic. We follow Dowd through a series of misadventures as Veta tries to “correct” this behavior before accepting her brother for who he is.
Looking back at Harvey with this rewatch, it’s hard not to think about it in the context of neurodivergence. That quote shared above is one of the most illuminating things Dowd says throughout the picture. In that statement of how he behaved one way before switching to another better method, I see a neurodivergent person describing masking. For most of Dowd’s life, he pretended to be the person he was expected to be by those pesky “important” people and was miserable. Then, one day, he met Harvey, and that changed things. He was able to embrace the part of him that was authentic rather than continue projecting a false persona for others.
Entering the 1950s was scary for many people in the United States. It was similar to the crypto-fascist ascendancy in the 1980s or the current outright fascist fervor building in the States today. If you were considered “abnormal,” you could expect to have a big target on your back. Dowd is not like the others, and so he becomes a thing that needs to be fixed. He’s clearly not a danger to anyone, even himself; he just lives life in a way that clashes with the norm. That’s dangerous enough to warrant sending him to a sanatorium and plying him with medication to suppress his authentic self. Dowd has come to a place where he can altogether bypass the opinions of others, which in a society where conformity was becoming a dangerous force, makes him a threat.
By the film’s conclusion, Veta understands her brother much better and no longer wants to change him into another person. There’s a beautiful moment where Veta is told by a taxi driver that he has driven many people to the sanatorium for injections. He says they come back as perfectly normal people, which is pretty terrible from his perspective. Veta begins to see the effect his joyful & content outlook on life has for himself and the people around him. The film attempts to communicate with an audience not as versed in mental health as we are today (though we still have a long way to go). This means it does some things that undercut the sincerity of its message, like providing moments that point to Harvey being a genuine spirit. However, I understand that it was done in a playful sense, and it doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the beautiful themes in this film.
I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to mental health, but I do think people who aren’t a danger to themselves or others don’t really have a reason to be stifled through medication. If seeing a giant white rabbit has led you to be a kinder, more empathic person, I hope we can all meet this rabbit at some point. The desire by Veta to “cure” her brother is never about helping him but about shoring up her and her daughter’s social status among the community’s privileged. While there are plenty of dated elements in this 1950 film, Harvey is still shockingly ahead of its time on mental health and how neurodivergent people or anyone whose authentic self clashes with the norm should be accepted and seen as perfect how they are.