The 1950 film Harvey, starring the legendary Jimmy Stewart, is a film ahead of its time. It’s a film that speaks to mental illness. A film that places the value of one’s quirks above societal expectations. It’s a charming, funny film with an innocence that is seldom seen in theaters today. It preaches a message of acceptance that Hollywood has tried to replicate over and over with varying results, even rolling out remakes of the film, but the magic remains elusive. Not bad for a tale about a man and his 6 ft 3½-in invisible white rabbit friend, the titular Harvey. An invisible rabbit? Yes. A pooka, in fact, is a friendly but mischievous character from Celtic lore.
What Is ‘Harvey’ About?
Elwood P. Dowd (Stewart) is an all-around nice guy, a man living off a trust fund that spends his days in bars, where he introduces his friend Harvey to the patrons. Harvey, of course, can’t be seen, but that doesn’t stop anyone from openly accepting the good-natured Elwood and his pal. His sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), however, are not so accepting, ashamed of being social outcasts thanks to their association with Elwood. In an effort to bring respect back to the family, Veta pushes to have Elwood committed to a mental hospital to be “cured.” She lets slip that she sees Harvey herself from time to time, which comically leads to her being committed.
When the error is discovered, Veta and hospital head Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway) go out searching for Elwood, who is found at a nearby bar. Back at the hospital, Elwood is asked about how he met Harvey, and he explains that they met outside a bar as Elwood walked a drunken friend to a taxi. They hit it off and soon went together to bars to socialize and listen to people’s hopes and dreams. Nevertheless, Elwood agrees to have an injection of a serum that will stop him from seeing Harvey. But before the injection, Veta asks Elwood to pay the cab driver, who is taken with Elwood’s kindness. He warns Veta that he’s driven many to the hospital for the same injection, and like them, Elwood will become “a perfectly normal human being, and you know what stinkers they are.“ With the realization that the injection will dramatically change the kind and gentle spirit of her brother, she calls it off, and they all return home: Veta, Myrtle Mae, Elwood, and Harvey.
Jimmy Stewart Is What Makes ‘Harvey’ a Classic
What makes Harvey so effective in its depiction of mental health is Stewart, hands down. Stewart was the proverbial unicorn among actors, one who played the everyman effortlessly. It’s almost impossible to not like Stewart, which is why his Elwood works. It’s easy to side with Stewart, and it isn’t a stretch to believe in the kind, warm nature of Elwood in turn. He makes the character so full of life that the suggestion he could lose what makes him so special becomes deeply upsetting. Whether Harvey actually exists or not is irrelevant. It’s the fact that he believes the creature exists that drives the qualities that make him different, quirky, and utterly embraced. The film celebrates it, turning the acceptance of the man as he is into a winning quality, whereas other films might have made the societal norm the asset.
The Many Attempts at Resurrecting the Magic of ‘Harvey’
A 1958 version of Harvey, with Art Carney in the role of Elwood, was well received but hasn’t had the lasting impact of 1950 original. A 1972 TV adaptation of Harvey featured an older Jimmy Stewart returning to the role he made famous, and while it was well done, it had more in common with the original stage production than with the classic 1950 film. A contemporary 1996 made-for-television adaptation starring Night Court‘s Harry Anderson wasn’t even close, with new scenes added, others removed, and questionable casting decisions – including Anderson as Elwood.
Other names would be associated with remakes of the film over the years since: Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, John Travolta, and Robert Downey Jr. are just some of the names thrown around. Two attempts at a remake came close to being realized, including one that director Steven Spielberg tried in vain to get off the ground in 2009. His first choice for the role of Elwood was frequent collaborator Tom Hanks, but after he turned it down, the project was shut down by Spielberg himself. Netflix had announced it was moving forward with a remake in 2018, with writers J. David Stem and David N. Weiss attached to the project, but there has been nothing new related to the project since then.
‘Harvey’ Is More Relevant Than Ever
Clearly, the original 1950 Harvey has proven to be the definitive version of the story, and its message is more relevant today than ever. Mental health has never been discussed more openly. Embracing who you are and those things that define you is a mantra repeated everywhere in today’s world. Harvey speaks to them both and more. Stewart’s Elwood still has lessons to teach us, especially when it comes to how to treat others. “‘In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.‘Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” In a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, where celebrities and WebMD are subject-matter experts, where differences in opinion are lambasted and torn to shreds with the slimmest of so-called facts, those words, uttered by a man whose friend is an invisible rabbit, betray a wisdom that extends far beyond the confines of the movie screen. They are words that should be heeded by all, from the societal conformists to the outcasts with quirks that, once upon a time, would have landed them in a mental hospital too. The world needs its norms, and it needs its weirdos. And it wouldn’t hurt to mirror yet another pearl of wisdom from Elwood: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with.”