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I have read that James Stewart considered Elwood P. Dowd his most personally
significant role. In a career that spanned decades and included such great
works at It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, choosing
Harvey's friend, Elwood, as his personal favorite says something about
rather powerful about Mr. Stewart and Mr. Dowd.
James Stewart was a down to earth, decent man whose personal life was as honorable as the lives of George Bailey and Jefferson Smith - but he admired Elwood P. Dowd, an alcoholic dreamer with an invisible giant white rabbit as his best friend. Not what you would expect of a man who piloted B-17's and led giant raids over Germany in WWII.
Elwood's attraction for us is perhaps what attracted him so much to James Stewart. Elwood is happy with himself and his life and even more importantly, he makes others happy with their lives. That is the great magic of Elwood and Harvey: they make others happy and they bring peace and a measure of contentment to almost everyone who know them.
I have seen another version of Harvey with Art Carney and it was quite good, but lacked the sense of magic that is a benediction in this version of Harvey. In the Carney version, you can see Harvey - he is a giant white rabbit - and seeing Harvey takes much of the magic away. When you watch Jimmy Stewart, you never really know if Harvey is real or not. You know that Elwood thinks he is real and you know that Elwood's family thinks Elwood is crazy. After watching for a while, you don't really care if Harvey is real. Elwood is real and it is his belief in Harvey and what Harvey represents to him that endows him with such sweet and gentle charm. Harvey is his rejection of the harshness and materialism of the world.
Harvey is a charming, magical masterpiece of kindness and goodness that somehow never becomes maudlin. Elwood and Harvey do not feel sorry for themselves and they most certainly do not expect you to feel sorry for them either. If anything, Elwood feels sorry for the rest of the world and he does not understand how everyone can't see as clearly as he does. For in his world, we are all brothers who should love as generously and kindly as Mr. Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd.
For about the first thirty minutes, I was thinking of some way to
politely inform those who recommended this film that it wasn't my cup
of tea, but the more I stayed, the more captivated I became. Based on a
stage play that opened six years earlier, Harvey, the 1950 film
directed by Henry Koster, is a delight. If this Jimmy Stewart classic
doesn't make you feel good, you must be related to Mr. Henry F. Potter
of Bedford Falls. Harvey is a 6' 3'' Pooka who has befriended a certain
Mr. Elwood P. Dowd and this causes all sorts of complications for those
around him. In case you didn't know, in Celtic mythology a Pooka is a
fearsome spirit that usually takes the form of a sleek dark horse that
roams the countryside at night, creating harm and mischief. Well,
Harvey is not like that at all.
In fact, Harvey is a very gentle spirit who is always helping people out and can make everybody around him feel relaxed and in a good mood. Now Dowd needs all the help he can get. He likes to take a nip once in a while and is always talking to that danged rabbit to the chagrin of his sister Veta Louise (Josephine Hull) whose social life takes a nosedive when brother Elwood is around. Elwood's shenanigans also interfere with her plans to marry off her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Home). When Veta decides that she has had enough and tries to commit Elwood to a psychiatric institution, the tables are turned and she ends up being committed in a hilarious case of mistaken identity. When Elwood leaves the hospital after being released, the medical staff in the hospital (a bit eccentric themselves) realize their mistake and all try to find him.
The madcap beginning soon turns into a gentle and moving drama. Jimmy Stewart is flawless as the decent man who never loses his temper and always has a smile on his face, giving everyone his card and inviting strangers home for dinner. The supporting cast is top notch as well including the unpleasant Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), his love struck assistant Miss Kelley (Peggy Dow) and the overwrought orderly (Jesse White, later known as the Maytag repairman).
