Saturday, April 11, 2009


This time of year generally brings to mind rabbits. For many this might bring to mind Bugs Bunny or perhaps Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily Longears for the more literary minded. Myself, I think of a rabbit named Harvey. If you have never heard of Harvey, then you have obviously never heard of the play or the movie of the same name.

The play Harvey centred on Elwood P. Dowd who had a most interesting friend--a six foot, three and 1/2 inch tall rabbit named Harvey that apparently only he can see. This naturally causes his sister Veta to have him committed. In the sanatorium, however, the affable Elwood and his invisible friend have a most unexpected effect on his physicians and nurses. There are hints in the play and its adaptations that others, including Elwood's sister Veta and the sceptical Dr. Chumley, see Harvey on occasion. And while Elwood does drink and there is a possibility he is mad, Elwood has another explanation for Harvey--he is a pooka (a fairy of Celtic myth capable of taking animal shape).

Harvey debuted on Broadway on Nov 1, 1944, starring Frank Fay as Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister Veta. It proved to a huge hit, ultimately running five years. It also its playwright, Mary Chase, the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This success would naturally mean that it would be adapted as a motion picture, which was released in 1950. The screenplay was co-authored by Mary Chase herself, Oscar Brodney, and Myles Connolly. Josephine Hull reprised her role as Veta, although in the film Elwood P. Dowd would be played by Jimmy Stewart. Hull would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. Stewart would receive a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actor. The film has since become regarded as a classic and Elwood P. Dowd would be regarded as one of Stewart's signature roles.

Indeed, the movie was not the last time Stewart played Dowd. He returned to the role in a revival of Harvey on Broadway in 1970. He played Dowd again in a television adaptation of the play in 1972. Helen Hayes, who played his sister Veta in the 1970 Broadway revival of the play, reprised the role in the television movie.

The 1972 television adaptation was not the only one ever made. The play was adapted for an episode of The DuPont Show of the Month in 1958, with Art Carney in the role of Elwood. In 1998 Harvey would again be adapted for television, this time with Harry Anderson of Night Court fame as Elwood.

While I am partial to the 1950 movie, I must confess that I have enjoyed Harvey in all of the incarnations I have seen (namely, the 1972 and 1998 television movies). Much of this is because it is a genuinely funny comedy, particularly in the hands of Jimmy Stewart. He was perfect in the role of Elwood P. Dowd. In fact, I dare say that beyond George Bailey, it is the role with which I most identify him. Beyond being a very funny comedy, however, I think there is another reason I love Harvey. In many respects it is a paean to the individual. Elwood is the only one who can see Harvey and most people think he is crazy because of that. And yet in the end he wins most people over. Harvey is in many respects a argument for being oneself, even when being oneself means seeing a six foot, three and 1/2 inch tall rabbit.

No comments: