Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Winning Out Over Reality

By Iain Stott
After perusing the IMDb message board for Harvey — I know that I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it (though my eyes are bleeding a little now) — which was released 60 years ago today, a couple of topics immediately catch my eye. The most prominent involves the proposed re-adaptation, to which Spielberg was briefly attached, which has left most of the board’s denizens frothing at the mouth, decrying Hollywood’s temerity at remaking such a beloved classic. This highlights a couple of pet hates of mine — which perhaps aren’t quite what you might expect. Firstly, I’d like to challenge the use of the word "remake." Harvey was initially a highly successful play written by Mary Chase, which ran for 1,775 performances in its original 1940s Broadway run. It was not an original screenplay. If this proposed new version, which would be film and television’s seventh, is to be considered a remake, then surely Henry Koster’s 1950 film must also be considered a remake. William Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted and re-adapted for both the big and small screen hundreds of times, and yet no one ever utters the word "remake" — so why should we taint this (admittedly ill-advised) production with the R-word?

I’ve also never understood cinephiles’ blanket hatred of remakes. In many cases, fans of a particular film will vehemently refuse to see its remake, close-mindedly writing it off as inherently worthless. I’ve always taken each film, whether it be an original work, an adaptation, a re-adaptation, or a remake, on its own terms. Worst-case scenario: the remake will be a stinking pile of horse manure, and will disappear without a trace. Best-case scenario: the remake will surpass the original in every respect, and go onto become one cinema’s greatest films. Realistic scenario: the remake will be (shrugs shoulders whilst making noncommittal noise) kind o’ average, but of sufficient quality to arouse the curiosity of those that view it about its origins, introducing the original film to a new generation of fans. So, again, why the hate?

With that in mind, just what is it, in the case of Harvey, that is so dear to its fans’ hearts?

Of course, James Stewart in the central role is as wonderful as ever. He imbues the part of Elwood P. Dowd with a great deal of charm and winning ingenuousness. Dowd, a 42-year-old bachelor who lives with his dotty elder sister Veta and her lonely daughter Myrtle Mae, is the most affable chap you could ever wish to meet. He greets everyone with a smile, sends his regards to absent friends (and strangers), and is forever inviting waifs and strays back to his home for dinner. He carries cards with his address and phone number, which he gives freely to just about everyone he meets. In the afternoons he spends his time in the town’s bars, playing the jukebox and meeting new friends — some would label him a drunk, though he seldom seems to actually imbibe himself.

So it might come as something of a surprise that he is quite the notorious figure. And the reason for this notoriety? His best friend, Harvey, who he spends every waking moment with, is a 6’3½” white rabbit that no one else can see — or, at least, that no one else admits to being able to see. He tells people that Harvey is a pooka — a shape-shifting creature of Celtic legend, whose powers include being able to bend time, predict the future, and alter the text in books. And so it is that Dowd, with Harvey in tow, is seen as something of a harmless kook, a lovable old eccentric — at least in the inebriated circles in which he usually moves.

His sister and her set, on the other hand, are quite a different matter. Played with great idiosyncratic comic energy by the incomparable Josephine Hull (who proves to be just as big an asset to the film as Stewart and won an Oscar for her effort), Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons — with a face like a bulldog sucking a lemon, and the body of a rugby union hooker — is forever tormented by her brother’s embarrassing behaviour. Giant invisible rabbits tend not to be looked on all that favourably by members of polite society. And so, to say that her social life isn’t quite what she would want it to be, would be something of an understatement. Worse still, her daughter Myrtle Mae is no longer the spring chicken that she once was. Potential suitors have come and gone, but none have stood the test of meeting her screwy uncle. Desperate to marry her off, Veta finally decides that it is time to have Elwood committed — a task that is easier said than done when you’re more than a little nutty yourself.

After letting slip to the admissions psychiatrist that she sometimes sees Harvey herself, Veta is consequently committed, and Elwood ushered on his way with the apologies of the asylum — a none-too-surprising mistake considering that not only is Veta decidedly batty but also most of the establishment’s staff are not exactly compos mentis. Dr. Sanderson, the aforementioned shrink who gets Mary Chase’s farce moving, despite being book smart, seems oblivious to basic human behavior. His beautiful young nurse hangs on his every word, batting her eyelids at him longingly — yet he remains unaware of (or — the more baffling possibility — uninterested in) her attraction to him. And she’s also quite possibly a little nuts herself for being attracted to him in the first place, being that he is such a bland, conceited fool. And Dr. Chumley, who owns the rest home, and is brought out of semi-retirement at the prospect of a potential lawsuit, is perhaps the maddest of the lot, as he is soon vying with Elwood for the attentions of Harvey. Though not everyone appears to be (completely) deranged. Perhaps the sanest employee is the porter, Wilson, who, like all of the other average working Joes in the picture, is decidedly pragmatic. Having said that, despite her family’s mental fragility, he takes an instant liking to the somewhat flighty Myrtle Mae.

And so it is that all and sundry spend the rest of the film chasing Elwood (and subsequently Dr. Chumley, following his unlikely attraction to Harvey) around town, attempting to re-establish order and restore the status quo ante, putting doctors and loons back in their right and proper places. They fail miserably, of course, because this is a film that fervently champions the rights of the eccentric. And it’s testament to the film’s quality and power that I can become so enraptured by a work with a message that is decidedly antithetical to my own views on the subject. Whilst the film mocks and belittles the psychiatric/psychological fraternity, and holds up the world’s mentally ill as universally harmless, happy-go-lucky oddballs, which to me is libertarian, the-world-is-flat nonsense, I still can’t help but root for Elwood, Harvey, and all of the other nuts.

As to whether a new version would be a good idea, I would have to say no. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming close to matching the wonderful performances of Stewart and Hull. And whilst there are elements that could be improved upon, they certainly wouldn’t come close to making up for the loss of Jimmy and Joey. That said, it could be interesting to see some sort of leftist re-imagining, perhaps with the filmmakers’ sympathies switching to the side of the learned. Most importantly, though, if there is a new version, no matter who makes it, we should all take it on its own terms.

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My philosophy on remakes is that if the original was good, there is no reason to redo it because they can still see it. Revivals of plays are different because we can't still see Ethel Merman in Gypsy or all the various Shakespeares. The times a remake of a good movie turned out to be good or better or rare (His Girl Friday is one of the few examples). What should be remade are movies that were flawed to begin with. Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 is vastly superior to the original. Then in other cases you get the pointlessness and the folly of Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot redo of Psycho, which only put it in color so the blood would be red.
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