Eventually some that ridiculed Elwood and his rabbit privately admit that they could see Harvey themselves and by the end we are gradually convinced that the so-called normal people may be stranger than Mr. Dowd. Harvey is considered a classic and with good reason. It works because of its good-natured humor and its gentle slap at those who automatically condemn ideas that are outside socially acceptable norms without thinking for themselves.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There are too many aspects of Harvey to analyse. This is a typical example of a film being incredibly deceptive. On the outside the film is a light hearted comedy but when looking at it closely it is very clearly a serious social commentary of it's time, and indeed of the present time (for the same prejudices still exist today). Harvey is a "pooka" ( a mischievous spirit) that manifests itself as a six foot white rabbit. Only Elwood P. Dowd can see Harvey and it is from this that the underlying dark story of an alcoholic's friendship with an invisible spirit blends itself in to comic fantasy. The comic side to the film opens up the subject of prejudice and peoples fear of what is different from themselves. Elwood P Dowd is seen as insane by his sister, niece and the public and yet he is not a killer, he is not an angry or violent man. What he is, however, is a happy, cheerful and exremely pleasant gentleman who takes great pleasure in trying to make other people happy with the aid of a six foot white rabbit. The film's success, in my mind, is entirely on the shoulders of James Stewart who's portrayal of the eccentric Elwwod P Dowd is exceptionally moving and fulfilling. He is surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast and one of the best scripts in movie history. If this does not sound appealing to you, I urge you to watch Dowd's comments regarding Harvey outside the bar. This speech never fails to bring a lump in my throat. Not because it is sad but because it is such an innocent speech (delivered superbly by Stewart). To me, Harvey has a hidden message to the audience, "Elwood P. Dowd does not see life as it is, but life as it should be!! Shoudn't we all see life like this?"
"Years ago, my mother used to say to me, she'd say: 'In this world, Elwood,'
she always used to call 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. And you can quote me."
- Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart)
And, though you suspect James Stewart was never anything less than thoroughly pleasant, that quote from this completely bewitching movie, sums up perfectly the career of James Stewart and this movie in particular. It is one of those rare, rare movies that, when one has watched it, makes you want to try harder to be a nicer, better person. I recommend 'pleasant,' also. And I recommend this movie.
When I first saw this movie I didn't think I would like it. I didn't
think it was my "type" of movie. I was wrong. HARVEY will make you
laugh and at the same time show you the power of kindness. JAMES
STEWART makes you believe someone is there even know his friend is an
invisible 6-foot tall rabbit. It is easily one of the best movies ever
made! If you don't know what this movie is or haven't seen it for any
reason all I have to say is "GO SEE IT!" Even if you don't like black
and white movies, there is something in this movie for everyone. If you
like drama, comedy, or just films that make you feel good inside this
movie is for you.
"If ELWOOD P. DOWD is crazy I don't want to be sane."
To tell you the truth, I had no idea HARVEY would be this good, but it was.
It's not an incredibly deep film, just good-natured.
I'm not sure if these next comments will throw a lot of people off, but I wonder about the controversial nature of the story as well, particularly for a movie made in the 1950's. I mean, after all, this is a movie that does touch on topics of alcoholism, mental illness, spirits, Celtic mythology, and magic. C'mon, we live in a society where Harry Potter cannot exist without receiving a light pounding.
I was also impressed with the development of the Elwood P. Dowd character as portrayed by James Stewart. I just love how the movie shows how he touches the lives of everyone around him. In an age of cinema where supporting characters are immediately cast off after being introduced, I don't think there is a single supporting actor whose character is not developed in this film. I particularly liked the relationship between the doctor and Elwood. I can honestly say that Elwood P. Dowd is one of the most memorable characters I have come across in film along with Molly the Gangster in Charley Varrick and Hal the Computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I also think this movie does an excellent job highlighting those who do represent the salt of the earth in our society, even if they do exhibit behavior that is outside social norms. This is a very good film. See it with a pooka!
A perfect film, overwhelmingly loved.
I would like to point out the lighting in the film is wonderful. The best
scene to look for is as Mr Dowd is sitting in the alley behind the bar
speaking to the Doctor & nurse and the use of shadows and indirect
bring a strength to the scene that is usually only noted for Citizen Kane.
Stewart is so great in so many films and this is among his best roles.
This is screwball comedy that is somehow low key and without slapstick. I cannot think of any film that is similar to this since Peter Sellers did "Being There" in 1979.
They should not remake this film, but if they did the only acceptable actor would be Tom Hanks.
