Bright Lights Film Journal

The Dream Behind the Reality: Amiable Lunacy and Blithe Brutality in <em>Harvey</em>

Veta is a prisoner without a voice at Chumley's Rest.

“What befalls Veta can perhaps be justified as part of the film’s critique of psychiatry; after all, her unfortunate experience mocks the short-sightedness and arbitrary operation of the mental health establishment. Yet the energetic, excessive manner in which Veta herself is constrained and made ridiculous suggests that the real ideological work of Harvey involves the subjugation of women.”


I first watched Harvey (1950; dir. Henry Koster) as an adolescent. Parts of it enchanted me, but I was also alarmed, even shocked, by what I saw. In a memorable sequence, one of the film’s main characters, middle-aged Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull), is unexpectedly and unceremoniously abducted, confined, and stripped so that she can undergo hydrotherapy at a mental institution. The image of Veta screaming frantically (and silently) into the small window of a soundproof door after she is taken captive remained with me for years.

Why? After all, Harvey is a light-hearted fantasy film whose exaggerated humor is farcical in nature. Based on a 1944 stage play by Mary Chase,1 it presents the story of Elwood Dowd (James Stewart), a genial tippler who likes to spend his days hanging out in local bars with his constant companion, an invisible white rabbit named Harvey, and his sister Veta, who dutifully and unsuccessfully tries to reform him. Harvey enjoyed great popularity as a play and a film, and in succeeding decades it has been judged a classic of the fantasy genre. It ran for over four years on Broadway (1944-1949) and garnered a Pulitzer Prize for its author in 1945. According to Newsweek, Universal paid Mary Chase $1 million for the screen rights to her story, a record amount at the time,2 and the film earned a very respectable $2.5 million at the box office. More recently, Harvey appeared in the American Film Institute’s list of the ten best American fantasy films of all time, coming in at number seven.3

Reactions to the film have consistently emphasized its wisdom and comic charm. Theatrical critic Woolcott Gibbs declared Harvey “a work of pure enchantment” after seeing it performed. In January 1951, Time magazine commented on the film version, noting that, just as in the play, the character of Elwood “beckons his friends from aggressively sane ways of the world to a wiser path of amiable lunacy.”4 The Christian Century declared, “Much of the gentle humor of the original [play] comes through, and the performances are delightful – so the rather dubious premise that irresponsibility is preferable to sanity persists.”5 Director Henry Koster later recalled, “It [Harvey] was a story right up my alley. There was so much whimsy, so much fairytale, so much deep thought, so much decency in people.”6 The scant number of scholars who have dissected the film focus on its engaging fantasy elements and Elwood Dowd’s role as an exemplar of gracious humanity and/or non-threatening masculinity.7 Indeed, while I was working on this essay, I mentioned to one of my aunts that I was writing about Harvey, and her eyes glowed with the warmth of nostalgia. “I love that film!” she exclaimed. “I remember it as the funniest movie I’ve ever seen!”

Why then, do I find it so disconcerting? After all, the film’s breezy, dismissive – even brutal – treatment of Veta and other female characters is nothing out of the ordinary for the era in which it was produced. And Harvey‘s status as a farce suggests that its handling of its subject matter is ironic; therefore, the film’s humorous subjugation of women may be intended as a criticism of patriarchy. Yet I would argue that a farce still stakes out an ideological position. In the case of Harvey, such a stance can be revealed by identifying who or what function as objects of ridicule: women and psychiatrists. The film suggests that neither group has access to the privileged sphere occupied by Elwood P. Dowd – what Veta calls “the dream behind the reality,” or the realm of heightened perception that is only available to those judged “insane” by traditional psychiatric methods. In Harvey, characters in the psychiatric profession cast about aimlessly, trying to be effective yet completely misreading their encounters with potential “patients,” while Veta, the main female character, faces commitment to an asylum for her failure to recognize the value of insanity. Thus the film’s affable celebration of craziness as an ennobling state of mind that makes one kinder and more discerning is punctuated by darker episodes in which characters who are too blind or intransigent to accept this “dream behind the reality” are actively disciplined or disenfranchised.

Josephine Hull as Veta

Therein lies the foundation the film’s disjunctive value system, which is developed around the binary opposition of freedom versus containment. If insanity is an admirable state of mind in which characters are “free” to see what had previously been hidden from them, why then must those who refuse to accept it be so harshly punished? Harvey is troubling not because Veta Simmons (or any other character) is a vehicle for humor but because of the extreme abuse she endures when she cannot acknowledge or participate in the agreeable, amusing world of enchantment in which Elwood operates. The film’s repudiation of “reality” (or sanity, as represented by Veta and the psychiatrists) is insistently overdetermined, creating the potential for cognitive dissonance when viewers attempt to reconcile the contradictory elements of its story universe. It may be that Harvey‘s playful views on the nature of madness require a compensatory conservatism that is enacted at the expense of female liberty and subjectivity.

