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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