“Let me give you my card.”
Harvey originated as a play by Mary Chase that was first produced on Broadway in late 1944 and also won that year’s Pulitzer Prize. The play continued for an extended run with the lead role, that of the character Elwood P. Dowd, originated by Frank Fay. In June 1947, Universal acquired the film rights for a record-breaking $1 million, but with the proviso that production would not begin until after the end of the play’s theatrical run. Eventually filming started in the spring of 1950 with James Stewart in the starring role. Stewart had also appeared in the role on stage during part of the play’s run.
The film version proved to be every bit as popular as the stage one, both critically and among the public, and went on to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Josephine Hull) and a Best Actor nomination for James Stewart.
Universal has recently released Harvey on DVD in a fine-looking if modest package.
Good-natured Elwood P. Dowd has a constant companion named Harvey, a rabbit well over six feet tall that only Elwood can see. To his sister, Veta Louise, Elwood’s obsession with Harvey has been a constant embarrassment and a thorn in the side of her plans to marry off her daughter. Finally, Veta Louise decides to put Elwood in a mental hospital, but a hilarious mix-up occurs and she finds herself committed instead. It’s up to Elwood to straighten out the mess with his kindly philosophy and his imaginary friend Harvey.
Harvey is a continuous pleasure to experience throughout. It keeps a continual smile on your face with a few out-and-out laughs thrown in. The idea of a large rabbit, especially with a name like ‘Harvey’ following Dowd around, with Dowd continually opening doors for him or trying to introduce him to everyone he encounters is a bit of a distraction at first, but it soon becomes second nature. You eventually feel that anyone that doesn’t accept that there is a Harvey is the one that has the problem, not Elwood. This is charming entertainment that is irresistible throughout.
The film is one of those that is associated very closely with James Stewart. When Stewart first saw the play in the company of its producer Brock Pemberton, he expressed a great desire to play the Dowd role. Pemberton was happy to oblige, and even though Stewart was only one of several actors to play the role on stage, he easily beat out a number of other candidates for the role in the film version. (Some of the others considered were Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Rudy Vallee, Joe E. Brown, Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Jack Haley and James Cagney.) The Dowd persona — easy-going, philosophical, slow-moving — fit very closely with many of the traits of the various characters that Stewart had portrayed up until that time. As a consequence, Stewart was very believable and looked comfortable in the part and he soon made it his own with subsequent stage and television revivals. Stewart later stated that the film was one of his efforts that he most liked, even though he felt he had portrayed Elwood in a little too cutesy a fashion.
In addition to Stewart’s efforts, the tale is graced by a superb supporting cast. Josephine Hull is a real joy as Elwood’s exasperated sister, Veta Louise. She reprised her stage role, as did Victoria Horne as Veta’s daughter and Jesse White as Marvin Wilson, the sanitarium orderly. This was White’s first film and he went on to portray a gallery of slick, often cigar-smoking conmen and second bananas. If you don’t recognize the name, you’d surely recognize the face. He was the first lonely Maytag repairman. Cecil Kellaway also does a nice turn as Dr. Chumley, head of the sanitarium. Familiar Clem Bevans appears as the gateman — one of what seemed like a thousand small roles that he had on the screen.
Harvey‘s direction is handled efficiently and unobtrusively by Universal veteran Henry Koster. Koster received his early training in his native Germany before leaving in the early 1930s when Hitler came to power. After coming to Hollywood, he became the steady director for Deanna Durbin — Universal’s answer to MGM’s Judy Garland. Later, he would direct the first Cinemascope film for Fox — The Robe (1954). For Harvey, Koster wanted the film to conform as closely as possible to how the play was staged. The result is many scenes filmed in one master shot without cutting for close-ups.
Universal has done a superb job with transferring Harvey to DVD. The black and white image looks excellent — clean, clear (very few scratches or specks), with fine shadow detail and contrast. Edge enhancement is virtually non-existent. The sound track is two-channel mono (also in Spanish) and is very good — clear and distortion-free. English and French subtitles are available. Universal is to be congratulated on the care it’s given to its DVD of a film now over a half-century old.
The disc is not loaded with supplements; however, one extra is particularly worthy of note. Jimmy Stewart gives a seven-minute vocal introduction to Harvey to the accompaniment of a photograph montage from the film. This was recorded in 1990 for a previous video release. With Stewart having passed on four years ago, having this intro is very special. (It reminds me that Stewart also did a laserdisc commentary for another 1950 film, Winchester ’73. Here’s hoping that Universal releases that title on DVD with commentary intact.)
The other supplements include the original theatrical trailer, production notes on the making of the film, and cast and director biographies and film highlights.
I’m really pleased with this DVD, so I’m grasping at straws a little here. Universal provides several recommendations of other films that we’ll like if we enjoyed Harvey. Oh, yeah? As if Twins (trailer included) is sure to be a must after seeing Harvey? And The Sting certainly is a similar type of entertainment too! Come on, Universal. Plugging your other releases is fine, but doing so under the guise that they’re somehow akin to the type of film Harvey is insults our intelligence.
And while I’m at it, Universal, how about doing away with that montage of scenes from current DVD releases that accompanies your opening logo. It spoils the mood for the film to come, especially when that film is a classic.
This will be short. Harvey is a highly entertaining film. No one, especially Jimmy Stewart fans, should miss it. Universal’s DVD does the film full justice on its image and sound transfer. The supplement package is a little light, but it does have a marvelous Jimmy Stewart intro to the film. Highly recommended.
Both defendant Harvey and accomplice Universal are completely exonerated. Universal is urged to head back into the vaults for some more 1950s Jimmy Stewart material soon.