A Spirited Reality: Harvey‘s Deconstruction of Insanity

Harvey‘s appealing deconstruction of insanity and the mental health profession is achieved largely through its sympathetic portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd, who is considered mad by his family and the psychiatric community. The primary component of Elwood’s supposed lunacy is his invisible companion, the intrepid Harvey, though Elwood’s drinking and his withdrawal from “responsible” life (he has no job, no wife, and no children) are additional symptoms of his illness, perhaps serving as precursors to it. Despite Elwood’s apparent deficiencies, the film takes great pains to present him in a favorable, almost heroic fashion, and it later becomes clear why: he is a comforting figure who reassures us that insanity is not a pathological condition with harmful consequences, but a pleasantly enhanced mental state that makes us more observant and congenial. Elwood may have easier access to this state because of his frequent drinking – he consumes spirits and sees a spirit in animal form – but the film does not allow alcohol to serve as the sole explanation for Elwood’s awareness of Harvey, as we later learn that his teetotaling sister also sees Harvey, although she refuses to believe he is real.

The film operates by introducing the evidence for Elwood’s dysfunctionality and then calling it into question. The first element to consider is his detachment. Elwood floats through life, seemingly immune to the constant concerns about duty, ambition, and the future that preoccupy his family and friends. Instead of trying to pursue a career or sit on advisory boards, as his sister Veta urges him to do, he prefers to perch on a stool at Charlie’s Bar, consuming martinis. And he is curiously unaware of the impact his unusual lifestyle has on his sister and his niece, both of whom live with him. When he shows up at a social event they try to stage without him, he inadvertently drives the guests away by introducing them to Harvey. He has no ill intentions, but his actions seem naïve and almost childlike. Elwood appears to be a simple man who cannot grasp the complexities and subtleties of adult life, who is unable to understand why people look askance at him when he urges them to acknowledge his six-foot rabbit companion.

And yet, as the film proceeds, signs of Elwood’s sophistication begin to emerge, signs that his apparent simplicity is actually the result of specific conclusions he has reached in regard to meaningful human behavior. Near the end, when Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the director of Chumley’s Rest, the private mental asylum where Veta unsuccessfully tries to place Elwood,is finally persuaded that Harvey is real, he warns Elwood that his family members are not his allies. “This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you!” he declares. “She’s trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today she had commitment papers drawn up!” Dr. Chumley stares at Elwood, expecting an outraged reaction. Instead, Elwood just smiles mildly, shrugs, and tells Dr. Chumley about his mother: “She used to say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant, and you may quote me.” Elwood refuses to get caught up in the squabbles that command the attention and emotions of the rest of the world, and we now realize that this refusal is not merely a result of his lack of capacity for understanding such battles, but rather a reflection of his considered assessment that they are not worthy of his time. Thus the 1940s notion that insanity was an “adjustment disorder,”8 or an indication of an individual’s inability to meet the demands of reality, is countered with an appealing brand of escapism. Elwood’s detachment is something that may be a deliberate, even admirable, choice.

Figure 1: Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) relates to his invisible companion, Harvey.

Of course, Elwood’s insistence that he has an intangible leporine companion is the strongest evidence for his insanity. From the beginning, however, the film’s narration suggests that Elwood’s claims may have a foundation beyond his own subjectivity. We are introduced to Elwood and his unseen friend in the very first scene of the film (above). The camera tilts up to reveal an elaborate iron fence and behind it, a tall house of Italianate design. Elwood emerges and meanders down the front walk, smiling and nodding, though he is unaccompanied. When he reaches the gate, he swings it open and waits, looking up and gesturing. “After you,” he says politely to the empty space beside him. At this moment, we hear the musical motif that the film associates with Harvey, a “dooh-dooh-do-do” that rings whimsically but insistently, offering an extradiegetic hint that, even though we can’t see Elwood’s companion, someone or something unique is present.

The evidence for Harvey’s existence accumulates as the film unfolds. Veta makes a tearful admission to Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) at Chumley’s Rest: “Every once in a while, I see this big white rabbit myself. Now isn’t that terrible? And what’s more, he’s every bit as big as Elwood says he is!” Dr. Sanderson immediately questions Veta’s sanity, but her confession still serves as evidence that Harvey is not merely Elwood’s hallucination – if, indeed, he is a hallucination. Shortly thereafter, Wilson (Jesse White), the asylum attendant, discovers a strange hat with two holes in the brim – a hat that could be worn by a large rabbit. And Harvey plays a trick on Wilson, who tries to look up the word “pooka” in the encyclopedia when he learns that Elwood believes Harvey is a pooka. Wilson reads the entry slowly and laboriously, as if he is barely literate: “A fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one. A benign but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum pots, crack pots, and how are you, Mr. Wilson?” Wilson looks around, disturbed. He shakes the volume and throws it down, unwilling to accept the reality of the astonishing message he has just read. Later, when Dr. Chumley returns to the asylum after pursuing Elwood, he tells the gatekeeper that he is being followed, though he refuses to specify who is following him. After he enters the main building, we see two doors open and close behind him, and the camera tracks across an empty entrance hall toward the worried Dr. Chumley, as if framing an invisible pursuer. The final and most telling evidence of Harvey’s existence comes at the end of the film, when Dr. Chumley has convinced Elwood to let Harvey stay with him. After Elwood, now alone, sadly exits the grounds of Chumley’s Rest through the main gate, some unseen force pulls the lever that operates it, and the gate slides open again. Elwood looks up, presumably at Harvey’s face, and smiles. “I prefer you, too,” he says to his invisible friend.

