“The Wonderful Pulitzer Prize Play... becomes one of the Great Motion Pictures of our Time!”
The quality pedigree shows in this light-hearted dramatic fantasy, a film classic which has aged fairly well. Although set somewhere in the early post-WWII American heartland (probably not too far from Akron), this film harbors universal truths which apply beyond any particular time or place. The wonderful story in Mary Chase's masterful screenplay along with legendary actors giving some of the best performances of their careers make this movie a true classic.
The story centers on Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart, nominated for Best Actor Oscar in this role), a pleasantly casual middle-aged tippler who lives with his sister and her daughter in his ancestral home. Elwood has an unusual friend: a greater than six foot tall rabbit – a pooka named Harvey. Only Elwood admits to seeing Harvey, however this drawback to his friend's nature does not keep Elwood from introducing Harvey to many people he meets in his travels about his hometown.
Elwood's sister: Veta Louise Simmons (Josephine Hull, won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in this film) came home after their mother died. With her she brought her marriageable age daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). Before Myrtle Mae reaches perpetual spinsterhood, she and her mother have been attempting to find acceptable matches for future matrimony. Elwood's repeated attempts at introducing Harvey to guests in their home have not enhanced Myrtle Mae's prospects.
After a short interlude with Elwood and the invisible Harvey venturing to their favorite bar, the story develops by following Veta and Myrtle Mae, who have invited many mothers of eligible bachelors to a party at their home. Preparations accelerate after Elwood leaves, but Veta calls her friend Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn) to enlist his help in keeping Elwood away while the party takes place. Judge Gaffney dispatches one of his “henchmen” to keep Elwood occupied. However, the fellow has an accident and never hooks up with his target.
Back with Elwood and Harvey at Charlie's Bar, they meet an old friend who follows the society page in the local newspaper. After Elwood invites him for dinner the following evening, he tells Elwood that Veta has a “clambake” going that afternoon. Elwood, ever the devoted brother and also an avid socializer on his own, leaves to attend the party. As he arrives, he meets the most prominent of Veta's guests: Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet (Grayce Mills), who came with the hope of again seeing one of her past favorites: Elwood, someone she has not seen for several years. Of course, Elwood introduces the invisible Harvey, resulting in Mrs. Chauvenet leaving abruptly. As Elwood and Harvey make their way through the remaining guests distressing them with introductions, the guests leave in haste.
Veta decides that Elwood needs to have some kind of special attention. She calls Judge Gaffney again with Elwood's commitment to a sanitarium in mind. After the Judge starts the paperwork, Veta takes Elwood to Chumley's Rest: a local psychiatric facility, where she meets Miss Kelly (Peggy Dow ): a nurse/receptionist and Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake): a psychiatrist who screens patients for the otherwise occupied Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway). Mr. Wilson (Jesse White) takes control of Elwood and gets him started in the admission process. However, while Veta describes Elwood's “condition” to Dr. Sanderson, he becomes convinced that Veta needs psychiatric attention. The “error” leads to many further events providing the situations for the remainder of the film.
If I had to choose, I'd pick Jimmy Stewart as my favorite actor of the Twentieth century. I like many other actors, but Stewart made so many great films and seemed to always turn in such fine performances. This film ranks right up near the top of his portrayals. However, in this film all the cast previously mentioned, as well as Wallace Ford who plays a taxi driver appearing late in the story, give outstanding performances.
This movie seems unique to me. Although it shares some general situations with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and as characters Elwood and McMurphy share some things, the films and characters differ considerably. The difference in eras leads to the contrast between Chumley's Rest and the facility where Nurse Ratched reigns. However, this film also repeatedly brings the question of who has the best attitudes and outlook to the forefront of the story. Who has the best way of handling life: Elwood or Dr. Chumley? Who knows best how to get along with people: Elwood or Mr. Wilson?
The fact that many modern reviewers refer to Elwood as an alcoholic and fail to appreciate his honest appraisal of things as he sees them says a great deal about the world of today. More people viewing films such as this one might help to awaken a desire to retrieve the best aspects of the pleasant and gentler times pictured in this film. Like It's a Wonderful Life, another great Jimmy Stewart movie, this film uses fantastic elements to make very acute comments on life. I give Harvey my highest recommendation.