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Film Friday: "Harvey" (1950)

The weather outside has been absolutely frightful, so for this week on "Film Friday" I have decided to bring you one of the most delightful films I have seen so far. This is one of those enchanting little stories that will most definitely keep you warm on a cold winter night.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry Koster, Harvey (1950) tells the story of Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a middle-aged, amiable drunk who claims to have an invisible best friend named Harvey whom he describes as a 6'3.5" tall pooka resembling an anthropomorphic white rabbit. His friends and family wonder whether his obsession with Harvey is a product of his (self-admitted) drinking problem or a sign of mental illness. When Elwood starts to introduce Harvey to guests at a society party hosted by his excitable sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull), the old woman has seen just about as much of his eccentric behavior as she can tolerate. To spare her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) and their family from future embarrassment, Veta decides to have Elwood committed to a sanatorium.

While explaining the situation to the attending psychiatist, Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Charles Drake), Veta herself is mistakenly assumed to be on the verge of lunacy by admitting that years of living with Elwood's hallucination have caused her to see Harvey also. This prompts Dr. Sanderson to commit Vera instead of her brother, but when the truth comes out, Dr. William Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), head of sanatorium, sets out to find Elwood and his invisible companion. Sanderson, along with his nurse, Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow), and sanatorium attendant Marvin Wilson (Jesse White) soon follow and eventually find Elwood at his favorite bar, Charlie's. There, Elwood explains that Chumley and Harvey have left for another bar and later tells Sanderson and Miss Kelly the story of how he met the rabbit. After everyone returns to the sanatorium, Chumley asks to speak privately with Elwood, who then shares with the doctor his philosophy of life and Harvey's extraordinary abilities. Just as Chumley acknowledges Harvey's existence, Sanderson offers to give Elwood a serum that will make him stop seeing the rabbit. Fortunately, Veta has come to realize that the world is a better place when both Elwood and Harvey are in it and stops the injection. Elwood then leaves the sanatorium with his invisible friend, but when Chumley begs him to leave Harvey behind, he relunctantly agrees. Just as he passes the sanatorium gates, however, Elwood is rejoined by Harvey and the two head off towards a last stop of Charlie's Bar.

Elwood P. Dowd: 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.

The whimsical tale of Elwood P. Dowd and his friend Harvey first enchanted audiences as a three-act comedy play written by Mary Coyle Chase, reportedly as a way to cheer up a neighbor from her hometown of Denver, Colorado whose son had been killed during World War II. Starring Frank Fay as Elwood and Josephine Hull as his sister Veta, Harvey opened at 48th Street Theatre in New York in November 1944 and was a massive success among audiences and critics alike, enjoying a five-year run on the Broadway stage. In 1945, Harvey earned Chase the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the fourth woman to win the award, after Zona Gale (Miss Lulu Bett, 1921), Susan Glaspell (Alison's House, 1931) and Zoë Akins (The Old Maid, 1935). When Fay took a vacation in the summer of 1947, the play's producer, Brock Pemberton, offered James Stewart the opportunity to take over the role of Elwood for the duration. Stewart eagerly accepted and received excellent reviews for his performance.

Around the same time, screenwriter-director Preston Sturges expressed interest in adapting Harvey to the screen, but it was actually Universal Pictures that ended up purchasing the rights to Chase's play for a record-breaking $1 million. Contractually, the studio could not move forward with producing a film version until Harvey finished its run on Broadway, so as to not interfere with its business. Nevertheless, Universal immediately signed Henry Koster to direct; he had recently been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on another fantasy film, The Bishop's Wife (1947). Koster had seen the play twice on the stage and was thrilled to be working on its film adaptation. "It was a story right up my alley," he later recalled. "There was so much whimsy, so much fairytale, so much deep thought, so much decency in people. I loved it [...] So when I was asked if I wanted to do it, I said, 'Do I ever?'"