The “wise fool”: James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd

The plentiful, even incontrovertible, evidence for Harvey’s existence marshalled by the film serves to negate, or at least resituate, Elwood’s diagnosis of “insanity.” Far from being discredited, he is presented as wise and discerning, a paragon among humans. He does not resemble mental patients as they were commonly described in the 1940s; he is not a dependent individual who cannot grasp reality or function without psychiatric treatment. Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier version of madness: the wise fool, a character that was popular until the Middle Ages. “In time,” notes Roy Porter in Madness: a Brief History, “the medicalization of insanity, the move to lock mad people up, and the sensibilities of the age of reason undermined and rendered obsolete the old figure of the ‘witty fool’ with his riddling truths and carnivalesque freedoms.”9 In many ways, Elwood is that figure. He lives a “carnivalesque” life, interested in nothing more than casual conversation and alcohol. Though apparently disconnected from what the other characters consider “reality,” he is regularly able to offer them candid truths about their lives and behaviors. And, as we eventually learn, his extraordinary claims about Harvey have a foundation in physical reality, implying that Elwood is far more perceptive than average citizens, and that any advice he gives is therefore worth considering carefully.

Elwood is only dysfunctional in the eyes of several misguided characters who are disparaged by the film. Mental health professionals face mockery for their snap diagnoses, intransigent attitudes, and ruthless behavior. Indeed, the entire psychiatric system is indicted. The first ironic note comes just twenty minutes into the film, when Veta and Elwood arrive at Chumley’s Rest in a taxi. Over a few ominous beats of music, the camera tilts down from a large sign to reveal a tall iron gate sliding open. As the taxi drives through, entering a well-tended garden in front of a gracious building, the gates close with a mechanical whirl and a loud, metallic “clang” that hints at the inflexible, penal nature of this deceptively pleasant institution: like other asylums of the period, it is an establishment where patients can be held against their will (see below). When they enter the building, Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow), a nurse, speaks with Veta while Wilson, the attendant, offers to “escort” Elwood to his room. Though Elwood is perfectly calm and nonviolent, Wilson grabs his arm and yanks him into the elevator, a show of force that is obviously unnecessary and embellished for comic effect.

The iron bars imply that Chumley’s Rest is a restrictive institution.

Yet Wilson’s behavior also suggests a darker truth about mental hospital attendants. Wilson is a crude employee who is not capable of subtle action; he represents a stereotype that was emerging in criticisms of psychiatric hospitals and their enforcement staff. In popular magazines of the 1940s, asylum attendants were described as “harassed and fearful” individuals who frequently restrained patients to make them easier to manage.10 In 1962, Morton Hunt, a writer with an interest in mental hospitals, visited Pilgrim State Hospital in New York and produced an upbeat book that detailed its innovations, including the prodigious use of tranquilizers to make patients more docile, a practice frowned upon in later decades. The attendants on hand at Pilgrim, notes Hunt, are “friendly toward the patients, and not at all like the sadistic jailers described in some of the literature about mental hospitals.”11 The 1940s was still the period of “sadistic jailers” to which Hunt refers, a time when the public feared the underpaid, poorly trained, almost uniformly male attendants who would have absolute power over them if they were ever unfortunate enough to be committed to a mental institution. Attendants were frequently compared to prison guards, as in a 1946 article noting that guards at prisons were paid twice as much as mental hospital attendants.12

The doctors at Chumley’s Rest, despite their high degree of training, perform no better than Wilson, repeatedly offering faulty diagnoses and demonstrating their obliviousness to the behavior of those around them. “The psychiatrists . . . represent the opposite of Elwood’s gracious openness and camaraderie,” argues Katherine Fowkes. “By medicalizing people’s behavior, the psychiatrists alienate the characters from themselves and from others, ignoring the therapeutic qualities of empathy, sympathy, and simple friendship.”13 Their conduct may be partly motivated by the farcical orientation of Harvey, both as a play and a film: characters make decisions and take actions that are calculated to manufacture humorous misunderstandings. Significantly, however, these misunderstandings center on the psychiatric profession and its ineptitude. When Veta arrives at the asylum with Elwood and is interviewed by Dr. Sanderson, she is distressed and admits that, although Harvey is her brother’s imaginary rabbit friend, she also sees him on occasion. On this scant evidence, Dr. Sanderson determines that Veta is the one who needs treatment and instructs Wilson to take her upstairs. At the same time, he remains resolutely blind to Elwood’s peculiarities, repeatedly failing to notice when Elwood gestures toward the invisible Harvey or tries to introduce him.

