Harvey and the Infectious Kindness of Jimmy Stewart
Harvey is a curious movie. Synopsized in a bleak literal way: it’s the story of an alcoholic middle-aged man, suffering from hallucinations, whose sister and niece are trying to have him forcibly institutionalized so they can take his house. Looked at in another way: it’s the story of a lovable eccentric and his magical sidekick, breaking the people they encounter out of their cynical ruts, through attentive loving kindness. What one is meant to feel while watching this film is this lightness of the story, but the darker currents do bubble up throughout, highlighting a moral to the film that I think deliberate: engaging the world with patience and open-heartedness can have a genuinely transformative effect on your world, the people you meet in it, and your own story.
Adapted from Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, Harvey takes its title from the purported hallucination at the center of the film: a 6’ 3.5” rabbit that, seemingly, can only be seen by our protagonist: Jimmy Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd. Identified throughout the film as Pooka - a benign, but mischievous fairy spirit from Celtic mythology - the film is coy about whether or not Harvey is real, or whether he can be seen by others. Even at the end of the film, when we see the motion of a swing and an opening gate, effects that we are inclined to attribute to Harvey, Elwood is the only other character present, calling into question whether we are merely now starting to see his hallucinations, too.
Harvey is as real as you or I, to Elwood. To understand this movie, particularly if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth lingering on this point for a moment. The film lives and dies on how concrete and natural Jimmy Stewart is able to make Harvey, and their relationship. Stewart manages something quite special in what would ultimately be an Oscar nominated performance. Stewart never winks. Stewart doesn’t play Elwood as a man hallucinating, but commits entirely to Harvey’s reality. In a time before ubiquitous green screen acting, he makes an unseen Harvey believable in a way that lets our imagination color him into the scenes.
Stewart’s performance also carries the tone of the film. Harvey has been revived a number of times over the last 70+ years. I saw it on Broadway with Jim Parsons and Carol Kane. There was a TV movie adaptation made in 1998 starring Harry Anderson. Jimmy Stewart even returned to the role in a 1972 TV movie. The latter of these two can be found on YouTube if you’re so inclined. Each of these performances, including Stewart’s own return to the role, fail to capture everything that Stewart brought to the original filmed version. There is a bit of a tightrope walk required by the role mainly because the story doesn’t shy away from Elwood being a heavy drinker, (and purportedly delusional) but the story would fall apart if he came off as too pitiable or strange for the audience to root for and identify with. By the end of the film, you need to believe that when Elwood’s sister opts not to have him institutionalized, or have his delusion chemically treated, everybody is better off with Elwood in their lives just as it is.
Stewart, in my view, accomplishes this in a way that other productions haven’t, by portraying Dowd as almost a bit of a saint, or a mystic, instead of a loveable weirdo. You look past Elwood’s drinking, and the implications of Harvey, because of the charisma and light coming from Elwood when you see him interacting with others. Elwood, as Stewart first performed him, comes off like Fred Rogers or Bob Ross: patient, kind, soft-spoken, happy, and in love with life and everyone he meets. When we first meet Dowd, he’s listening to a mailman, making small talk about the day, to which Dowd says, “Oh, every day's a beautiful day,” and you believe he means it. The line reading works, not coming off at all cloying, because Dowd seems to believe it in his bones as a simple fact, not something he’s trying to project or convince others of.
As I alluded to at the beginning, the story of Harvey revolves around Elwood Dowd, who has inherited his deceased mother’s home, and seemingly not inconsiderable resources. His sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, have recently come to live with him, but are embarrassed to discover that Harvey lives with Elwood as well. The precipitating incident for the film is a social gathering that Veta attempts to throw at the house while Elwood is supposed to be out for the day. The party is meant to be a sort of coming out party for young Myrtle Mae, to introduce her to the community, so that she might attract suitors, or even a husband, without the baggage of her peculiar uncle.
Through happenstance, Elwood does hear about the party. He and Harvey hurry home intending to offer support to his sister and niece in their endeavors. Elwood arrives and introduces everyone at the party to Harvey, quickly clearing out all of the partygoers. For Veta, this is the final embarrassing straw, and she calls a local judge to begin the process of having her brother committed.
