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Cinophile: Harvey

3 min read
What is insanity? Is it drawing a perfect circle? Talking to yourself? Maybe an invisible friend? This is a question asked – and answered – by one remarkable film.

Harvey  was quite the hit in its day. It starred James Stewart, one of the biggest actors ever, and made a good showing at the Oscars, taking at least one statue for Best Supporting Actress (and a Best Actor nom for Stewart). Based on an award-winning play, it weighs the balance between our pursuit for happiness or normality and how sanity fits into all of that.

It begins with Elwood P. Dowd, a middle-aged man who seems quite happy not worrying about the real world too much. He focuses on being happy, being friendly and looking after those he cares for. Alas, his point of view includes an invisible friend named Harvey, who is a six-foot-or-so giant rabbit.

This invisible friend causes quite some grief for his sister and niece, particularly due to how they are being socially shunned by the community. Elwood is rather unaware of this – to him Harvey is real – which leads to an attempt in having him confined to a sanitarium.

Here things start taking on a different element. To spoil the plot a little – Harvey is very real. He is a Pooka, a type of spirit known to attach itself to eccentric or tortured people. And as this comes into play, you start realising that nobody, expect perhaps Elwood, can so readily proclaim themselves as sane.

The original play must be a hoot, because Harvey is a brilliant film. It is funny in a very wry way, even stalking through dark comedy territory. But the real special touch is that you never, ever see Harvey. The invisible giant rabbit never steps out from behind the curtain. It is a strange notion, especially in this age where we can make just about anything on a computer. And it may give rise to your own parameters for seeing is believing.

But what everyone will walk away with is an oddly warm sense that happiness and reality aren’t always bedfellows.

Harvey is a pooka, a mythical spirit creature from Irish folklore. Despite popular belief, Harvey did not inspire the rabbit Frank in Donnie Darko, thought many people assert that Frank was also a pooka. Still, Harvey got his nod in other ways. The play has been adapted into several movies – in some of these you can see the rabbit. Harvey is also briefly namedropped in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Harvey went on to garner some awards success. Josephine Hull won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, while James Stewart was nominated for Best Actor. They would have the same success with the Golden Globes. The original play won a Pulitzer prize for Drama. In that play, Harvey is slightly under 6 foot 4 inches tall. But since Stewart was that tall, he imagined Harvey as 6 foot eight inches tall.
Pookas are from Irish and North European folklore. Spirits that can be benevolent or malicious (or both), they most commonly appear as horses, rabbits or goats – but always in large form and dark fur. Though often feared, they can be best described as tricksters. Pookas can also appear as fairies or goblins – the Hobgoblin Puck in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is inspired by a pooka.

Best Scene: Perhaps when Harvey follows the doctor, the only tangible proof that he exists – thanks to some rudimentary special effects.

Best Quote: Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.


Last Updated: April 14, 2014


  1. Haven’t seen it, have heard lots though. Need to fix that.


    • James Francis

      April 14, 2014 at 15:35

      I was only introduced to it very recently, and by pure chance.


  2. Kervyn Cloete

    April 14, 2014 at 16:53

    A movie that’s been on my To Be Watched list for far too long. I need to remedy this.


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