A “cunning type of psychopath”? Veta

And Dr. Sanderson’s diagnosis for Veta is obviously inaccurate. He tells Miss Kelly that Veta is a “cunning type of psychopath” who is trying to discredit her brother to hide the fact that she is unbalanced. A “psychopath” is someone who has no remorse or compassion, while a “psychotic” is an individual detached from reality. Veta is clearly not a psychopath, as she has already demonstrated anxious, if sometimes misplaced, concern for the people around her. The word “psychopathic” is also misused by Dr. Chumley, the head of the institution, when he refers to Elwood as a “psychopathic case with an overgrown white rabbit.” These errors may be attributed to Mary Chase’s (or co-screenwriter Oscar Brodney’s or director Henry Koster’s) ignorance about psychiatric terms, yet it still matters that such glaring mistakes are perpetrated by both of the film’s supposed experts in the field.

One may also argue that Veta is mentally ill, and that Dr. Sanderson is justified in recommending some kind of action on her behalf. Reviewers of both the play and the film seem to presume that is the case, partly because of actress Josephine Hull’s previous appearance in Arsenic and Old Lace14: “Josephine Hull, who plays Elwood’s sister, has become so accustomed to having Harvey around the house that she does occasionally see him herself. Of course we must grant that Mrs. Hull is not an entirely trustworthy witness. She has been mixed up for years past in a confusion known as Arsenic and Old Lace. A lady who poisoned off elderly gentleman for the kindly purpose of providing them with a decent funeral would have no troubled discerning a rabbit in someone else’s mind’s eye.”15

Other reviewers describe Veta as “fuzzy brained,”16 “daft and harried,”17 and “as mad as her brother.”18 But if Veta is crazy, she is no crazier than her brother, who deftly avoids treatment presumably because of some mysterious protection being afforded him by Harvey. Thus the young psychiatrist’s insistence that Veta receive immediate therapy is ironic, given what we, as viewers, already know about Elwood’s apparently worse condition. Dr. Sanderson’s diagnostic framework should prompt him to identify both Elwood and Veta as mental patients, yet he ignores the evidence for Elwood’s “insanity” while concentrating entirely on Veta. Perhaps this is because womanhood itself was (and may still be) connected with mental pathology. According to Porter, “Depressive, hysterical, suicidal, and self-destructive behavior . . . became closely associated, from Victorian times, with stereotypes of womanhood in the writings of the psychiatric profession, in the public mind, and amongst women themselves.”19

Dr. Chumley, in addition to misapplying psychiatric terms, is also a recluse whose entire existence involves sitting at a desk in a lonely office. When Veta first arrives at the asylum and asks to see the director, Miss Kelly tells her in hushed, serious tones that Dr. Chumley “sees no one.” Thus his bona fides as a psychiatrist are immediately called into question: surely a man who is supposed to understand human nature thoroughly must interact with people on occasion? And Dr. Chumley seems not to be concerned with his patients’ welfare, but instead his own comfortable existence. When he realizes that Dr. Sanderson has locked up the wrong sibling, he is apprehensive that they may be sued for false commitment or vulnerable to other legal action for letting a “psychopathic case” walk out of their facility. Elwood’s safety and well-being are not on his radar. Later, when he becomes convinced that Elwood’s invisible companion has fantastic abilities to manipulate time, Dr. Chumley even maneuvers to secure Harvey as his own confidant. In the play, he is an outright villain who melodramatically declares, “I’ve got to have that rabbit!” In the film, a less menacing but still self-interested Dr. Chumley asks Elwood if Harvey might stay with him, and Elwood says that Harvey is free to do whatever he wishes.

A psychiatrist administers electroshock therapy to a patient, 1949

Thus the film features mental health professionals who lack perceptiveness and competence. The principal therapy offered at Chumley’s Rest, formula 977, is also repudiated, not because it doesn’t work, but because it may do more harm than good. A product of the shock therapy paradigm that was emerging in the 1930s and 1940s,20 formula 977 is a drug developed by Dr. Chumley that jolts mental patients back to reality. Although drugs such as insulin and metrazol or the use of electric shock required a series of applications, the film takes dramatic license with this timeline: formula 977 can be effective with only one injection. Dr. Sanderson recommends that Elwood receive this “powerful serum.” Elwood is reluctant, however, especially when he learns that he won’t see Harvey anymore. “But you will see your responsibilities and duties,” Dr. Sanderson reassures him soberly. We already know that this argument will not appeal to Elwood; predictably, then, another method of persuasion is necessary – an emotional entreaty enacted by Veta. She sobs loudly, telling Elwood that she and Myrtle Mae are “perfectly miserable” with Harvey. Elwood, ever the gentleman, immediately agrees to take the formula.

Before the deed can be done, however, there is a last-minute intervention. The cab driver who transported Veta to Chumley’s Rest comes inside, asking for his fare. When Veta and Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn) realize that they can’t find their wallets, perhaps due to the mysterious Harvey’s interference, Veta asks the driver to wait until her brother is done getting his injection. The driver is skeptical. He tells Veta and Judge Gaffney that formula 977 changes the people he drives out to Chumley’s Rest. On the way out, his passengers are pleasant and generous; on the way back, they’re crabby and cheap. This is a turning point for Veta, who declares that she is ready to live with Harvey. “What’s wrong with Harvey?” she sniffs to Judge Gaffney, who cannot believe her change of heart. What, indeed? Veta, who puts the entire plot of the film into action with her decision to commit Elwood, now renounces her position. Formula 977, like other shock therapies, may work as it is intended, but Veta (and the film) ultimately determines that its purpose is a foul one: it eradicates a gentle, kind world of fantasy in favor of harsh reality.

