James Stewart had to wrestle with reality to win the role of Elwood P. Dowd in the film version of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Universal had bought the rights early on for a then-record $1 million but was barred from starting production until the hit show closed, which wouldn’t happen until five years after its 1944 Broadway debut. That gave them plenty of time to line up just the right actor. Stewart wanted to be that actor but had to compete with more age-appropriate candidates like James Cagney and Jack Benny. So, he stepped into the role on Broadway for seven weeks in 1947. His strong performance convinced studio executives and director Henry Koster that he was perfect for the role.
He stars as a gentle eccentric whose best friend is an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey. The only problem is that only Elwood can see him, which eventually convinces his dotty sister (Josephine Hull) to have him committed. Is there an asylum secure enough to keep Harvey and Elwood apart? And what happens when other people decide they can see Harvey, too?
Harvey was in many ways a perfect salve for America’s postwar doldrums. In fact, the story originated in Mary Chase’s efforts to cheer up a neighbor who had lost her son in the war. With Universal producing some of the most powerful films noirs of the late 1940s, capturing the era’s cynicism, Harvey represented the flip side of the coin, a testament to the power of faith and goodness. It was also a triumph for the cast with Hull winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Stewart nominated for Best Actor. He became so closely associated with the role that, after his death, fans would leave stuffed rabbits on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
d. Henry Koster, 105 minutes, DCP
Courtesy of Universal Pictures