Looking For Elwood

HV posterI’ve recently rewatched the 1950 movie Harvey—you know, the one about the big white rabbit—and find myself musing about my reaction to it. It wasn’t the same as in the past. I used to find the movie falling-down funny; now I’m not so sure. I suppose our reactions to movies change over time, just as our reactions change to many other things. (When I was five I ate bologna sandwiches every day for lunch. Now I can’t even look at the stuff.) Maybe it’s the aging process; maybe changes in my life change my perceptions of what once seemed sure-fire pleasures. Seeing Harvey this time I kept thinking how sad it was. Just how funny is a man whose only friend is a large, invisible rodent? It’s a one-joke premise that began to pall on me, becoming a game of “oh, now he’s going to introduce that rabbit again and we’ll see how this character reacts.” I kept wondering why at least one person didn’t say, “What rabbit?” If Jimmy Durante could deny a whole elephant, surely somebody could admit to not seeing that damn bunny.

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A typical Harvey reaction.

I think my feeling of Harvey’s sadness has to do with seeing something different in the character of Elwood P. Dowd (“Dowd; Elwood P.,” as he likes to say), who’s so beautifully, touchingly incarnated by James Stewart. Every line, every movement, every expression of his belongs only to this one singular human being; but Stewart goes beyond that, he makes me see that there’s more happening than the overt comedy of a man whose companion is a six-foot-plus rabbit (the height varies) named Harvey. He gives a pitch-perfect performance, his face beaming like Stan Laurel’s whenever he gazes at his intangible friend. I laugh at what Stewart does, but I don’t laugh at his Dowd. I think it’s because Stewart gets at a deep, unexpressed melancholy at his character’s core. It’s so delicately done it seem almost subliminal, like a trace image glimpsed on the edge of one’s vision: a trailing off of the voice, a nervous pawing at the mouth (especially when Dowd wants a drink), or just a shift of the eyes. It’s his eyes, especially; there’s an inwardness in them, like shadows passing under water. I felt that this Elwood had a sad, strange inner life—one only hinted at, and that goes much deeper than invisible rabbits.

The other actors don’t come near Stewart’s subtlety, but play the story like a prolonged poke in the ribs, as if to point out how funny, by jove, this all is! No more so than Josephine Hull, from the original Broadway production, who plays Dowd’s sister Veta Louise with every popped eye and quavery screech she can muster. She’s so good, though, so round and bouncy and adorable (and with her twitchy features, looking a bit like a rabbit herself), that I don’t mind her denting my ribs (I can’t say the same for Jesse White as the pugnacious asylum nurse Wilson; he’s so strident he makes my sides feel bruised). Hull’s big scene at the end, when she discovers her missing change purse and realizes who must have restored it, is a whopper: framed in a huge close-up, she screws up her face and gasps out like an agnostic who’s seen the light, “HHAARVEEE!” (Her eyes bulge so far they seem in danger of plunging from their sockets.) I can assure you, from having seeing the film in a movie theater, that this moment brings down the house.

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Veta Louise sees the light.

With most of the actors racing about like Yosemite Sam on a varmint hunt, it’s a relief when Stewart comes on. The mood, even the pacing, changes, and everything becomes weirdly calm. I think, in part, that’s due to the Stewart film persona. There’s something a little offbeat about Stewart as a movie star. His hesitant manner, his way of pulling himself in, keeping hands and arms close to his gangly body, and the slight stoop he affects to de-emphasize his height, sets him slightly askew within the film frame. He doesn’t dominate screen space like a Wayne, Gable, or Cagney. And his slow, odd voice, with a regional accent I can’t quite place (it sounds as if he’s holding marbles under his tongue), gives his shaping of words a hesitation or a sudden, unexpected drop in emphasis. I find myself listening a little more intensely whenever he speaks. Stewart isn’t ‘born’ whole and complete onscreen the moment the camera finds him (as Wayne is in his famous introductory shot in Stagecoach). He seems to have ambled on from someplace else, just outside our sights, but then, in an oh-so-pleasant manner, allows us to get to know him. You can see it when he’s introduced at the pompous political dinner in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, gulping and plucking at his tie, clearly thinking, “Just what am I doing here?”

As an actor Stewart’s face was unusually open to the camera—think of Jefferson Smith’s big eyes alight with awe, almost tearing up, as he steps toward the Lincoln Monument. His Mr. Smith is so easily wounded, because he can be so openly moved, such as by Lincoln’s huge, stony presence. But as Dowd he does something else: he keeps a little something back. He’s more protected in his feelings, more private, much more so. There’s his scene with Charles Drake’s Dr. Sanderson, explaining to the psychiatrist how he spends his days. I’m always so busy, says Dowd—though his notion of busy is a tad different from most people’s, being that he goes bar-hopping throughout his afternoons. He and Harvey meet other barflies, talk, make friends, and “warm ourselves in all these golden moments.” As he speaks, Stewart’s face softens, his eyes pull inward, he wraps his arms round himself as if the very memory warms him—but also as if it’s to be held close, in a secret space, known only to himself.