Thus the wisdom of “shocking” patients to force their readjustment to society is called into question, as it seems to benefit neither them nor their family members. As Janet Walker points out in her excellent essay, “Psychotherapy as Oppression? The Institutional Edifice,” it is erroneous to assume “that cinema’s ability to offer a nuanced critique of authoritarian psychiatry” has developed in a linear fashion.21 In her comparative analysis of asylum films, which she defines as motion pictures like Harvey that prominently feature a mental institution as a setting, she contends that The Cobweb (1955) offers stronger criticisms of psychiatry than films that came before or after it, such as The Snake Pit (1948) or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Harvey, a 1950 film, rewrites the definition of “insanity,” suggesting that it is a delightful state of mind that is far more desirable than the one to which most sane people subscribe, and rejects methods designed to compel patients to adjust to reality. It also pokes fun at the blindness and general incompetence of mental health professionals. Yet even as Harvey energetically deprecates psychiatrists, it also allows and even encourages them to subject female characters to humiliating treatment. In the pecking order of the film’s ideological universe, women occupy the lowest position, facing continual mockery and abuse.

Hydrotherapy and Stripteases: Women in Harvey

The punishment meted out to women in Harvey is almost breathtaking in its severity, especially when evaluated against the charming dream world that is foregrounded. The psychiatric profession, though derided rather ferociously in the film, is not hampered in its chastisement of female characters. The most dramatic example of the castigation of women in Harvey is Veta, who is deprived of her physical freedom as a result of Dr. Sanderson’s misdiagnosis. In fact, she is the only character in the film who becomes, however briefly, a resident of Chumley’s Rest.

In Veta’s initial consultation with Dr. Sanderson, which occurs at Chumley Rest about twenty-five minutes into the film, she discusses her brother’s problem, a six-foot white rabbit named Harvey who goes everywhere with him. Much of this conversation is shot over Dr. Sanderson’s shoulder as he sits at his desk, with Veta the center of the composition. She appears unstable and isolated as she wanders around the room, crying. When she verifies that everything she tells Dr. Sanderson is confidential, she admits that she sometimes sees Harvey. Dr. Sanderson’s response is predictably patronizing: he tells her not to worry, that he will help her. His intention is to have Wilson seize her so that she can receive immediate therapy, though that plan is momentarily thwarted when Veta goes outside to get Elwood’s suitcase. Dr. Sanderson’s reaction to Veta’s disappearance is frantic. He and Wilson sound a loud alarm and dash off in search of her.

What follows is the sequence I introduced at the beginning of the essay. Wilson enters the front garden, where he sees Veta picking flowers. As he approaches her, nondiegetic flute music trills lightly, providing a counterpoint to Wilson’s determined stride. When he speaks, he addresses her as if she is a recalcitrant child, according her none of the respect that adults typically render one another: after all, in his eyes, she is crazy and she is a woman. “Well, well,” he says, gesturing toward the flowers. “Those for me?” Veta informs him that they are for her brother. Wilson asks her if she would like to come inside and pick flowers off the wallpaper. At this point, Veta does not know how to react to this strange man. She once again declines his offer, becoming both indignant and wary. When he moves closer, telling her that there’s someone inside who would like to speak to her, she steps back, now openly apprehensive. This scene invokes two fundamental fears: the (universal) dread of being confined in a mental institution and the (largely female) terror of being accosted or attacked by a male. Finally, Wilson grabs Veta, slinging her over his shoulder as she screams and beats him with her purse (below). This slapstick interaction mitigates the darkness of the scene, but does not eliminate it; after all, Veta is being seized against her will.

Veta (Josephine Hull) resists asylum attendant Wilson (Jesse White).

In the next scene of the abduction sequence, Wilson, who has hauled Veta upstairs, pauses to speak to a severe-looking, middle-aged nurse, Miss Dunphy (Minerva Urecal). She pays no attention to Veta’s struggles. “How about giving me a hand here, beautiful?” asks Wilson. “I’ll sit on her, you can strip her clothes off.” Here, Wilson manages to insult the nurse by pointing out that she is not “beautiful” and to degrade Veta further by casually referring to what will happen next: she will be physically restrained, and her clothing, the evidence of her status and identity, will be summarily removed so that she can be placed in a tub to receive hydrotherapy. When Miss Dunphy tells Wilson that she has to “give some guy a bubble bath” before she can assist him, Wilson carries Veta into a nearby room, sets her down, and then slams the door. At this point, we realize that she has been secured in a soundproof chamber. Veta screams and pounds frantically against a window in the door, but we can hear nothing – and we already know that none of the staff will come to her rescue. In a few dramatic moments, she has been completely silenced and contained (see image at beginning of the article). She is at the mercy of the psychiatric profession.

