Harvey is one of the most beloved Hollywood pictures ever made. This whimsical fantasy about a local drunk and his six-foot-tall 3.5 inches invisible rabbit caught the public imagination and as Elwood P. Dowd, James Stewart produced probably his most fondly remembered role.
Elwood P. Dowd is a genial thinker and drinker, who introduces everybody to his friend, the unseen (and possibly imaginary) pooka that takes the form of a giant bunny. Many seem to think that Elwood has lost his mind but the regulars in his local Charlie’s Bar seem to ignore that notion and accept the existence of Harvey. Even the barman asks how they both are and is quite happy to serve an order of two drinks for Elwood and his invisible companion.
Elwood’s sister Veta, a snooty social climber, is humiliated by Elwood’s eccentric behavior. Veta desperately wants to marry off her daughter to somebody respectable but Elwood is getting in the way and wants to have him committed to a sanitarium.
Veta admits to psychiatrist Dr. Lyman Anderson that she has put up with this invisible rabbit for so long that she is starting to see Harvey. This creates confusion because Dr. Anderson lets Elwood out and locks up Veta.
Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanatorium, corrects the error and decides that Elwood needs to be re-committed to save the reputation of the sanatorium. Elwood is oblivious to Doctor Chumley’s plans, so what will happen to this amiable barfly and his giant invisible rabbit?
Based on the 1944 Pulitizer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase, the film version of Harvey premiered on December 4th, 1950 in Brazil and on December 27th, 1950 in the United States and critical acclaim.
Universal Pictures had acquired the rights to the play for a then-record of $1 million. The play had ended its hugely successful run on Broadway in January 1949, and James Stewart, who played Elwood during that run, was chosen to play Elwood again in the film. Josephine Hull who had successfully played Veta for the whole run was also chosen to play the character again.
Despite the lightness of touch, Harvey questions the accepted notions of sanity. It also exposes a conundrum, that those so-called normal people who want Elwood to be committed seem less sane than the hopelessly cheerful philosopher and his invisible rabbit.
Harvey is also a story about tolerance. Harvey is an outsider, simply because he is different and is a threat for no other reason, other than he believes that his best friend is a giant bunny. Elwood’s bar friends seem to go along with Elwood and his invisible pooka, so why should others judge this likable and kind man who happily admits that he has a wonderful time, wherever he is and whoever he is with. The message suggests that Elwood is showing the world what tolerance of others means but the world seems to be enforcing intolerance. Besides, the notion of a half-world existence, that Elwood P. Dowd seems to enjoy, may not be such a bad place to be when life itself is not such a great place to be.
Henry Koster directs the film with a deft touch and the screenplay from Mary Chase and Oscar Brodney (and an uncredited Myles Connolly) is genuinely amusing. There are many humorous and insightful lines such as: “well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won over it” and “In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant, Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me”.
However, the memorable performances from James Stewart and Josephine Hull dominate the movie but they are supported by an excellent cast including Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Chumley, Victoria Horne as Myrtle Mae, and Charles Drake as Dr. Sanderson.
A film version of a stage play can have its limitations and that it can often feel stagey, and that sometimes happens in Harvey, but the film works wonderfully well and is one of the most charming and touching Hollywood comedies ever made.
Seven decades on and everybody still needs Harvey.