Monday, December 17, 2007

Monday Night Monologue: Nothing small in the bar

There never has been nor ever will there be an actor as universally liked as James "Jimmy" Stewart. Working with some of the greatest directors of all-time (Hitchcock, Ford, Cukor, Lubitsch, Preminger, Aldrich, Siegel and of course Capra) Stewart made a name for himself as the charming but humble, normal American man. Some directors, like Hitchcock, found clever ways to subvert this image, Anthony Mann virtually made his name in Westerns by skewering the traditional Stewart persona. To be fair Stewart lived a a time of less celebrity intrigue, he never had to deal with the National inquirer or TMZ or god help us all Stewart played good guys, decent guys and the public loved him for it because that's all they ever saw. No actor served as a better public barometer of human decency with the possible exception of Gregory Peck. Stewart is quite simply the man.

It's interesting to note though that for all his collaborators one of the films Stewart is best known for is Harvey. Based on the 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase. Harvey is about kind, happy-go-lucky fellow Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend happens to be a six foot three rabbit. The other problem is that Harvey is invisible. His society obsessed sister does not take kindly to Elwood's delusion and wants him committed to spare their family embarrassment. Elwood, however, is such a decent guy and so innocent that he keeps dodging being "cured." (Yes Richard Kelly took some inspiration from this for Donnie Darko). The film isn't much on a technical level, in fact its as simple and down to Earth as its protagonist. The film gets by on the strength of its lead and the script.

You can run this clip from the start until about 4:33. The screenplay is by Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney.

Elwood: Harvey and I sit in the bars, have a drink or two, play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people 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 and soon we have friends and they come over and sit with us and they drink with us and they talk to us and they tell about the big terrible things they’ve done. And the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, 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 when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back, but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us. That’s too bad, isn’t it?

Doctor Sanderson: How did you end up calling him Harvey?

Elwood: Well, Harvey's his name!

Sanderson: How do you know that?

Elwood: Well, actually, there was a rather interesting coincidence on that, Doctor. One night, several years ago, I was walking early in the evening down on Fairfax Street between 18th and 19th. I had just put Ed Hickey into a taxi--Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and...I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down along the street, and I heard this voice saying, "Good evening, Mister Dowd." Well, I turned around, and here was this big 6-foot-tall rabbit leaning up against a lamppost. Well, I thought nothing of that, since when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everyone knows your name. So naturally, I went over to chat with him. And he said to me, he said, 'Ed Hickey was a bit spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?' Well, of course, he was *not* mistaken. I think the world and all of Ed, but he was *spiffed*. Well, we talked like that for awhile, and then I said to him, I said, "You have the advantage on me. You know my name, and I don't know yours." And right back at me, he said, "What name do you like?" Well, I didn't have to think twice about that. Harvey's always been my favorite name. So I said to him, I said, "Harvey." And --this is the interesting thing about the whole thing--he said, "What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey.
Stewart's conviction is a thing of beauty. Only the most hard-ass cynics and critics walk away from Harvey convinced Harvey isn't real. The film seems especially interesting in light of The Golden Compass a film (yes, yes and a book) which features a person's soul as an animal called a daemon. I would argue that Harvey is Elwood's daemon, except in this case the daemon is invisible. I realize that the film is pretty light but honestly how often do movies ever really examine public decorum and social behavior directly. Harvey is a simple pleasure but a pleasure none the less.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love this movie. And this is the best scene in the whole film.