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That, for me, is the gist of the story: the privacy, the mystery of Dowd. (Even the precariously dignified head of the sanitarium, Dr. Chumley, played delightfully by Cecil Kellaway, wants to know, “What kind of a man are you? Where did you come from?”) The jokes are about Harvey, but I know who Harvey is. His character is clearly laid out: he’s mischief-making, fun-loving, likes to stir the pot up; a bit of a pain in the ass. He may, as a pooka, be technically from the realm of fantasy, but he acts like a regular guy. Just his way of being named (letting Dowd choose it) tells me that. The character, though, who truly seems touched by the Hand of Faerie is Dowd. He’s so otherworldly, he seems to float when he walks, stepping on the ground as if he’s afraid it will dissolve beneath him.

So who is Dowd? What’s his history? Why is he what he is? How does he have such an effect? How would I react to him, if I ever met a Dowd in real life? There probably are Dowds already around us (the old woman on the subway mumbling to herself; the scruffy man on the street shouting at an unseen adversary—). But this Dowd is so mild and unassuming, the other characters don’t cotton on to his quirkiness at first. He has no occupation, no goals, no accomplishments; he drinks and has no intention of stopping. He may have been different, once (his sister frets that he “could be sitting on the Western Slope Water Board”), but that existence evaporated long ago. Now Dowd spends one day pretty much as the next. His life is stasis; the action that happens is his effect on others. And he seems to have made a conscious decision to live the way he does. As he explains to Dr. Chumley, his mother told him that to get through life, “one must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant,” and he has opted for the latter. And it’s this pleasantness that throws everyone. Crazy people shouldn’t be so nice.

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I think that Mary Chase, who wrote the original play (and adapted it with Oscar Brodney for the screen), probably intended Dowd to be elusive, to slip out of convenient psychological pigeonholes. It’s right there in the scene with Dr. Sanderson, who thinks he’s got Dowd neatly packaged: “What was your father’s name,” he asks, with the smug assumption of those who know there’s a category that can explain, and contain, everyone. Dowd pauses to think (and you can SEE Stewart thinking, the eyes shifting, the mouth sagging slightly before the jaw moves to answer). “John,” Dowd answers. “John Stuyvesant.” No, Dowd’s dad wasn’t called Harvey. Nor was there a childhood friend named such. The only explanation Dowd can offer is that it’s a name he’s always liked. How to explain likes and dislikes? It’s like trying to explain a taste (or not) for bologna sandwiches. Not even Freud can get a handle on Dowd.

I’ll take a stab at getting a handle myself, however inadequately, starting with more conventional interpretations of Dowd. He could be read as a defense of the quirky, the odd, the gently eccentric in a conformist, materialist world. Or he’s the dreamer who sees a greater beauty beyond surface reality, or a Holy Fool whose fuddled, alcohol-fueled benevolence toward his fellow human beings brings out their better natures. More unconventionally, Dowd and Harvey could be read in ‘queer’ terms, as a closeted gay couple. Dowd’s the classic gay stereotype: a perpetual bachelor who lived with his mother, never had a girlfriend, never known desire. But his devotion to his male friend can’t be acknowledged by a mainstream, heterosexual society, so Harvey can only be ‘invisible’ to other people (who inevitably panic when he makes his presence known).

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Stewart’s intense, inward gaze.

But maybe the melancholy I sense in Dowd’s story can be traced to the play’s origins. Chase said she wrote Harvey to cheer up a neighbor, a woman who lost her only son in World War II. She wanted to make this woman laugh, she said. Maybe Chase really meant her play as an amusement, to distract a sorrowing mother from her grief. But maybe it’s also meant to console. Her story of an otherworldly being providing comfort and company to a lonely man sounds, when stripped of its comic situations, eerily like a tenet of Spiritualism, a philosophy of occult mysticism that tends to flourish during horrifically encompassing catastrophes—such as the war that deprived Chase’s neighbor of her only child. Maybe Harvey was such a success  (the play was a hit and won a Pulitzer; the movie was nominated for several Oscars; Hull won hers) because it dips into such unconscious streams of need. Harvey (who seems linked to the death of Dowd’s mother) could be a pooka, or he could be an angel or one of the comforting dead—who are always hovering by, longing for connection with us as much as we do with them.

