This is my entry in the Animals in Film Blogathon sponsored by In The Good Old Days of Hollywood.
Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Hollywood wanted to pay tribute to all the great animals that had appeared in movies over the years. I am sure she was expecting (and got) entries like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, National Velvet, That Darn Cat, you know the cutesy animals of bygone days. So I suspect she was initially taken aback when I suggested Harvey. After all, Harvey is never physically shown on screen, and is not, in fact, even an animal. Harvey is what is referred to in the movie as a "pooka" which is a mythological spirit that, as described in the movie, often takes the form of an animal. Thus for Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey is a 6 foot 3½ inch rabbit. And Elwood is the only person that can see Harvey, although many friends humor him, even if they do think he's bonkers.
Harvey was originally a Broadway play by Mary Chase. The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945. It had an extremely successful run as a play on Broadway (1,775 performances) and was very popular at its time. Frank Fay originally played Elwood P. Dowd, later to be replaced by, among others, Jimmy Stewart, and Josephine Hull, who would reprise the role in the film, played his put upon sister, Veta Louise Simmons. A side note: Joe E. Brown played Elwood for a time during this run. Now there's an Elwood I would have liked to seen. Probably not as sedate and calm as Stewart, I'm guessing...
The movie begins with Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) leaving his house for the day, accompanied by his invisible friend Harvey. His sister, Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) watch him in anticipation. Dotty old Elwood is not a wanted guest this afternoon, because Veta has scheduled a party to try to introduce Myrtle into society, with the object of eventually landing her a husband. To ensure that Elwood is kept away, Veta enlists the help of a friend Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn). The Judge promises to put a man on following Elwood, but the man gets injured, unbeknownst to the Judge, and can't do the job.
Meanwhile Elwood learns of the party. Being hopelessly befuddled, he thinks Veta just forgot to tell him and goes home (with Harvey). He tries to introduce the society ladies to Harvey and they all run screaming for the exits. Veta is at her wits end, and with the help of her friend the Judge, decides to have Elwood committed to an institution. Thus begins a riotous sequence of events that rivals, in my opinion, Arsenic and Old Lace, for queer antics and misconceptions and confusion.
In a nutshell, Elwood is taken to a room, but he seems to be the normal one when compared to Veta, who is sometimes frantic and hysterical over her brother's antics. As a result, the doctor on call, Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), has her committed and Elwood released. His nurse (Peggy Dow), is remonstrated for having committed the wrong person, but she tells him it really was Elwood who was to be the patient.
Elwood, meanwhile is wandering out of the hospital and encounters Mrs. Chumley (Grace Mills), and asks her, if she sees Harvey, to tell him where Elwood has gone. It is at this point that Elwood reveals that Harvey is a pooka, but like those of us in the audience watching it for the first time, she says "What's a pooka?"
There are some hilarious scenes with an orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), who almost steals the show in every scene he is in. He and Myrtle begin to fall in love. He is probably the least believable Don Juan to every come on the screen, but Myrtle really likes him.
At one point he is asked what a "pooka" is. He looks it up in a dictionary and reads the following:
"P O O K A. Pooka. From old Celtic mythology... a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one. A benign but mischievous creature, very fond of rumpots and crackpots and how are you, Mr. Wilson?"
(BTW: Do you recognize him? He was the Maytag repairman for years in all those commercials...)
Eventually Veta is freed and everyone goes looking for Elwood. Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the head doctor finds him first. The rest eventually catch up to Elwood who is alone. He tells them that Dr. Chumley and Harvey left together. As ridiculous as it may seem to the audience, there is some suspicion that Elwood caused some harm to the doctor. The whole crew go back to the sanitarium, which Elwood, sweet innocent soul that he is, is willing to be given a serum that will make him "normal", to make Veta happy.
Dr. Chumley is there and wondering what to do about Harvey. (It seems that now someone else besides Elwood can see him.) Elwood has a long chat with the doctor about Harvey's innate abilities and the doctor wishes that Harvey could stay with him. Harvey has his own ideas though.
Harvey is without a doubt the best use of Jimmy Stewart's down home serene demeanor and is one of the best comedies of the classic era. Proving even to a hardened 80's juvenile comedy lover like me that funny doesn't have to have sophomoric humor and four letter words to be funny. Stewart came in behind Jose Ferrer in the voting for best actor of 1950. (Ferrer won for playing Cyrano de Bergerac in the movie of the same name). But Josephine Hull did win a statuette for Best Supporting Actress. Check it out.
And thanks to Crystal for putting up with this stretch of the blogathon parameters.