Harvey, is a ‘pooka’ in the form of a white rabbit, over six feet tall, as described by his best friend, Elwood P. Dowd, played by James Stewart in the 1950 film Harvey directed by Henry Koster and based on a play of the same name written by Mary Chase. I checked this film out from my local public library the other day. I’d never heard of it, but I have been making my way through some of the classics and have seen a number of other James Stewart films. I’m so glad I picked it up.
Elwood P. Dowd is a well-off bachelor, who has inherited everything from his deceased mother. Because they have been left with nothing, his sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae live with him. Elwood is extremely amiable, introduces himself to everyone who comes across his path, and indiscriminately hands out his card and invites folks over for dinner. This horrifies his sister who is trying to introduce her daughter into good society, and of course, to find her a husband. When Elwood comes home unexpectedly, interrupting a party of high society ladies, Veta decides she has had enough.
She takes Elwood out to Chumley’s Rest, the local sanitarium, and plans to have him committed. However, when describing the situation to the doctor, she admits that she sees Harvey sometimes, too, which convinces the doctor that she in fact is the one who needs to be committed and lets Elwood go. The mistake is realized too late, and the characters spend the evening trying to track him down and bring him back to the sanitarium to give him an injection which will “shock him back to reality”.
The subject of Elwood’s alleged alcoholism is a much discussed topic in film reviews. He does frequent the local bars, and often invites others to have a drink with him and Harvey. He always orders a drink for both of them. He even has a bottle hidden behind some books in the library. But we never actual see him indulging, or see the affects of a drunkard in his actions. Perhaps those implications were enough in the era during which the film was made. But it’s curious that Dr. Sanderson, when telling Elwood that he’s having Veta committed, cites alcoholism as the root of her problems, when it’s a known fact that she doesn’t drink at all. And since we know that Harvey does in fact “exist” within the context of the film, I can’t help wondering if alcoholism isn’t just a convenient label that gets put onto anyone who isn’t considered “normal”.
But none of that is what I really want to talk about here. That’s just the context for what I see as the real beauty and depth of the film. If we were to call Elwood’s ‘philosophy on life’ his ‘spirituality’ instead, it would be exactly what I would strive for in my own life.
Early on in the film, in the very scene in the library in which Elwood retrieves the hidden bottle of booze, the book he takes down from the shelf is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Readers familiar with Austen’s book about two sisters, one who gets carried away with her romantic sensibilities and the other who is always governed by good sense, may sense the direction of the film and the choices that will be presented to the characters, especially the two siblings. But I suggest that Harvey turns that expectation on its head.
One of Veta’s chief complaints about Elwood’s behavior is that he’s always “bringing home riffraff, people you never heard of”. For my notions of hospitality, that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of the movie. He invites folks for dinner, “the least of these” (Matthew 25), who likely couldn’t return the favor, and certainly not to the same extent. Those same qualities of care for the other, equanimity, and amiability enable him to disarm conflict by putting others into relationship with one another. His habit of introducing himself to everyone leads him to introduce strangers to each other as well, who now being no longer nameless, have a difficult time maintaining their hostile stances.
Toward the end of the movie, the theme of ‘reality’ becomes key to understanding Elwood’s singular attitude and posture toward life. Veta is ashamed because she does sometimes see Harvey, and inadvertently acknowledges his presence. Ironically, the more she fights the ‘reality’ of Harvey, the crazier she herself feels. Dr. Sanderson insists, “We all must face reality, Dowd, sooner or later”. Elwood replies with his signature candor and grace “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I’ve finally won out over it.” Finally, Elwood articulates his ‘philosophy on life’ to Dr. Chumley (who also sees Harvey): “My mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood… you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” Elwood P. Dowd transforms the world around him with his pleasantness.
The genius of this movie is in its light-hearted simplicity. Most of us aren’t going to be very quick to believe in Harvey the pooka. But we suspend our disbelief and accept the constructed world of the story, along with all of its assumptions and presuppositions. This acceptance is absolutely necessary for the miracle of transformation, because it disarms us and allows us to truly enter into the story, and the story to truly enter into us. That is why truth is often so much more powerful than fact. Facts are liable to be disseminated in informative ways, whereby we learn things and gain knowledge. But unless we take something into our very selves and let it touch us there, it can never lead to growth or transformation.
In the end, there isn’t a single character in Harvey that isn’t touched in a deep and profound way by their relationship and interactions with Elwood. I can only strive to live my life in such a way that those whom I encounter might be able to say the same about me someday.