Harvey (1950)

Harvey, 1950, Universal Pictures. Starring James Stewart; co-starring Josephine Hull. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 105 minutes.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a naïve, yet oddly sage, man who would do anything for the family that wants nothing more than to hide him away from the world. Chiefly, they want him to keep his discussions about and with his best friend, Harvey, to himself. Harvey, you see, is a 6′ 3 -1/2″ invisible rabbit, or a “pooka,” a mischievous mythological creature .

His sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), among other things, is worried for her daughter’s prospects what with friends and neighbors hearing Elwood’s benevolent but strange talk about life…and a pooka. She arranges to have him committed to a local mental hospital, but in the process confesses to seeing Harvey herself at times. The admitting doctor (Charles Drake) takes note, and Veta is involuntarily placed in the hospital instead.

Josephine Hull in Harvey

Josephine Hull

Ultimately, it’s Elwood who sees to her release, but not before more confusion blurs the lines between doctor and patient, the sane and presumed insane.

Harvey won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Josephine Hull, and Stewart was also nominated for Best Actor. Both had played the same roles on Broadway, although Stewart was one of several actors to portray Elwood P. Dowd in the original run of the Pulitzer award-winning play by Mary Chase.

By contract, production on the film couldn’t begin until the play had closed that initial run. Once it did, director Henry Koster wanted to keep the movie as true to the play as possible, and to that end he hired Mary Chase to write the screenplay with Oscar Brodney. He also hired several other actors and actresses from the long-running (1,775 shows) play to reprise their roles in the film.

That was a wise decision. These may not be the best-known performers to filmgoers, but their work was seamless and the magic of Harvey was maintained on screen. This movie is light and funny on the one hand, gently thought-provoking on the other.

Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart

Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart

The play, which took two years for Mary Chase to write, received the fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama to go to a woman (of the 86 such awards given to date, 15 have now been given to women). Chase reportedly was inspired to write the play to cheer a friend who lost her son in WWII, and it was said to be a difficult process for the experienced journalist and author.

Harvey has been remade multiple times, including a 1972 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation again starring James Stewart. That version was a bit darker, with Stewart playing his character with more edge, and the movie was not as well-received by audiences.

However, the original remains an enchanting, whimsical tale of a man able to see and speak his simple truth, and how, despite themselves, those in the world around him are drawn in by his utter conviction and pure belief.