As I have noted, Harvey is a farce, and one might argue that the preposterous and extreme situations it depicts call attention to the excesses of the established patriarchal system for treating the mentally ill. In Veta’s case, for instance, viewers should be able to identify how and why her therapy is arbitrary and inappropriate, and feel angered on her behalf. Yet the aggressive handling that Veta receives at the hands of psychiatric authorities is enthusiastically endorsed by reviewers, who applaud its comic potential while failing to notice its darker elements. Commonweal‘s Philip Hartung notes, “Director Henry Koster has injected some horseplay (or should we say rabbitplay?) and slapstick into the script written by Mary C. Chase (author of the original) and Oscar Brodney. Elwood’s sister Veta gets quite a pushing around in the booby hatch where she, instead of Elwood, is taken for the patient.”22 Similarly, a reviewer of the play finds Josephine Hull “delightful . . . in the role of the sister who talks herself temporarily into the booby hatch while trying to explain why her brother should be locked up, and the whole play bubbles with sheer – as well as astonishingly unhackneyed – fun.”23 None of the reviewers consider that Veta’s captivity may be a troubling hint that the “fun” of the narrative frequently excludes female characters or depends on their suffering.

Veta’s response to her abduction is repeatedly exploited for humor. When she arrives home, looking bedraggled and huffing wearily, she leans on Judge Gaffney and Myrtle Mae for support. “Omar [Judge Gaffney],” she says, “I want you to sue them! They put me in and let Elwood out!” At their urging, she then relates her experiences at Chumley’s Rest, which begin with being summarily kidnapped by Wilson. “That man grabbed hold of me as though I was a woman of the streets, but I fought! I always said that if a man jumped at me, I’d fight! Haven’t I always said that, Myrtle Mae?” Judge Gaffney and Myrtle Mae exchange glances, as if they mutually agree that the notion of a sexual motive for the assault against Veta is difficult to swallow. Veta sobs, “He hustled me into the sanitarium and dumped me down in that tub of water and treated me as though I was a – crazy woman! . . . . And then one of those doctors came upstairs and asked me a lot of questions, all about sex urges and all that filthy stuff!” Finally Veta declares that she can’t trust anyone, and concludes her theatrical narrative with a final warning to Myrtle Mae: “I hope that never, never as long as you live, a man tears the clothes off you and sets you down in a tub of water!” Throughout the scene, Veta’s outlandish lines and her overwrought performance present her as an absurd old lady whose tale of a physical assault with sexual overtones is humorous because it seems so impossible. Instead of the sexually oriented theories of Freud being criticized, the very idea of Veta facing questions about her “sex urges” is portrayed as ludicrous.

The practice of hydrotherapy deserves further scrutiny, as it is one of the primary treatments highlighted by the film (formula 977 and psychoanalysis are the others). Veta’s treatment is not presented onscreen, though we do get a shot of a “HYDRO” room with two empty, shiny tubs, presumably one of which she will occupy (below)  Being immersed in a tub of water may seem rather innocuous, but hydrotherapy was potentially quite invasive. First, the patient had to be stripped – voluntarily or otherwise – of all clothing and possessions. Then he or she might face any number of procedures that could be pursued under the umbrella of “hydrotherapy,” which had a history dating back to the late nineteenth century.24 Related measures included “large simple enemas”25 and “jets and douches, needle baths, drip-sheets bathes, vapor and hot-air baths.”26 The therapeutic water did not simply surround the body; it was often introduced into the body. Water essentially served as a method of discipline in mental institutions, a means to manage and contain patients that did not involve physical restraints. Whether sprayed at patients in a high-pressure stream or introduced via enema – or even more moderately, provided in a tub – water functioned as means of control. The fact that Wilson, a male attendant, is the one who forces Veta into a tub amplifies the disciplinary quality of the “hydrotherapy” that she receives.

The entrance to the “HYDRO” [hydrotherapy] room at Chumley’s Rest.

Significantly, Veta’s hysteria after her release from Chumley’s Rest is largely dismissed. Neither Judge Gaffney nor Myrtle Mae demonstrate an indignation that is commensurate with the agony that Veta has endured. After the melodramatic tirade in which she details what occurred, the judge acknowledges rather lamely that what happened to her “stinks to high heaven!” When Wilson arrives at the house shortly thereafter, now looking for Elwood, Veta urges the judge to kick him, but the judge tells her, “Veta, please. I want you to confront this man with your charges!” Wilson, for his part, shows no remorse for his previous interactions with Veta, and doesn’t even address her directly. He pulls a cigar from his mouth and tells the judge, “I don’t want no part of that wacky dame! I’m looking for that other screwball!” Myrtle Mae, who has listened to her mother’s travails with prurient interest, now casts her eyes on Wilson, her mother’s attacker, and invites him to the kitchen, where, she tells him, he can “relax and be himself.” On the way, she asks him if he likes his work. Offscreen, we hear him say, “I do now!” and then a brief but loud female scream echoes sharply, presumably produced by Myrtle after being pinched or grabbed by Wilson. He continues to be Myrtle’s love interest throughout the remainder of the film, despite her mother’s opposition to their relationship. Not only do Myrtle and Wilson ignore Veta’s protestations, but – at least for Myrtle – the stories of Wilson’s ruthlessness seem to ignite her sexual interest in him.