James Stewart became so identified with the role of Elwood P. Dowd in
Harvey that few today are aware that he did not introduce the part. It
was originally done on Broadway by Frank Fay. Whereas Stewart
emphasized the whimsical in Dowd, Fay purportedly leaned towards the
alcoholic of which he had enough personal experience.
Fay left the play and Stewart was brought in and it literally rejuvenated the play. I'm sure it helped to have a big movie name go on Broadway to help sales, but when word of mouth and the rave reviews of the critics got out, the play turned from a hit to a classic.
Only two players from the original Broadway cast made it to the big screen version, Josephine Hull as Elvetia Simmons, Stewart's sister and Jesse White as Wilson the attendant from the mental sanitarium with the 'dynamic personality'. Jesse White was in Hollywood to stay after that and entertained us for decades.
Josephine Hull got to do two of her stage roles for the screen, this one and one of the Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Diametrically opposite parts too. She's a crazy Brewster who poisons lonely old men in one film. And in the other she's the normal sister with an eccentric brother who sees and talks to a six foot white rabbit. Is she losing her marbles also? Well she does confess that at times Elwood makes Harvey so real to her that she's seen him herself.
But it's a big burden on Ms. Hull having Stewart around. She's a widow with a young daughter. Victoria Horne, who she'd like to get into society and meet some eligible and propertied young men. Not likely to happen if she has a crazy uncle around. It's time to take Elwood off to the Mental Institution for a little reality shock.
Of course in his own way and with each of them differently Stewart deceptively works his charm on the staff. He intrigues Cecil Kellaway the head of the institution, he baffles Charles Drake another psychiatrist, and he totally charms Nurse Peggy Dow.
After a while you start to wonder just who is the crazy one in this film. But then again that's what author Mary Chase was trying to convey. Stewart even brings Jesse White somewhat around, no easy task as you will find out in viewing the film.
Stewart revived Harvey in the early seventies with Helen Hayes playing his sister. The revival was a great success. In the post sixties age of the hippies, Stewart was the original drop out from society. And he did it without any cannabis or other narcotic.
Of course it's nice to be somewhat financially secure to be able to do this. We'd all like to though and that is the secret of Harvey's enduring appeal.
A wonderful comedy-drama starring the immensely talented James Stuart as
kind hearted Elwood P. Dowd, a man who has refused to be ruled by life. The
brilliance of this film is the subtlety of the story and the layers of the
character. Under the polite veneer of fifties Hollywood conventions, Harvey
has a decidedly dark undercurrent, one that deals with alcoholism,
loneliness and rejection. Not that this should deter you from enjoying the
many comic scenarios that Harvey throws at the viewer during the course of
the film, as this is definitely a comedy gem. But the truth and beauty
behind what Elwood is saying only make the entire package all the more
exquisite, like putting chocolate on a donut.
The most beautiful scene I've seen in any film is the scene in which Elwood explains how Harvey has enriched his life, though the people who are listening to the story doubt Harvey's existence, thus doubting Elwood's sanity, the words of his speech, coupled with the delivery of Stuart's performance are so touching and true that even the most jaded audience will be won over into believing Harvey to be real. The enjoyment that Elwood now gets from life, the wonderful times he has, wherever he is, whoever he's with, is the kind of enjoyment everyone strives to achiever from life. This is bygone film-making at it's best; Stuart is such a joy to watch that you'll remember this film for a long time after viewing. With fine support from all the actors, this is one film that truly deserves its classic status.
A film is like a recipe, you need the right ingredients.
Start with a Pulitzer Prize willing play.
Cast the perfect screen ensemble.
Mix well, bake at 350 degrees, and serve hot.
Never mind the B&W. Never mind that young people of the current era (whenever you read this review) will think the look is dated or the actors are of a bygone age.
This version of Harvey will never be surpassed. Stewart owns this role the way Eastwood owns the Man with No Name, or Harrison owns Indiana Jones.
Have seen this six or seven times and each time I catch some nuance in the script I missed before.
Roger Ebert used to say that the mark of a fine film was inverse to the number of times you looked at your watch. I never look at my watch when I watch Harvey.
In the grand tradition of Pooka magic, time stops.
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