And it’s Dowd’s loneliness, his wish for a connection that doesn’t really happen, that I get from Stewart’s performance. He shows it in his big speech, explaining how he and Harvey listen to their fellow barflies, “who tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do,” because “nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.” And then comes Dowd’s own, big, wonderful thing: he introduces Harvey, who’s “bigger and grander than anything they offer me.” Only the people, after being duly impressed, usually don’t come back. It’s envy, Dowd explains; but for a moment Stewart’s face goes blank, his voice drops, his eyes dim. The moment passes quickly, like the flick of a cat’s whisker, but Stewart does put it there, that one small crack in Dowd’s perpetually smiling facade.

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That’s where I sense Dowd’s underlying sadness. His one big, wonderful thing is what isolates him from ordinary human friendship, from mundane human existence itself. Nothing else can quite measure up to his furry pal. The person who most closely understands is, oddly, Dr. Chumley, who begs Elwood for the loan of Harvey so that he may experience his heart’s desire—two weeks in Akron, lying under a maple tree with a beautiful woman to stroke his head, assisted by plenty of cold beer (“No whiskey?” Dowd asks). Chumley doesn’t explain why he has this dream (I get the cold beer and the beautiful dame; I even get the tree; but Akron? Chacun à son goût!), but he grasps Harvey’s, and Dowd’s, one big thing—the escape to another, impalpable, all-answering reality, that’s there, if we can only find the key. I think that’s what’s also implied in the one ‘appearance’ of Harvey in the story, in his double portrait with Elwood. I always wonder about that hilariously ghastly picture and just how it got painted. Someone was able to perceive, and capture Harvey’s image. If Elwood sees Harvey through the eyes of love, this unknown painter must have seen him through the eyes of art. Maybe only dreamers and artists can see Harvey, but that doesn’t make him less real. It may make him more real than we dare to imagine.

I think that’s why Harvey’s ending felt a little bittersweet to me. Elwood isn’t ‘saved’ from his peculiar obsession; he isn’t restored by love or family or community or Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s just happy to be left alone and to go on as he has, with Harvey for company. Quite a contrast with the ending in another Stewart film, It’s a Wonderful Life, which pulls out all the stops to pump for the guy who brings out half the town on a snowy Christmas eve to toss a coin into the let’s-rally-round-and-help-George-Bailey fund. Instead, Wallace Ford warns us of becoming “a perfectly normal human being—and you know what stinkers they are!” (In the play the word was “bastards,” but film studios had to defer to Mr. Breen’s sensitivities. So “stinkers” it is.) I guess that’s the moral of the tale. Let’s not turn people into stinkers. Leave them alone, with their dreams, their visions, their private little worlds. Sometimes they don’t need to be cured.

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13 Comments

  1. muriel

     /  October 14, 2013

    I remember reading that Stewart thought he played the movie too cute, which was really just the Hollywoodification of the play- a little whitewash to make it more marketable.
    Stewart wished he could play Dowd ‘darker’, which he did later on stage.
    I’ve watch Harvey since childhood, and my impression of Dowd was always that he was sad fellow. The people around him are funny, but Dowd is sad. Then when I got a little older, I realized Dowd was always drunk, and the story made a lot more sense.
    As to why everyone is so very polite about Harvey? Elwood P. Dowd is a big man in town, he’s a member of one of the leading families, and was once a promising lawyer, then he went crazy. Most important, he still has social status and a lot of money. The people in bars are nice about Harvey because Dowd pays for the drinks. Everyone else is nice because of his money and social standing. Dowd spreads kindness and good feeling, in his crazy alcoholic way. As long as he has a drink near by, he’s OK.
    In practical terms, Dowd is a schizophrenic who self medicates with alcohol.

    Reply
    • That’s a really interesting point about how Stewart felt about his performance–I think he was trying to put in those little dark touches in the film, but the movie overwhelmingly plays it for cuteness, glossing over Dowd’s drinking and how it upsets his family. You make some great insights about Dowd’s social background and why people are so polite to him; it really reflects an aspect of small-town social life, of ignoring unpleasantness when it comes from socially prominent citizens. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
      • muriel

         /  November 4, 2013

        “reflects an aspect of small-town social life”. Not small town, just human nature. It’s the same in a big city. A drunk lives in a small world wherever he is – a world of getting drunk. And if he can afford to buy rounds for a lot of other drunks, he’s the greatest guy in the world.

  2. Your take on James Stewart’s performance in Harvey, other films and in general is very thoughtful and perceptive and beautifully written. As popular as he is, I sometimes think Stewart’s talent as an actor is underrated – maybe because he always seems so natural and human, no matter what the role

    Harvey was often on TV when I was a child and it seemed to me a zany comedy about a sweet, wistful man who saw things. I don’t remember how it struck me when I first watched it as an adult, though I do know it was then that I first understood Elwood was ‘a problem drinker.’ Of course, since Mary Chase wrote the play to cheer up a neighbor who suffered a great loss, it’s certain Elwood wasn’t intended to be perceived as an alcoholic with psychological problems. As a ‘tippler’ ‘touched by the Hand of Faerie,’ Elwood was more Capra than Wilder, a gentler sort of misfit.