The small scene in which Elwood hears about the party is as important for how I see the movie as most anything that comes after. Elwood has arrived at his favorite bar, “Charlie’s,” where it seems he plans to spend the day. He and Harvey take their usual seats at the bar, where they are both recognized and warmly welcomed. Elwood leaves Harvey at the bar for a moment to go say ‘hello’ to a man he recognizes at one of the tables. We’re introduced to the somewhat indigent looking Mr. Meegles, who we learn has recently been released from jail. In this encounter we first see Elwood’s boundless love, trust, and acceptance of others. Dowd is genuinely interested in how Meegles is doing, pays no mind at all to the little time he’s done, and invites him to come over to the house for dinner the next night. Mr. Meegles also helps advance the plot, because it’s him that points out to Elwood the notice in the society page of the newspaper about the party Veta is throwing that day.
There is a thread of loneliness and longed for connection in Harvey that we see through a few different guises. Veta’s frustration at feeling like she can’t have people over to the house anymore; she becomes distraught when her efforts at the top of the film go awry. Myrtle Mae is also frustrated: feeling that she can’t have gentleman callers over. Mr. Meegles worries that he won’t be welcome at Elwood’s house, or anywhere, because of the time he did. These threads, and their happy resolution, feature prominently during the second half of the film as our attention focuses on the sanitarium, “Chumley’s Rest.” The action of the last half of the film turns on the farcical story point of Veta being committed to the sanitarium instead of Elwood. It’s Veta who seems distraught and talks of Harvey as if he were real, while Elwood’s enviably happy equanimity seems the very picture of sanity.
There are four important characters we are introduced to at Chumley’s Rest: Dr. Chumley, Dr. Sanderson, Ms. Kelly, and Mr. Wilson. Each character has an arc that turns based on their benefiting from having met and been disarmed by the charm and kindness of Elwood Dowd. Dr. Sanderson and Ms. Kelly are the doctor and nurse on duty when Elwood is brought to Chumley’s Rest. We meet them bickering and with an unspoken past, but Elwood acts as matchmaker for them throughout the second act. Mr. Wilson is an orderly at the sanitarium, whose behavior hints at the way institutionalized patients are often manhandled to get them to behave. He softens over the course of the final act as Dowd encourages the growing relationship between him and Myrtle Mae.
Dr. Chumley is the most interesting case. We meet his kind wife briefly as Elwood is leaving the sanitarium, but Dr. Chumley seems unhappy with his life. We hear Elwood recount how when Dr. Chumley later found him and Harvey at Charlie’s, they spoke over a few drinks, and Dr. Chumley became inebriated enough that he wandered off to try and hit on someone else’s date. Later, when talking with Elwood about Harvey, Chumley says if Harvey could take him anywhere, he would like to disappear for two weeks with some pretty girl, who would stroke his head and tell him what a poor little thing he was. When we last see Dr. Chumley, he’s walking back into the sanitarium, (possibly still drunk) talking in a hopeful tone to a “Harvey” of his own about this dream.
Whether Dr. Chumley is actually left better off at the end of the film is hard to say, but he is certainly happier. Everyone else comes away happier for having come into contact with Elwood as well. This idea is stated fairly plainly in the most famous monologue from the play and film:
Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us.
Between the lines, we can infer the account of these interactions is surely colored by how Elwood sees the world, but by this point we’ve already seen his disarming way with people. Surely there are times when the people he and Harvey met were not as kindly as they are painted here, but I expect Elwood is more right than wrong. The connections he made were largely warm ones, and the ones that weren’t, were warm for him all the same.
In this vein, Elwood says at one point: “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.” There’s hints throughout the film that Elwood may have had a dramatic break with reality at some point after his mother died. That may have also been when his drinking started, as well. While talking to Dr. Sanderson Elwood even says, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” At some level you see a recognition in Elwood of a dramatic change having taken place, but all evidence points to it being one for the better. He is happier, the people he meets are happier, and when given the chance to have him chemically treated to return him back to whom he was before meeting Harvey, Veta realizes that she would be doing him far more harm than good.
Harvey functions as a curious meditation on mental illness and happiness. What Veta has to weigh when offered the option of having her brother chemically treated is whether it’s more important to her that he be normal, or happy; does she want him to be just like everyone else, or let him stay kind and open-hearted? What is the virtue of being normal for normalcy’s sake alone?
What Jimmy Stewart is able to achieve in his performance is something quite remarkable. Just looking at the facts of Dowd’s case from a detached distance, some sort of treatment seems both warranted and overdue. But, Stewart’s Dowd is clearly living his best life, and you see the believably transformative effect the kindness of his Dowd has on all of the story’s other characters. Dowd, as Stewart plays him, is more than a loveable eccentric, but a genuinely admirable role model. Dowd says to Dr. Chumley at one point: “I always have a wonderful time - wherever I am, whomever I'm with. I'm having a fine time, right here.” I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t benefit from having a bit more of that peace in their life.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.