James Stewart in a publicity still
With Koster happily on board to direct Harvey, Universal began discussing possible actors to portray Elwood P. Dowd in the film. Some of the names suggested at the time included Bing Crosby (who turned it down), Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Jack Benny and James Cagney. In an attempt to prove to the studio that he would be perfect as Elwood, Stewar returned to the stage in the summer of 1948 to play the character once again. By the time Harvey closed on Broadway in January 1949, after an astounding 1,775 performances, Stewart's plan had worked the role of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey was his.

Koster wanted to keep the film as close to the original play was possible. To achieve this, he asked Chase to work on the script with Oscar Brodney, who would later receive an Academy Award nomination for co-writting The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which starred Stewart. "She was a very nice lady to work with and a great writer of comedy," said Koster of Chase. "She wrote additional dialogue for us, and we had to rearrange it for cinematic purposes, from the stage play which takes place in one or two rooms, to the show that takes place in twenty or thirty rooms. We wanted to get the visual effects just as much as we wanted that lovely dialogue." Though Chase subtly made it clear in her play that Elwood is a raging, though benign, alcoholic, the Breen Office would not allow Stewart to be shown getting drunk on screen. Instead, his character orders a lot of drinks at Charlie's Bar, but the audience never actually sees him take a sip. Koster also made the decision to cast most of the original actors from the play, including Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Jesse Wilson, Cecil Kellaway and Charles Drake, to ensure that the story's playful and eccentric spirit would be kept intact in the film adaptation.

James Stewart having lunch with "Harvey"
Production on Harvey began in April 1950 at the Universal studios and was a happy experience for everyone involved. According to Koster, "it was a complete, one hundred percent pleasure, the whole picture. I had the most wonderful performers. The spirit of Harvey, that splendid and helpful ghost, was always with us while we did it." In fact, as a joke, the cast and crew would often set a chair for the invisible rabbit at lunch and would even order him something to eat.

During the six weeks they spent making Harvey, Koster and Stewart discovered that they worked extremely well together. The director later said that working with Stewart was "without any doubt one of the most pleasant experiences of my life [...] It must have been his spirit. There was very little friction, ever, only ambition and craftsmanship and precision, just doing it right professionally. On top of that he put the whipped cream of great talent [...] He was always the first on the set." As a sign of his trust in the 42-year-old actor, Koster accepted Stewart's suggestion that he change some shots in the film to make them wider, so that "Harvey" would be in the frame. Koster went on to direct Stewart in four more pictures: Highway in the Sky (1951), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), Take Her, She's Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965). To learn more about Koster and Stewart's collaborations, read this great article by the Metzinger Sisters over at Silver Scenes.

Chase had the idea that film audiences should actually see Harvey at the end of the film because she "didn't want anybody to go out of the theater thinking Elwood is just a lush. He believes in Harvey [...] and I think the audience ought to believe in Harvey, too." Universal reportedly considered this and experimented with how to show him to the audience, including his appearance in silhouette, and even by attaching a rabbit tail to the taxi driver (played by Wallace Ford) at the end of the film. Ultimately, however, the studio prevailed and wisely decided not to ruin the illusion. According to Pemberton a giant rabbit appeared onstage only once, during the first performance of the play in Boston, and the results had been disastrous: "a chill descended on the gathering, which never quite thawed out afterwards."

Harvey opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on October 13, 1950 to excellent reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "I you're for warm and gentle whimsey, for a charmingly fanciful farce and for a little touch of pathos anent the fateful evanescence of man's dreams, then the movie version of 'Harvey' is definitely for you." Although the film did well at the box office, its profits were not enough to recoup its production costs, which had been exacerbated by extravagant sum paid for the rights to the play. However, in 1990, Stewart recorded an introduction to the VHS release of Harvey, which turned out to be one of the biggest selling videos of the year. At the 23rd Academy Awards, Josephine Hull won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Veta, while Stewart received a nomination for Best Actor, but lost to José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950).

The Fantasy Film by Katherine A. Fowkes (2010) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


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