At first glance Elwood P. Dowd seems like your average all-American type. He's clean cut, soft spoken and polite, and his aw-shucks demeanor screams "my favorite hobby is mowing the lawn and then rewarding myself with a nice cold lemonade." He is so thoroughgoingly decent that he will probably remind you a lot of Jimmy Stewart (...in large part because Elwood P. Dowd is actually played by Jimmy Stewart.)
And sure, Elwood is the sort of agreeable fellow you'd love to have as a neighbor - but he's also much more than that. You see, Elwood has basically all the traits you would need to become an honest to God saint. For starters he is unendingly gregarious: he's always inviting down-on-their-luck people over to his house for dinner. He is also incredibly patient: he maintains the same level of genial calm through the good times and the bad times, and he is always polite to people that mean him harm. Oh, and like a lot of saints Elwood is also a madman who is beset with hallucinations - although in fairness Elwood is obsessed with a six foot three talking rabbit that only he can see and not the Virgin Mary.
The rabbit's name is Harvey and he is a lot to swallow. If Elwood P. Dowd were a real person he would probably be miserable and completely unfunctional - the sort of mental disorders that would account for such serious ongoing hallucinations are generally debilitating. But Elwood is not real, he's a character in a screwball comedy from 1950, and as such he gets to live in a completely sanitized world where all mentally ill people have exactly one tic that is fundamentally silly and completely side-effect free. Oh, sure, Harvey isn't a perfect delusion - Elwood is always having to hold open doors for the lollygagging rabbit - but he gives good advice and is funny, and that puts him miles ahead of what most schizophrenics have to suffer through.
I probably would have been more willing to forgive Harvey its central conceit if the rest of the film had worked, but unfortunately almost every facet of this movie will seem shallow and stale to modern eyes. Most of the humor comes from the sort of misunderstandings you would see in any classic farce - at one point Elwood's sister tries to commit him to an asylum but it all goes horribly askew and the doctor ends up committing her and letting Elwood go. Sometimes that sort of switcheroo plot works, but here it just felt unbelievable; there was just no logical reason for the doctor to misread the situation so badly.
Actually, many of the asylum scenes are actively anti-funny because they are so casual about depicting "cures" that were commonplace back then but which seem incredibly cruel now. For example, the doctor's first idea of how to "cure" Elwood's sister was to strip her naked and dunk her in a freezing ice bath. Yes, the premise "sane person is wrongfully committed to a nut-house" can lead to great comedy - but only as long as that sane person is only dealing with minor annoyances, not massive physical traumas.
However, Harvey's biggest problem is not that it is implausible or that it occasionally alludes to off-screen cruelty, it is that it wastes its potentially interesting hook on a by-the-numbers plot. A story about a grown man who has an invisible best friend has a lot of potential, but Harvey settles for being another "local weirdo ends up teaching his friends and family important life lessons" story. Why invoke such a whimsical premise and then do so little with it?
Fortunately, however, I have the power to fix some of Harvey's shortcomings. I can't co back and rewrite or re-edit a sixty year old movie, but I can do my part to expose some of the as yet unrevealed nuances of its "crazy rabbit" theme:
These three cartoons are only scratching the surface of the whole "crazy rabbit" theme, and I doubt they will stand the test of time any better than Harvey did. But I will say this in their defense: at least they went somewhere new instead of devolving into the same old crap about how the local laid-back eccentric is really the sanest man in town.
Winner: The Cat