Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) is a cordial and friendly single man. He likes to say: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.” He lives happily, or so he thinks, with his nervous older sister, Veta Louise (Josephine Hull), and her unmarried daughter, the flighty and not particularly attractive Myrtle Mae. Their domestic problem is a unique one — Elwood’s best friend is a 6’8” tall white rabbit (a mischievous “pooka” from Celtic folklore), who’s invisible to most people, but very real to Elwood.
Elwood’s insistence on introducing Harvey to everyone has ruined Veta Louise’s attempts to find a husband for Myrtle Mae. Even though she lets it slip that she sees Harvey herself, Veta Louise tries to get Elwood committed to the local insane asylum. The doctors there are pretty loony themselves, and they lock up Veta Louise instead. What ensues is a hilarious comedy of errors, marked by general pandemonium, improbable romances, unlikely alliances, dancing, drinking and making pals. Oh, it’s marvelous.
To fully appreciate a vintage movie, we have to acknowledge its historical context. Harvey, the film, was released in 1950 and based on the play of the same name by journalist/playwright Mary Chase. It was first performed on Broadway in 1944, when Americans were sick of war and eager to laugh. It ran for five years, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. The play was directed by Antoinette Perry, a well-known theater pioneer. (In fact, the Tony Awards were named in her honor.) Ironically, two of Harvey’s driving forces were successful, independent women, yet the play itself depicts young women as brainless creatures looking for men to complete them.
Mature women in Harvey seem to fare better. Not only do they all have fantastic hats and luxurious fur coats, but Josephine Hull, as the long-suffering Veta Louise, turns in one of the most brilliant female comedic performances in film history. Elwood’s lines are philosophical and delivered more slowly, in Jimmy Stewart’s famous drawl, thus making them more memorable — but it’s actually Josephine Hull’s befuddled chatterbox who has the majority of the funny lines.
There’s no mention of the war in the film, or what role, if any, Elwood played in it. Everyone seems to exist in a world without newspaper headlines. It’s surely possible Elwood was a war veteran, perhaps with some deep-seated problems that needed unorthodox solutions. Did he create the giant rabbit to replace a best friend who had been tragically lost? Or does he simply, like lots of people, then and now, just want to avoid reality? As Elwood says, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years … and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”
Though we never see Elwood drunk, he certainly enjoys tippling. He likes bars because he and Harvey make friends there. Strangers always come over to talk to them. “They tell us about the big terrible things they’ve done,” he says. “And the wonderful things they’ll do …” Whether Elwood is an alcoholic or just dotty doesn’t seem to bother him at all: “My mother told me, ‘In this world, Elwood, you can be oh-so-smart, or oh-so-pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Assn) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Assn.) Email her at email@example.com.
Quick Take: An eccentric man, perfectly happy with his life, has an invisible giant rabbit for a best friend. Everyone wants to “fix” him.
Special Appeal: One of Jimmy Stewart’s most beloved roles.
Players: James “Jimmy” Stewart, Josephine Hull.
Director: Henry Koster (My Man Godfrey, 1957, The Robe, 1953)
Black and White, 1950, 104 minutes.
Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society, March 15, 2015 at 2pm.