Thus, no one views Veta’s abduction as a grave or significant offense. At the time, involuntary confinement in mental hospitals was legal and not uncommon, so the context for her experience is quite different than it would be in a twenty-first-century film. Psychiatry’s pathologization of females also allows Veta to be rather easily categorized by Wilson and others as a “crazy dame.” Even Veta, after the histrionic vigor of her initial response, seems willing to play down or overlook what has occurred. When Dr. Chumley arrives at her home shortly after Wilson, she informs him that she will be suing him for $100,000 – but then engages him in a lengthy conversation in the library, during which she makes one of the film’s iconic speeches about the importance of “the dream behind the reality” (below). Her back toward the large painting over the mantel, which she believes is a portrait of her mother but is actually a picture of Harvey recently put in place by Elwood, she tells Dr. Chumley, “I took a course in art last winter. I learned the difference between a fine oil painting and a mechanical thing, like a photograph. The photograph shows only the reality. The painting shows not only the reality, but the dream behind it. It’s our dreams, doctor, that carry us on.”

Despite the indignities she has recently faced, Veta is still able to rhapsodize to Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) about “the dream behind the reality” as she stands with her back to a portrait of Elwood and Harvey.

When Veta turns and sees that the painting is actually of Harvey standing next to Elwood, she starts to stammer and cry, but her speech has already had a number of effects. First, the idealism that Veta is able to espouse so eloquently suggests that she has begun to recover from her recent experience at the asylum and that it did no lasting harm. Second, it establishes that Veta, though misguided enough to attempt to institutionalize Elwood, can also be recuperated by the film’s value system. She has been punished for her clumsy attempt to lock Elwood up, and now she can move toward the possibility of redemption. At the moment, her declaration is ironic, as she is still adamant about committing her brother, but it reveals that she, like Elwood, is capable of recognizing the importance of dreams. As a woman, though, she must be “disciplined” before she can accept the truth of her own statements.

Even females who serve the psychiatric establishment face criticism. Here, Miss Kelly is the prime example. A slim, young nurse who espouses iconic femininity, she is subjected to the sexist scorn of her immediate supervisor, Dr. Sanderson, notwithstanding the fact that Miss Kelly has a clearer grasp of the situations that they encounter than he does. When Veta and Elwood first arrive at Chumley’s Rest, Miss Kelly takes down information from Veta and asks Wilson to escort Elwood upstairs. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Sanderson interviews Veta and determines that she is the one who needs to be committed. He is aghast when he learns that Miss Kelly has sent Elwood upstairs. “He can sue us for false commitment! . . . . Jeepers, they may be putting him in the hydro room right now!” He angrily orders Miss Kelly to intervene immediately – and to use all her feminine wiles to defuse the anger he is sure that Elwood will exhibit, even advising her to “do a striptease” for Mr. Dowd if necessary.

On first glance, Miss Kelly’s diagnostic superiority may seem to stand as a refutation of the film’s sexism, but a closer look demonstrates that she is never acknowledged or rewarded for her professional acumen, even by Elwood Dowd, whose elevated perception should allow him to see the “truth” about her. Elwood handles Miss Kelly gently and courteously, praising her beauty while noticing little else about her. His gallant behavior contrasts sharply with Dr. Sanderson’s rough sexism, but both approaches are patronizing. Arguably, Dr. Sanderson’s is the more alarming, since it does not discourage an apparent crush that Miss Kelly has on him. Despite his denigration of her, she continues to stare at him hopefully and dreamily. He also seems to have an attraction to her that he is loath to acknowledge. At pivotal moments in the film, he watches her closely and demonstrates jealousy at the prospect of her dancing with other men. Yet at other times he snubs her, criticizes her, or makes sexist remarks to her.

Toward the end of the film, when Dr. Sanderson prepares to leave the asylum, having been fired for his mishandling of Elwood’s case, he tells Miss Kelly, “I’m going to miss every one of the psychos, and the neuros, and the schizos in the place.” His comment is significant because it highlights the casual superficiality with which he refers to patients, suggesting that his understanding of mental illness leaves much to be desired, and it is yet another reminder that the film never presents any of the residents of Chumley’s Rest, which functions as an asylum without inmates that cannot provide evidence of what “real” insanity is like, implying that it is rare or nonexistent. Miss Kelly is angered that she does not appear on the list of those whom Dr. Sanderson will regret leaving. In response, he curtly informs her that she has a “persecution complex” stemming from childhood, while she accuses him of having an “overinflated ego.” Elwood is later able to mediate between the two of them, allowing their romance to bloom, but this last-minute connection seems contrived – wrought from fashionable psychoanalytic lingo upon a foundation of exaggerated sexism to which both members of the couple subscribe. Their relationship, like the film’s implausible marriage of amiable lunacy and blithe brutality, is awkward and artificial.


With its playful dialogue, polished acting, and whimsical storyline, Harvey has a well-deserved reputation as a classic fantasy film. But there is a disconnect between its bright-eyed vision of a happily insane world and its abrasive treatment of women. The former is what scholars, reviewers, and fans, even female ones, remember fondly. Nevertheless the film’s disconcerting disenfranchisement of women is there, sounding a discordant note that undermines Harvey’s genial tone.

