Yesterday while visiting Entertainment Weekly online, I spotted a Popwatch post sharing an exclusive photo of the poster for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Harvey, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Mary Chase. This latest production will feature Jim Parsons (Sheldon) from the The Big Bang Theory in the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd. Mr. Parsons has very big shoes to fill, as this is a role immortalized both on film and stage by the great Jimmy Stewart. I had heard of this Stewart classic but I had never seen the film, so I dusted off my library card and lucked out with an old black & white copy, waiting just for me on the shelf.
In Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd (Stewart) is a friendly and kindly bachelor who welcomed his older sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) into his home after the death of his mother. Veta loves her baby brother but is beside herself trying to make it in society, in the hopes of finding a potential love match for her daughter. Comically this endeavor is thwarted at every turn by Elwood who insists on introducing his best friend Harvey, a 6'3.5" tall invisible rabbit, to all her society friends. As Elwood describes him, Harvey is a pooka, a fairy spirit from old Celtic mythology who takes animal form and is always very large; a benign but mischevious creature. Elwood and Harvey don't do much with their days other than visiting the local bar where they connect with strangers and friends alike and "talk about big terrible things they've done and big wonderful things they'll do; their hopes and regrets; their loves and hates. All very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar." At her wits end, Veta turns to her friend Judge Gaffney to help her have Elwood committed to Chumley's Rest, a sanatarium, in hopes they can fix his drinking problem or whatever else is to blame for Harvey. Unfortunately, when the time comes to drop off poor clueless Elwood, Veta is so high strung and unglued by the situation that the doctor on staff thinks she's the patient and has her locked up while Elwood escapes unscathed. A comedy of errors ensues as the sanatarium staff realize their error and try desperately to find Elwood and Harvey.
One of the bonus features on the DVD is a narrated piece by Jimmy Stewart declaring Harvey as one of his favorite films. Per the production notes also included in the bonus features, Stewart had performed the role of Elwood P. Dowd on Broadway prior to the film, as had Hull in her role as Veta. The play opened on Broadway on November 1, 1944, and at the time, it was the fifth longest running show in Broadway history. When it came time to make the film, other actors were briefly considered for the role of Elwood, such as Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Jack Benny and James Cagney, but ultimately they opted for Stewart. Mary Chase supposedly wanted Harvey visible during the film, but both Stewart and Koster were against it. She was then willing to settle for having Harvey visible as he and Elwood left the sanatarium arm-in-arm, but Koster chose to shoot the scene without the rabbit.
This was such a charming and sweet movie. I love Jimmy Stewart so I'm extremely biased, and this movie only served to give merit to my bias because Stewart was brilliant in his portrayal of Elwood, a quirky and darling man who charms and endears himself to everyone he meets. I must say that Josephine Hull stole every scene she was in as Veta, and so it came as no surprise to learn that she won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for this role. Do yourself a favor and check this one out. You won't regret it.