James Harvey wasn’t a popular film critic with a cozy berth at a major publication, or an academic theorist presiding over a formidable film studies department. Yet his three books, each more than a decade in the making and meticulously yet gorgeously written, are required reading for cinephiles.
Mr. Harvey died at 90 on May 15 at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. He had a rare blood disease, according to the author and essayist Phillip Lopate, one of Mr. Harvey’s many friends.
It was “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges” (1987), Mr. Harvey’s first book, clocking in at more than 700 pages, that made his reputation. In this celebration and analysis of what he called “Hollywood’s essential genius,” the screwball comedy, he went deep: He took you scene by scene through, say, an Ernst Lubitsch movie, so you could experience the film, even if you had never seen it, or revel in it anew if you had.
“Even if you thought you knew a film,” said Foster Hirsch, a film historian at Brooklyn College, “he taught you something more about it.” Mr. Hirsch, another friend of Mr. Harvey’s, often accompanied him to movies.
Mr. Harvey, whose day job was as a professor of English at Stony Brook University on Long Island, was not a fast writer. A brief essay might take half a year, said Howard Mandelbaum, president of Photofest, an agency with a vast archive of entertainment images and film stills. Molly Haskell, the longtime film critic and author, said in an interview that Mr. Harvey would agonize over every word, though his prose felt luxurious, even voluptuous.
That writing could loop and meander and digress, frustrating some readers. “Criticism as logorrhea,” the film critic and historian Neal Gabler wrote of “Romantic Comedy” in The New York Times Book Review. He called the book “both long and glancing, brilliant and obvious, penetrating and vague, effusive and tendentious, astounding and maddening.”
Mr. Harvey may have agonized over his writing, but as a moviegoer, Mr. Mandelbaum said, he was given to instant and constant “nonverbal editorializing.”
“He would moan and sigh,” he added. “If he wasn’t having a good time, I would know it from his breathing.”
Mr. Harvey was dedicated to seeing films in their natural habitat, the theater; early on he wrote program notes for the Thalia, the beloved Upper West Side theater that showed Hollywood classics and offbeat fare until its demise in 1987.
On NPR in 2008, the novelist Anthony Giardina called Mr. Harvey “the Samuel Johnson of film writing,” declaring Mr. Harvey’s “Movie Love in the 50s” (2001), the best film book he had ever read.
Mr. Harvey’s third book, “Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen From Garbo to Balthazar,” (2014), examined the ineffable, transcendent qualities of leading movie actors.
“He described acting as well or better than anybody,” Ms. Haskell said. “I think he wasn’t better known because he only wrote these enormous books. But I think he was one of the great movie critics. He saw the paradox of Hollywood, and you have to have an appreciation for paradox if you love Hollywood. How the most commercial movie can somehow yield art and beauty.”
Mr. Harvey hated jargon and theory, and while he loved Pauline Kael, he didn’t align with any particular school of film criticism. “He wasn’t a theoretician or a taste-broker; he was the film version of the passionate — compassionate — man of letters,” the cultural critic Margo Jefferson said. “And he never lost sight of the larger picture. He had ethics and politics. The way he looked at Doris Day, and all the hypocrisies she had to serve.”
Mr. Harvey wrote in “Movie Love,” “If Marilyn Monroe died for our sins, then Doris Day smiled for them.”
Mr. Lopate said: “Part of what was so magical about his books is that he understood the game of romantic comedies, but he treated them seriously, not as something campy. So much film writing is glib or gossipy. Also, he knew other things. He loved opera and the ballet and the theater. He had what Renata Adler said was necessary for being a good critic: He had a well-stocked mind.”
Howard James Harvey was born on Aug. 10, 1929, in Chicago, the son of Loretta (Hughes) Harvey, a court reporter, and Howard Malcolm Harvey, an electrical engineer who became a lawyer. James studied English, earning a B.A. from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.F. A. from the University of Michigan.
He went to New York hoping to be a playwright, and a few of his works had readings, though nothing more came of them, said Mr. Mandelbaum. Mr. Harvey was a professor at Stony Brook from the late 1960s until he retired in 1994; he taught film at the New School and Sarah Lawrence College, among other institutions.
It was an article he wrote about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for Dance Life magazine in 1977 that caught the eye of Robert Gottlieb, then editor of Knopf, who commissioned the book that would become “Romantic Comedy.”
That article appears verbatim in that book, and you can see why Mr. Gottlieb was captivated by it. In it, Mr. Harvey notes Astaire’s “baggy pants flight” and Rogers’s submission to her partner’s weightlessness. He proposes that her skeptical sidelong glances held the key to all the great ’30s romances — what he called “the liberation of having no illusions,” or “the conviction that romance between men and women is not so much a matter of sustaining illusions as of penetrating and even ‘dancing’ over them.”
Mr. Harvey himself steered clear of romance. “I once joked to him that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” Mr. Mandelbaum said, “and he responded by saying, ‘I think that’s a perfectly legitimate life choice.’”
Mr. Harvey was deeply Roman Catholic (his mother had wanted him to be a priest), and Mr. Lopate worried about how his friend’s regular tithing would affect his dwindling savings as he aged. “Me being Jewish, I couldn’t see the point,” Mr. Lopate said. “I’d say, ‘Knock it off with the tithing, already.’ But he didn’t want to hear that.”
No immediate family members survive Mr. Harvey.
In his last few years he struggled with writing a memoir about his life at the movies, said Diane Jacobs, an author and frequent dinner partner of his. (The two met when Ms. Jacobs was working on a book about Preston Sturges, and he offered her his copious research.) The book was left unfinished.
“The memoir was very difficult for him, even more so than the other books,” Ms. Jacobs said. “I think it was hard for him to write in the first person. He preferred to express his feelings through describing movies.”