“Does the asylum film, or any single asylum film,” asks Janet Walker, “highlight the outrageous affronts to human freedom to which institutionalized patients are subject, or does it participate in social consensus about the need for an appropriate configuration of a well-ordered society?”27 I would argue that Harvey does the former: it calls attention to the indignities mental patients face. What befalls Veta can perhaps be justified as part of the film’s critique of psychiatry; after all, her unfortunate experience mocks the short-sightedness and arbitrary operation of the mental health establishment. Yet the energetic, excessive manner in which Veta herself is constrained and made ridiculous suggests that the real ideological work of Harvey involves the subjugation of women. Such subjugation is, of course, not unusual – but here it occurs in a charming fantasy film that encourages our receptiveness to a gentle, eye-opening world in which human perception is enhanced, creating an ironic betrayal that makes watching the film a discordant experience. That so few viewers actually “see Harvey‘s dissonance is perhaps a consequence of the fact that the brutalization of women is so quotidian a phenomenon that it is scarcely noticeable, even in a film that carefully and obviously constructs a delightful domain of playfulness and heightened sensitivity. In showing us the beautiful “dream behind the reality” while maintaining the trite sexism of its day, Harvey creates a disturbing incongruity that my adolescent self recognized but could not process or resolve.

  1. Reference information for the play: Harvey: A Comedy in Three Acts, by Mary (Coyle) Chase, 1944 (New York, Dramatists Play Service, Inc., no publication date). Reference information for the film: Harvey, directed by Henry Koster (1950; Universal City, CA: Universal Studios, 2000), DVD. []
  2. Harvey,” review of film, Newsweek, December 25, 1950, 64. []
  3. “AFI’s Top Ten Fantasy,” American Film Institute, accessed July 1, 2012, []
  4. Harvey,” review of film, Time, January 1, 1951, 61. []
  5. Harvey,” review of film, Christian Century, January 17, 1951, 95. []
  6. Qtd. in Henry Koster by Irene Kahn Atkins (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987), 101. []
  7. See Katherine A. Fowke’s discussion of Harvey in The Fantasy Film (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and Dennis Bingham’s analysis of actor James Stewart’s masculinity as Elwood P. Dowd in Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994). []
  8. For a discussion of the “adjustment disorder” paradigm of insanity, see J.D. Ratliff, “Bedside Miracle,” Reader’s Digest, November 1939, 73-74; “Death for Sanity,” Time, November 20, 1939, 39; and “Shocked to Sanity,” Newsweek, February 21, 1944, 74. []
  9. Roy Porter, Madness: A Brief History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), Kindle edition, location 760. []
  10. Albert Q. Maisel, “The Shame of Our Mental Hospitals,” Reader’s Digest, July 1946, 3. []
  11. Morton M. Hunt, Mental Hospital: A Vivid Insight into the World of the Mentally Disturbed (New York: Pyramid Books, 1962), 19. []
  12. Maisel, “The Shame of Our Mental Hospitals,” 4. []
  13. Fowkes, The Fantasy Film, 74. []
  14. Arsenic and Old Lace was written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939 and first produced in 1941. It was adapted for the screen in 1941 by director Frank Capra, though it was not released until 1944. In both versions, Josephine Hull plays Abby Brewster, an elderly lady who conspires with her sister to kill lonely old gentlemen who respond to their “Room for Rent” sign. []
  15. Rosamond Gilder, “Holiday Goods: Broadway in Review,” review of Harvey (play), Theatre Arts, January 1945, 5-6. []
  16. “Harvey the Rabbit,” review of Harvey (play), Newsweek, November 13, 1944, 82. []
  17. Harvey,” review of film, Newsweek, 64. []
  18. Philip T. Hartung, “The Screen: What Did You Have in Mind?”, review of Harvey (film), Commonweal, December 29, 1950, 301. []
  19. Porter, Madness: A Brief History, location 858. []
  20. Shock therapy involved drugs (insulin, metrazol) or electricity; see Charles F. Read, “‘Shock’ Treatment for Mental Disorders,” Hygeia, vol. 18, July 1940: 627, 668; Charles F. Read, “They CAN Be Cured,” Hygeia, vol 19, March 1941: 202-203; and “Shocked to Sanity,” Newsweek, February 21, 1944. []
  21. Janet Walker, “Psychotherapy as Oppression? The Institutional Edifice,” in Celluloid Couches, Cinematic Clients: Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy for the Movies, ed. Jerrold R. Brandell (New York: SUNY Press, 2004): 120. []
  22. Hartung, “The Screen,” review of Harvey (film), 301. []
  23. Joseph Wood Krutch, “Man’s Best Friend,” review of Harvey (play), The Nation, November 18, 1944: 624. []
  24. Frederick Jackson, “Hydrotherapy in the Treatment of Nervous and Mental Diseases,” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 105 (February 1893): 137. []
  25. E. P. Miller, MD, “Hydrotherapy in Insanity,” The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health 118 (March 1905): 82. []
  26. “Water Treatment for the Insane,” Zion’s Herald, April 5, 1905, 419. []
  27. Walker, “Psychotherapy as Oppression?”, 97. []