Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950) Mary Chase finished her play "Harvey" in 1944; she'd been working on it for two years, inspired by a neighbor who'd lost her son in the second world war—"could I ever make her laugh again?" was her spark of inspiration, and, having written a couple of Broadway flops, the work was slow going. She woke up one morning at 5 a.m. with the vision of a psychiatrist being followed by a large white rabbit.
That was Chase 's pilot light for the play which would become one of Broadway's longest-running hits, win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945, and become a staple of local theatrical troupes when a season of Strindberg, Ibsen, and Albee doesn't bring in the patrons. Long associated with James Stewart in the role of the "bubble-off-plumb" protagonist, Elwood P. Dowd, the play premiered and became a hit with actor Frank Fay in the part, which goes to show how infectiously pleasing the play is; Fay was a popular vaudevillian, but despised in real life for being a drunk, a fascist, and an avowed white supremacist, who (it is rumored) might have been the inspiration for the character of Norman Maine for "A Star is Born" after his 1928 marriage to Barbara Stanwyck saw her rise to stardom, while his career sank...that is, until "Harvey." (Fellow vaudevillian Milton Berle once said that "Fay's friends could be counted on the missing arm of a one-armed man"....ouch).
The film rights for the play were purchased for $750,000—a huge extravagance at the time—and not made until 1950, as the production was contractually bound not to be produced until after the play's stage-run had completed. Many actors were considered for the lead of Dowd ("Elwood P.")—Bing Crosby (maybe, but could get too folksy), Cary Grant (too aggressive), Gary Cooper (if we're thinking Capra, sure), Jack Benny (oh...the comic timing on that one), and James Cagney (a little too authoritative, maybe), but it came around to Stewart, who'd appeared in the Broadway version during Fay's sabbaticals. Josephine Hull as his sister Veta followed from the stage and manages to overshadow Stewart in her scenes, winning an Oscar doing so.
The film follows an eventful day in the life of Elwood P. Dowd, never married, frequent tippler, and affable to a fault, making friends wherever he meets, including with a 6' 3 1/2" tall rabbit named Harvey, a pooka spirit that no one but Elwood can see. Dowd's complacency with his imaginary friend is a constant burr under the bonnet of his sister Veta (Hull), whose main concerns are keeping up appearances and the encouragement of any "gentleman callers" to collect at the door of the Dowd estate that might make an attractive mate for her daughter Myrtle Mae, whom, of all the Dowd's is certainly the Dowdiest.
But, on this day, Elwood has hung a portrait of him and his friend and something in Veta snaps. She decides that she is going to have Elwood committed to the local sanitariun, but to the institution's administrator, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the calm mild-mannered Elwood seems completely sane, while his apoplectic sister, in explaining her situation, comes off as completely bonkers. She ends up being institutionalized, while Elwood is allowed to skip out and make his rounds. This causes enough complications in the lives of the institution's workers, particularly in the threatening of one of the examiner's, Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), that Elwood comes under scrutiny for his peculiarities.
It turns into an examination of who might really be the sane among us, calling into question what is "normal" and what is merely a tilted version of the world, with the experts seeming to be at a disadvantage. They come across as neurotic and with unsatisfied needs, as if poking around into other people's souls for so long has prevented them from taking much of a look into their own.
It's a fairly straight-forward presentation of the play, with a bit of softening of Elwood as a drinker (the Hays Code did not encourage this for characters of a good nature). Stewart was well-versed in the play and gave director Henry Koster the suggestion of filming him off-center, allowing there to be physical space on the screen for the invisible rabbit to inhabit, but also to show the slightly askew demeanor of the seemingly normal Dowd—Stewart plays him so kindly that the visual imbalance only helps reinforce that his character is a bit "off." And, following, the play's dictates "Harvey" is never seen, leaving the audience to question...until the last possible moment...whether he "really" exists, or is merely a figment of Dowd's hazy imagination.
I've always been enchanted by "Harvey," even as a kid, but adulthood has made me entranced with the melancholy aspects of the story...of the fellow, devoted to his parents, who has filled the empty space in his life after their deaths with a wish-fulfillment of the same sort of closeness he had with his spouse. I've seen it played for laughs and I've seen it (on stage) played for pathos (semi-successfully) that the fine tightrope that the presentation presents needs to be gingerly trod or else the whole exercise turns into a disaster. I've often contemplated that, and what a more modern version of "Harvey" might be like, even though it hearkens to old world values and manners. Spielberg was actively trying to do a new version of it, first approaching Tom Hanks to star (who begged off, thinking it would be folly for him to try and follow Stewart's interpretation) and then, for awhile, Robert Downey Jr. was set for it—you'd think that would be a lock, but Downey insisted on script changes that Spielberg was not happy with. Spielberg chalked it up to casting issues and abandoned a remake.
Is "Harvey" a manifestation of Dowd's drinking or his melancholy ache for companionship? Either interpretation works. But, I always had in mind a different interpretation, a more modern one, that hinged on one particular actor who might be able to pull it off—Jack Nicholson. There's something about his persona that I've always thought might fit Elwood Dowd to a tee. Elwood's just a little aggressive ("I would like to invite you to dinner..." "Oh, that would be lovel-" "When?") and a bit vague and lost. Maybe Elwood smokes weed rather than drinks, maybe he's experimented with hallucinogenics...which might explain the "Harvey" manifestation. But not entirely. Elwood has no family of his own—he has his parents' family, and with his mother's death, he's more than a little adrift, with death as a seen presence of life. Maybe he's drawn to Harvey...or drawn Harvey...because Harvey can't die. Already being a spirit, it wouldn't be much of an advancement.
No, combine a bit of Nicholson's Southern lawyer in Easy Rider, his adrift musician in Five Easy Pieces, some of the impishness of McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and you have a good starting point for a new Elwood, old and wise enough to know the rules of engagement in the modern world, but just not giving a damn. It's his little bubble-verse, damn it, and you're welcome to climb in (glad to have ya), but don't go round poking at the bubble...or it'll burst. I'd like to see that "Harvey."