Forgotten Classics: Harry and Tonto

Reviewing lesser-known films that stand the test of time

When I started doing this blog series I promised myself that I would avoid covering movies that had won an Academy Award, especially those that were awarded Best Picture, Director or Actor. When most people decide to look up “classics” to watch, their go-tos are often Oscar winners. But there is a 1974 film that I think has been unfairly ignored and dismissed, despite its Best Actor win. That film is Harry and Tonto.

Co-written and directed by the late Paul Mazursky, this movie follows the eponymous duo — Harry (Art Carney) is a retired widower who looses his apartment building when it is condemned; his only companion is his pet cat, Tonto. The two go on a cross-country odyssey meeting many colorful characters along the way, including a health-food salesman (Arthur Hunnicutt), an elderly Native American (Chief Dan George) and an underaged runaway (Melanie Mayron), among others. Harry eventually reconnects with his three kids who live all across the map.

Just based on that plot, many would think that it’s just a basic road trip movie with a quirky old man and his cute little cat. While it is enjoyable in that respect, it is a truly great film that should be truly appreciated and given another look.

Let’s go ahead and begin with the obvious topic: Art Carney winning Best Actor. Many have found that to be a bad decision. Especially since that year the other nominees included Al Pacino for The Godfather and Jack Nicholson for Chinatown. Many feel that picking Carney for the award was just a sympathy win given Carney’s long career and status as a comic icon.

While I will admit that the other nominees that year were all very good — 1974 was just a great year for movies in general — I will forever be an apologist for Carney being the winner.

Carney’s performance as Harry seems so natural. He never gets overly dramatic with his line reading, and he adds the right amount of comedic charm to his role without reverting back to his Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners.

A great example is in the beginning, when Carney and Tonto are relaxing in the apartment and he reminisces the old days in New York. “There were trolleys, Tonto. Cobblestones. The aroma of corned beef and cabbage. The tangy zest of... apple strudel.” He slowly starts to fall asleep during this monologue, but what really makes it great is that it does sound like a real person. Carney isn’t being overly dramatic, he’s not trying to make it all sentimental — it sounds normal. It is because of that tone that makes the lines powerful and Harry such an endearing character.

With that note, Harry’s arc is a subtle but great one. Through the film and with every encounter he comes across on his odyssey, he begins to change and become more open-minded. The changing of the scenery is a big motif. He starts out in a cramped, confinded and lonely apartment, then he ventures out west like a pioneer to open and warm California. It can be seen in wardrobe changes as well and with those elements we see him go from being a “Things were better in my days” guy to a man who lets go of the past and looks to the future.

It’s a movie that will make you smile, laugh, think and even get teary eyed. I promise you’ll adore this film and Art’s performance.

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