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!
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.
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.
Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. 2006.
I’m tearing up just remembering it when I read this! My favourite Jimmy Stewart movie too.
He really is charming in this one…..
It’s often been said that Stewart was too young for this role, and was closer to the right age when he rebooted it for tv. Like everyone else, I love this film, but does it glamorize drinking in an unhelpful way?
Yes, I think his youth – he was 42, I think – is probably a legitimate criticism. But I think he “feels” older in the film.
Hmm. The drinking. That’s a good one. I wonder if kids even understand how much Elwood drinks, because we don’t actually see him drinking all that much. He’s definetly a nice drunk though, isn’t he? There’s definetly a dark-Elwood version where he an Harvey are beating the crap of poor Veta and burning down the house……..
That’s a movie right there! never mind cocaine bear, how about Whiskey Harvey? Or a horror version would work too…pretty sure Stewart played the role in London in the early 70’s, and was apparently perfect for it…
I’m seeing serious potential for a Boston Strangler/Harvey mash-up!
These films just write themselves!
When I was a kid, Harvey was considered the apex Stewart film, but the more sentimental Wonderful Life repleaced it. Harvey is still a great film IMHO, although I’m slightly scared to see if it still holds up…
Don’t be afraid! This was the first time I’d seen it and I was a little dubious in the beginning but I was sold by the end.
Cool, it was a stone cold classic when I was a kid…
A wonderful film, and I doubt anyone could have done it more justice than Stewart. A film for young and old. Need to watch this one again soon.
Yes, for me, when Stewart is in a film, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. This is one of the jewels in his acting crown for sure.