The Queerness of Harvey, 70 years later

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The Queerness of Harvey, 70 years later

Harvey is officially 70 years old, meaning that anyone born the year it came out (1950) has qualified for social security benefits for a solid eight years now. Though the movie does feel its age, it’s still a great watch. Jimmy Stewart is winning as the kindhearted Elwood P. Dowd, the writing is lush and pointed and the whole movie hums with a kind of open-hearted earnestness that is nowadays mostly relegated to holiday films. It’s this earnestness that makes the movie work. Even now, Harvey is probably one of the most successful films to tackle the problems that normalization poses towards anyone that society deems abnormal. Because of this, it also serves as a perfect metaphor for queer experience and how society treats non-traditional and undefinable behavior as inherently dangerous.

For those who are not familiar with the film, Elwood P. Dowd is a fairly eccentric wealthy man whose best friend is a very tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. It’s in the existence of Harvey and Elwood’s friendship where the story’s conflict lies.

Even before we meet Elwood, we hear his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) lament that he’s ruining their lives. They live with Elwood, as Elwood owns the house and has all the money, and his strangeness has frightened away all of their friends. Veta is attempting to throw a party for Myrtle Mae to meet influential women who can introduce her to their eligible male relatives, but before the party starts, the caterer Miss Johnson storms out. Apparently, she has met Elwood (off screen) and asks the women, “Do you think I’d stay in this house after that?”

The “that” that Miss Johnson is referring to is presumed to be the scandalous behavior of Elwood introducing her to the unseen and unheard Harvey. The response to Elwood’s odd behavior seems a bit overblown, which is kind of a statement in itself. Though Elwood’s behavior is strange, nothing else about him is at all frightening or dangerous. In fact, he’s always the perfect gentleman. And yet, the language Miss Johnson uses condemns, as if it’s improper to be around anyone who acknowledges something that others can’t see or don’t understand.

At the party, Elwood introduces guests to Harvey, which clears the room of any partygoers fairly quickly. This seems to be the final straw, as Veta and Myrtle Mae come to the conclusion that there’s nothing left to do but to send Elwood to a sanatorium. During this process, there’s a mix up: The doctors and nurses cart Veta away instead of Elwood. It’s a comedic sequence, as the doctor preens himself on his clever handling of the “sane” Elwood and the “not sane” Veta.

There’s definitely a statement being made on how people define sanity, but these scenes also work to highlight the differences between Veta and Elwood. Veta is angry and combative (to be fair, she’s been driven to frustration from years of Harvey) while Elwood, on the other hand, is docile and happy to go anywhere with anyone. In this case, Veta and Elwood are measured by their behavior and their temperaments….that is, until the doctor realizes that it’s Elwood who sees an invisible rabbit. Then Elwood once more becomes a threat who must be tracked down.

What causes this initial confusion is that, in a moment of frustration, Veta reveals to the doctor that she has been so broken down that even she sometimes sees Harvey. Veta’s ability to see Harvey adds a new dimension to the story, as it puts her in the same position as Elwood—though she refuses to acknowledge Harvey, because it isn’t what one does.
When Elwood is tracked down, the doctor wants to give him a formula which will cure Elwood of his affliction. There’s an obvious reading here in which this treatment represents conversion therapy, but sidestepping that one-to-one comparison, the formula more broadly represents taking away a central part of who Elwood is and who Elwood enjoys being.

Elwood doesn’t want to take the formula, but seeing how distressed his sister is about the situation, he agrees. Those around Elwood assure him, “You won’t see this rabbit any more” and “But you will see your responsibilities and your duties,” which gets to the heart of why people find Elwood’s behavior so disturbing. Elwood is a man who is meant to be at certain places, like Yale alumni dances and “the club” (places Elwood used to frequent). He’s supposed to socialize with certain people with names that Veta will recognize (one of the crimes that Veta cites to the doctors is Elwood bringing “people you’ve never heard of” home to dinner).

Throughout the film, people constantly talk about what Elwood should be doing. A family friend laments that Elwood could have “done anything” and “made a place for himself in the community.” Veta begs Elwood to get a job on the Western Slope Water Board, one that he would get if only he walked into the office and asked. All things completely focused on appearances.

Elwood, on the other hand, wants to talk to people on the street or at the bar. He wants to learn the details of peoples’ lives and invite them home to dinner. What Elwood wants is to be happy and for others to be happy. He wants to treat people kindly and to connect with them. But those aren’t goals that fit into neat little slots. They don’t make his family look good. They don’t land his niece an eligible bachelor. Instead, his behavior makes them seem strange, and because it makes them seem strange, it must be stopped.

At the very last moment (and with the help of a taxi driver who tells Veta that Elwood will devolve into a “perfectly normal human being” who does not tip) Veta has a change of heart, stopping the procedure. When questioned, she snaps, “Well what’s wrong with Harvey? If Elwood and Myrtle Mae and I want to live with Harvey, what is it to you?”
Veta’s lightning quick shift in opinion (considering that she’s been trying to get rid of Harvey the entire film) plays well comedically, but her words carry power. There’s a difference between saying that she will deal with Elwood’s faults and saying that she wants to live with Harvey. She defends Harvey, and in doing so changes what is now acceptable and accepted in their family. She sets the terms: Harvey is now real.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film shows a doctor trying to pick apart Elwood’s history with Harvey. After learning that Harvey is Elwood’s favorite name, the doctor asks if Elwood ever knew anyone named Harvey who might have affected him enough to imagine Harvey’s existence. Elwood responds, “No, no, not one, Doctor. Maybe that’s why I always had such hopes for it.”

The magic of Harvey’s name is that it can’t be explained away. Elwood wanted to know someone named Harvey, so Harvey appeared. The expression follows the desire, in a way that echoes queer life. Definition always comes later, and experience first.

This indefinability of and inability to ignore Harvey is at the center of why he works so well—seven decades after he hit the big screen—as a metaphor for queerness. Everyone seems to want to define him, and he eludes definition. Is Harvey real? Where does he come from? Does it matter? Early on in the film, Veta tells Myrtle Mae that it (meaning Harvey) isn’t Elwood’s fault, and Myrtle Mae asks “Whose fault is it then?” The question is obviously not answered, because there is no answer. He exists. Or at least he exists to Elwood, and that’s enough.

Tiffany Babb is an essayist, cultural critic, and comics obsessive. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter about art here.

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