Everybody loves James Stewart. It’s a fact. Look it up. He’s just a likable guy. The star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) picked up many fans. In an old interview James Stewart revealed that his favorite role he ever had was that of Elwood P. Dowd in Henry Koster’s light-hearted comedy, Harvey (1950). And it is surely worth a look.
Perhaps James Stewart’s soft, gentle demeanor made him a natural for the role of the innocent and gregarious star of Harvey. Harvey itself is a great movie with a wonderful cast. Victoria Horne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) is splendid as his love-hungry niece and the incomparable Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace) in her Academy Award winning role steals most of the show as his well-meaning, long-suffering sister at wit’s end. The real charm of Harvey lies with its sweetness and pleasantness that finds its root in the perplexing relationship between Elwood (Stewart) and his best friend, a giant invisible rabbit, six-foot one and a half inches tall.
After living many years with her brother and his long-eared hallucination, Veta Louise Simmons (Hull), can stand it no more. Veta is going crazy trying to keep Elwood away from the house so she can entertain and throw parties for her upper-class friends, but Elwood continuously comes home from the local bar early and—very earnestly attempting to introduce Veta’s friends to Harvey—unwittingly chases them all away.
Veta cannot have this. She loves her brother, but he is making it very difficult for her to get her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Horne), to meet young men. With no alternative Veta makes plans to commit Elwood to a sanitarium…but once there, her emotions take over when she’s describing how Elwood’s invisible rabbit friend is ruining her life and she winds up getting committed instead and the affable, oblivious Elwood wanders off with his head cocked up and to the right (to acknowledge his unseen friend) and an extra coat and hat (with two holes cut in the crown) over his arm.
Once the well-meaning Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and the nurse (Peggy Dow) realize their mistake of locking up a sane woman and sending the would-be patient off on his way they do whatever they can to fix it. Veta is released and gets her old family friend, Judge Gaffney (William Lynn), in an attempt to sue the sanitarium. The less-than-compassionate sanitarium orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), is sent to find Elwood and bring him in, but gets sidetracked when he bumps into a romance-desperate Myrtle Mae. Meanwhile sanitarium director, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), is making plans to fire Dr. Sanderson and convince Veta to reconsider her charges.
The amiable Elwood P. Dowd seems to be harder to apprehend than originally suspected…almost as if something (or someone) is protecting him as he blissfully saunters along on his merry way. If he really is crazy (however harmless) then he also might be invincible, but there seems to be clues that the ambiguously ambivalent rabbit, Harvey, might be more than just a figment of his imagination. Even if Harvey is make-believe, he’s real enough to the kind and gentle Elwood who will pull him out of traffic and hold doors for him.
Elwood eventually is found, but he goes peacefully (he hasn’t an unpleasant or disagreeable bone in his body), but the “sane” people who have been running around crazy for the entire film want Elwood to take a serum that will make him not see Harvey anymore. Sad that he will never see his best friend again, but not wishing to hurt his sister or niece, he agrees to take the treatment, but Dr. Chumley has something to tell Elwood in private first.
Elwood and Dr. Chumley have a long talk about Harvey and much is revealed about Harvey and about Elwood’s life philosophy. Elwood’s gentle behavior may appear simple and possibly insane, but he has this to say to the good doctor, “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
In the end it doesn’t matter if the rabbit is real or not. The important thing is how people treat one another, and if it takes a magical, invisible rabbit to change people then so be it.
I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, but hopefully I have whet your whistle enough to watch the film for yourself. Harvey is funny, touching, and beautifully written and might be one of the most pleasant movies ever. Harvey is wonderful, charming fun for the whole family.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 12, 2009