BY KELSEY BANKERT
I was only an adolescent when I first saw Jimmy Stewart play the bemusedly affable Elwood P. Dowd in Universal’s 1950 film Harvey. Maybe because of my age, the admittedly even-keeled, breezily-happy Dowd terrified me. Here was a character not only delusional enough to be best friends with an invisible 6’3″ white rabbit named Harvey, but who was equally nonplussed by the experience. My irrationally-premature fear of losing my marbles was subsumed by the chilling realization that you may not even know you’ve lost them.
I missed a key element of the film in my youth. I was so scared of Harvey the rabbit and the “crackpot” Dowd, I completely missed that Harvey is, in this little drama, a very real, albeit otherworldly, fairy creature. He’s a Celtic pooka, a spirit in animal form. And because Harvey is real, and not a schizophrenic hallucination, at the end of this tall tale it is the “sane” characters around Dowd who appear both irrational and most surely ignorant of their own mental capabilities. The narrative thread I missed, while fixating on the seeming delusions of a man to be pitied, was that Dowd is an enviable man, because he could see what was really there.
As the film opens, we find Dowd’s older sister Veta (played by the brilliant comedienne Josephine Hull) planning to check her brother into a sanatorium called Chumley’s Rest. Veta’s only daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) wants to marry and Dowd’s (that is, Harvey’s) presence is an unacceptable interference. Clearly exhibiting symptoms of nervous strain, Veta coaxes her ever obliging brother, who has “always felt Veta should have whatever she wants,” into a taxi to commit him.
At the sanatorium, a series of madcap misunderstandings and comical twists introduce us to the psychiatric team trying to fit Dowd’s particular brand of crazy within their rigid psychological framework. The intake physician, Dr. Sanderson, is certain that Harvey is a hallucination, stemming from trauma. As the night wears on, a wild chase begins to track down a gone-missing Dowd and the sanatorium’s founder, Dr. Chumley. It is this chase, led by Dr. Sanderson, which convinces each of them, even Dr. Chumley, that Harvey is indeed a magical pooka, and it was they themselves who were blind. But it is not easy for a group of people intent on helping the mentally ill to accept that Harvey is real, thereby invalidating their own understanding of the world. At one point, Dr. Sanderson even calmly, but tersely commands, “You know we all must face reality, Dowd, sooner or later,” only for Dowd to reply, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor. And I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” A natural thing to say, one might think, if you’re a psychiatrist. (And an equally natural way to respond when you’re best friends with a mythical creature.)
At the end of the film, our Dr. Sanderson, who initially calls Dowd a psychopath, asks him finally, in all earnestness, what he does every day with Harvey. Here Jimmy Stewart delivers a most poignant and captivating monologue. It’s a moment when the viewer understands why Dowd needs Harvey and why Harvey likes Dowd. Dowd replies, “Harvey and I sit in the bars and have a drink or two. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn towards mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name mister, but you’re a very nice fellow.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. They tell about the big, terrible things they’ve done and the big, wonderful things they’ll do. And then, I introduce them to Harvey. And when they leave, they leave impressed.” In this single description of a day, it becomes clear that the banal, the everyday, is tinged with magic. But can it be, the character of Dr. Sanderson may also be thinking, that the dynamics of psychiatry are dull as dishwater up against the incredibility of something like Harvey?
This is why Harvey is a film of either/ors. There are no gray spaces here. Either Dowd is crazy or Harvey is real. Either his family and psychiatrists are wrong or he is sick. In the film some people must make a leap of faith, while others are lucky enough to have proof. Dowd has proof. His peaceful, blasé attitude towards life stems from his friendship with Harvey. He never made up his mind that giant white rabbits were possible–it was done for him. But Veta, Myrtle Mae, and the doctors must face an unknowingly deep precipice below if they’re to make the leap towards accepting Harvey.
In its own way, Dowd’s embrace of Harvey is quite remarkable too. Walking down the street one day, Dowd heard his name and turned to find a giant white rabbit. And instead of running, Dowd walked right up to answer. He embraced the reality he saw before him, no matter how different from what he’d previously thought possible. His remarkable openness to the world and its possibilities are what makes Dowd such a lovable character. It may be why Harvey chose him after all.
Late in the film, Harvey makes himself visible to Dr. Chumley. The good doctor responds with panic, paranoia and deep fear. He only ultimately warms to Harvey after grilling Dowd for information. The precipice from psychiatry to fantasy is a drastic one and he needs convincing. And when this man of science, of diagnoses and certainties, is won over by Harvey’s magic, he asks Dowd if the pooka can stay with him. Dowd, ever affable, declares that whatever Harvey likes is fine with him, but his face is pained.
When Dowd crosses the threshold of the sanatorium gates, following his sister and niece, who after the disasters of the day are likely to tolerate Harvey forever, he suddenly looks up with a smile. “Was anything the matter?” he asks the empty space above him. “I thought you’d decided to stay with Mr. Chumley.” After a pause and a nod, Dowd smiles and replies, “Well, thank you Harvey, I prefer you too.” And in this little story–one where the truth, as a powerful entity, is molded, shaped, shattered–his last line is the reminder that while hard and fast science may give us a level of certainty, it is not necessarily the truth.
I too prefer the magical things in life, the unanswered questions, and the new discoveries. And thank you, Harvey, I prefer you too.