    Reply
    • Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and I think he always brought so much emotional depth and complexity to his roles, which you can see even in a comedy like Harvey. I think you’re right, that Dowd wasn’t meant to be seen as an alcoholic; I think that in the era the play dates from (mid-1940s), drinking was more accepted as a social activity (although the mid-40s also produced The Lost Weekend, which did take a very serious view of alcoholism). You make a good point about Dowd being a ‘gentler’ misfit, and I think his gentleness is what disarms audiences and what makes them root for him in the story. It’s interesting to speculate what the film would have been like had Capra directed it; it does seem his type of material. Thanks so much for visiting and for your lovely comment!

      Reply
  3. I always enjoy differing views of films and you provide a well-written, well-crafted interpretation of Elwood. That said, I don’t find Elwood to be melancholy at all, but rather quietly contented. If Harvey truly is a pooka, then Elwood has a wonderful companion. And if Harvey is a figment of Elwood’s imagination, then the fun-loving Harvey is an extension of Elwood. Harvey allows Elwood to say and do what he otherwise would not. That could be construed as sad, but it’s also simply a way of dealing with the world.

    Reply
    • Yes, there are many different ways of viewing Elwood and Harvey, which is why I think the play (and the movie) still entertain us. Thanks for visiting and for commenting, Rick!

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  4. When I saw ‘Harvey’, I was slightly startled that it wasn’t funnier… I wondered if it was partly that views on alcoholism and mental illness have changed and so it’s harder to enter into the mood, even though it’s still easy to sympathise with someone like Dowd who refuses to fit in and do what he is told. Enjoyed your great in-depth piece here – I think you are right to point out that there is always a melancholy note somewhere in Stewart.

    Reply
    • Yes, I think you’re right that our reactions in the 21st century to Harvey are conditioned by more psychologically astute attitudes towards drinking and mental illness (although the play and movie both make Harvey an ambiguous character, in that he may actually exist). Stewart always could bring a layer of darkness to his acting; you can see it in his George Bailey character and especially in his 1950s westerns, and of course Vertigo. It made an interesting contrast with his aw-schucks surface demeanor. As always, Judy, thanks for your interesting and thoughtful comments!

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  5. I appeared as Wilson in an amateur production of “Harvey” way back in 1987 (although technically I was too young for the role!) and I love that you describe him as a “pugnacious asylum nurse” although as I recall the list of characters at the beginning of the text just called him the “sanitarium strongarm.” I love the play and I think you’ve described the character of Elwood perfectly.
    Wilson was a problem for me. The role was obviously written for laughs, but the character is really a bully. The part I was really uncomfortable with was when he casually describes having forcibly disrobed Veta. I remember trying to sound nonchalant while saying, “Well, I got her corset off by myself.” At the time they believe SHE is the patient, but surely this task would have been performed by a female nurse? Why would a patient be treated in a way that would appear to her like she was being raped? Yet even in the aftermath, the dialog is written for laughs (consider the later scene where her daughter acts shocked when she describes this treatment, yet clearly wants to hear every juicy detail – I don’t remember if that’s in the movie version, but it’s in the play). I had better success with the moment in which Harvey is clearly talking to Wilson via the encyclopedia, which struck me as underplayed in the movie.
    However, don’t take this one complaint as a condemnation of the film, because I remember enjoying it very much!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment and for sharing your experiences in the play. Fascinating how Mary Chase made psychiatrists and psychiatry subjects for comedy (she claimed that one of her inspirations for her play was a dream of a psychiatrist being chased by a giant white rabbit). I think it’s a subject ripe for laughs, but I also, whenever I see the film, think there’s something a bit weird about a man ripping off an elderly woman’s corset and that’s treated as normal policy (and I always wonder why the asylum seems so understaffed! There doesn’t seem to be enough doctors and nurses around!). I also agree with your assessment that Wilson comes across as a bully; performing him today must be something of an acting challenge. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing – back in the 40s, when Chase wrote the play, that humor would have been more accepted. The movie does have the daughter becoming interested in Wilson because of his strong-arm techniques (another cultural difference and another interesting acting challenge today!). I recall seeing a TV version of Harvey once, where the incident with the encyclopedia had much more impact: after a startled Wilson puts the book down and runs off, it shuts by itself; I think you’re right that the movie could have milked that scene for more laughs. Thanks again for visiting!

      Reply
  6. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    Reply

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