No prizes for guessing whom this prize post is dedicated to.
(For those who’re not in the know: I hosted a Classic Bollywood Quiz last year on this blog, and the prizes for that—one for each participant—was a post dedicated to that participant. My friend and fellow blogger Harvey got the Quick Worker Award for the quiz—he had to perforce submit his answers within a couple of days of the quiz being posted, and still managed to get 7 out of 10 right. Impressive).
So: the all-important question. Why am I dedicating this post (about a sweet man whose best friend is an invisible giant rabbit) to Harvey? No, not because I think my pal is nuts. But because Harvey was the one who recommended Harvey to me, and because I found this such an unusual film. And with such an endearing moral to it. Thank you, Harvey. That warmed my soul.
We first meet see Harvey figure out something’s not quite as it should be when the film opens to show Elwood P Dowd (James Stewart, in a role for which he got an Oscar nomination) stepping out of his home and gently ushering forward a taller (but conspicuously invisible) friend. Elwood is a sweet, but perhaps somewhat unusual person—he offers his visiting card to the postman (in fact, in the course of the film, he offers a card to just about every stranger he meets).
…and we move into the Dowd household, where we are introduced to the two other members of Elwood’s family. These are his sister Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull, in an Oscar-winning role), and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne).
Veta and Myrtle Mae don’t have a home of their own, and since Veta and Elwood’s mother willed everything to Elwood, these two have no choice but to stay with him.
As soon as Elwood is gone, Veta and Myrtle Mae rush about, getting things ready for a party. It turns out their social life has come to a standstill thanks to Harvey—Elwood insists on introducing his ‘friend’ to all of Veta and Myrtle Mae’s acquaintances, with the result that people have stopped visiting them. That has also lessened Myrtle Mae’s chances of meeting any eligible young men (or any of their female relatives who might like her enough to put in a word for her).
Just to make sure Elwood doesn’t burst in on them and spoil their party, Veta phones her old friend Judge Gaffney (William H Lynn) and begs him to depute a man to keep an eye on Elwood, and prevent him—at any cost—from coming home over the next couple of hours.
The man put on the job unfortunately suffers a minor accident, and Judge Gaffney comes to know only much later.
Meanwhile, Elwood has entered (along with the invisible Harvey) the local bar that he frequents. The people here—bartender and other patrons—seem to take Harvey in their stride. Most of them don’t even look surprised or amused when Elwood tells Harvey to sit down, and then proceeds (after courteously asking Harvey what he’d like to drink) to order two martinis.
Elwood and Harvey are apparently regulars here. Elwood meets some old friends and makes some new ones (strangers whom he gives his card to, and whom he invites for dinner). All this before he suddenly realises that Veta and Myrtle Mae must be wondering where he’s gone. “Let’s drink up,” he tells Harvey. They must be getting home.
—which they do, just in time to say hello to the lady whom Veta has been eyeing as Myrtle Mae’s prospective grandmother-in-law. The lady hasn’t met Elwood for a long time, and is very gracious and even exuberant when she meets him—until he introduces Harvey, after which the party swiftly begins to break up.
Chumley’s Rest is a grand and wonderful sanatorium run by the highly qualified Dr Chumley (Cecil Kellaway). Veta instructs Elwood (and Harvey, who of course has come along with Elwood) to sit in the car, while she goes in.
Inside the sanatorium, Veta breaks down as she pours out her woes to the nurse, Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow).
Miss Kelly quickly makes a note about Elwood, and sends the sanatorium orderly, Wilson (Jesse White) to fetch Elwood in from the car. She tells Wilson to take Elwood upstairs to one of the rooms while she takes Veta to discuss her brother’s distressing condition with one of the doctors.
Dr Chumley doesn’t personally handle the patients any longer, so his assistant Dr Sanderson (Charles Drake) interviews Veta. She tells him all—in her overwrought, somewhat incoherent style (punctuated by much meandering, sharing of inconsequential information, and the news that Harvey will ring the death-knell for Myrtle Mae’s chances of marriage). To convince Dr Sanderson, she even describes Harvey: “I see this big white rabbit myself…and he’s every bit as big as Elwood says he is!”
And the awful truth dawns on Dr Sanderson: they’ve committed the wrong person to Chumley’s Rest.
