James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950): Opening Poster

In 1950, James Stewart signed a risky two-picture deal that ended up earning him a million dollars in a year, something few actors had done at the time.  Last week we covered the first film, Winchester ’73, in which Stewart took a percentage of the profits in lieu of a salary.

It was a risk that paid off, but the main reason Stewart signed the deal was for the second film, and a role that he’d already played and was near and dear to his heart—the lovable drunkard Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey.

He first played Elwood on Broadway, filling in for original lead Frank Fay while Fay took a vacation.  Two decades after the film Stewart revived the role on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes.  In 1972 he played Elwood one more time in a made-for-tv version.

It was probably his favorite role.  It was definitely the character he played the most.

In every iteration, Stewart plays a grown man who goes everywhere with his best friend, a six-foot tall rabbit named Harvey that no one else can see.

Yes, you read that right.

His sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae are keen to lock him up in a mental institution—Elwood keeps ruining Myrtle Mae’s marriage prospects by introducing all the society ladies to Harvey.

But things go awry at Chumley’s Rest Home Sanitarium when a series of misunderstandings leads the staff to release Elwood and lock up Veta instead!

James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950)

Things always seem to go Elwood’s way, and we soon find out why.  Elwood describes Harvey as a pooka, a mischievous  shape-shifting spirit from Irish folklore.  Though we the audience never see Harvey, it turns out that Elwood might not be the only one who sees him after all.

Stewart is convincing as a man talking to his imaginary friend, and it’s clear that though Elwood may be nuts, he’s kind and thoughtful.  He spends his days drinking with Harvey at the local bar, and he invites all kinds of down-on-their-luck types to his home for dinner.

Veta eventually convinces Elwood to go to the sanitarium—they can give him a shot that will make him forget Harvey and remember his responsibilities as a grown man.

Though Elwood has no wish to give up Harvey, in the end he decides to take the shot to make Veta happy.

But Veta has a last minute change of heart—she realizes that Elwood is kind, happy, and a lovely man just as he is. 

With a little help from Harvey, who hides her change purse to prevent her from paying the cab driver, Veta is able to stop the doctor in time.

Veta, Elwood, and Harvey head home together.

James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950)

Even Myrtle Mae gets her happy ending, falling in love with an entirely unsuitable man who works at the sanitarium.

Stewart garnered his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his work in the film.

Beloved by children and adults alike, Harvey is a one-of-a-kind film that lives on the performance of a one-of-a-kind actor.

Funny and poignant, Harvey is a must for any Jimmy Stewart fan.

Harvey (1950) Verdict:  Give It a Shot


Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart:  A Biography.  2006.