Leaving Veta in his room, he rushes out and tells Miss Kelly (with whom he shares some sort of—if unspoken—chemistry) that this happens sometimes. A psychopath realises that he or she is going to be committed to the sanatorium by a relative, and tries to convince the medical authorities that it should be the other way round.
That’s what Veta’s done. She is the one to be committed, not Elwood.
So Veta is bunged into a padded cell. Elwood is released, with many apologies, which he takes sweetly in his stride, never once questioning why they’d been getting ready to give him some unsettling hydro treatment. Dr Sanderson personally apologises to Elwood, explains that they’ll be keeping Veta at Chumley’s Rest, and lets Elwood go.
Elwood wanders out into the gardens of Chumley’s Rest, picks a flower for his buttonhole (even though his coat collar doesn’t have a buttonhole) and is heading happily towards the gate when a car drives in.
The passenger here is Mrs Chumley (Nana Bryant), and seeing a stranger ambling through the grounds, she gets the chauffeur to pull up.
Within moments, Elwood has handed her his card and informed her that he’s looking for his friend Harvey, who’s a “pooka” (even though Elwood doesn’t supply an explanation of what a pooka is, we soon get to hear a dictionary definition of a pooka: “From old Celtic mythology. A varied spirit and animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then… a benign but mischievous creature.”)
Anyway, Elwood—having charmed Mrs Chumley with his affability (and made friends with the gateman, whom he invites for dinner)—goes off out the gate.
And Mrs Chumley, going into the sanatorium and telling her husband, Dr Sanderson, Miss Kelly and Wilson all about this sweet man she’s just met—brings home to them the horrid realisation that by locking up Veta, they have committed the wrong person. Oh, blast!
There will be fireworks between Dr Sanderson and Miss Kelly, Dr Sanderson and Dr Chumley. There will be high emotion and slow, soothing moments. There will be drama and romance and comedy. There will be things that are unexplained. And it’ll all centre, ultimately, around Elwood and the unseen Harvey.
If you think this film sounds like a completely whacked-out comedy, you’re right. It is. But it is more, much more.
I must confess the first half hour or so had me wondering what Harvey had inflicted on me. Okay, this was funny, but only in a somewhat low-brow, ‘poking-fun-at-the-simple’ way. I know enough to realise that today’s politically incorrect was yesterday’s perfectly acceptable, but this didn’t appeal me to even with that caveat.
But, by the time Harvey had reached the midway mark, I was fascinated—because this is more than just that. It is, eventually, about how affection, friendliness, sweetness, and an innocent simplicity can be vastly more important than being always the sharpest pencil in the pack. Elwood (and Harvey) go about life making friends with everybody. They (or, if I have to be precise, Elwood) make people feel wanted. Elwood offers his friendship, with no strings attached, to strangers—and they accept it gratefully. People are intrinsically friendly, Harvey seems to say.
Mary Chase, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play this film is based on (she also co-wrote the screenplay for it) found an unusual way to bring across her message. It’s subtle, gentle, and very endearing. And that, when you’ve cleared away the surface comedy, is what Harvey is all about. Being pleasant is more important than being smart (not my line; I’m paraphrasing from the film).
And I found one particular scene a very ironic, interesting one: Dr Chumley, confiding in Elwood, tells him about his hopes and dreams. And while doing so, he lies down on the couch in his room. Elwood sits beside him on the chair, listening with rapt attention.
A telling inversion of the standard psychiatrist-patient scene? Here, it’s the psychiatrist on the couch, and the patient in the chair. But is that really it? Or is it the other way round? Is Elwood, in fact, the one who can listen and give advice and help? And is Dr Chumley (who perhaps represents all of us, who think we’re so sane, so normal) the one who actually needs help?
Just one thing: the very sudden romance between Wilson and Myrtle Mae. It’s forgivable in a film that’s to some extent a comedy, though, so I’m not going to harp about it.
Remember the egg and onion sandwich I mentioned above? Well, it sometimes happens that when I’m watching a film, I come across something so intriguing that I actually pause the film and go off to find out what I can about that something. This was one of them. I had to find out, without waiting, what an egg and onion sandwich would be like.
You’ll notice that I’m not the only one who seems to have been intrigued by that particular sandwich in Harvey.
Another bit of trivia. When James Stewart died in 1997, some of his fans left mementoes on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Among them was a tall (not 6’3 ½”) rabbit wearing overalls.