Summer Under the Stars: Harvey (1950)

TCM’s star of the day is James Stewart, and my film pick for the actor is Harvey, which airs today at 8:00 P.M. (EST).

The film follows Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), a wealthy eccentric living in a small town whose best friend happens to be an invisible, 6’3″ white rabbit named Harvey. He introduces him to everyone he meets, seemingly unaware that no one else can see his friend. Elwood’s sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), and his niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) become increasingly embarrassed over his behavior as they try to move up their place in society. Unsure of whether Elwood’s friendship with Harvey is due to his admitted drinking habit or perhaps mental illness, his family decides to commit him to a sanitarium, only for a comedy of errors to ensue.

Six years before it became a movie, Harvey was first a Broadway play written by Mary Chase, who received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama following its stage debut. The original production starred Frank Fay as Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister, Veta. Hull famously reprised her role for the screen adaptation and went on to win an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance. But for the film’s lead role, James Stewart was cast, though he was no stranger to the character as he had also played Elwood P. Dowd for a couple years on stage during the play’s initial run. Stewart ended up playing the character many more times, both on stage and the screen. Following the 1950 film, he also played the role in a Broadway revival in 1970, a TV movie on NBC in 1972, and on the London stage in 1975. Of his two on-screen performances, Stewart has said he was more satisfied with his work in the TV movie than the one that earned him the fourth of his eventual five Oscar nominations. Seeing as this was the role he ended up playing the most throughout his long career, it should come as no surprise that in interviews he said it was also his favorite of all the characters he played.

Though he was the most famous actor to portray the main character in the Broadway play, James Stewart was not the first choice for the screen adaptation, with names such as Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, and James Cagney considered for the role. But Stewart proved to be the best man for the job, giving an endearing performance in a tricky role to portray. Harvey relies heavily on the character of Elwood P. Dowd and for whoever is portraying him to play him and his idiosyncrasies with sincerity, otherwise, the story would fall apart. Stewart imbues great benevolence in the character, making it easy for audiences to be charmed by him despite having an imaginary rabbit as a friend. Along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his work in Harvey, Stewart was also nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama.

It’s not an overstatement to say James Stewart is one of the most famous actors in film history, having starred in so many beloved classics and giving a number of iconic performances. He earned several accolades throughout his career, including Oscar nominations for his leading roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Anatomy of a Murder, and winning one for The Philadelphia Story. And while I greatly love all those performances, along with ones he didn’t get award recognition for such as Rear Window and Vertigo, it’s his work in Harvey that I believe to be the best of his whole career. He balances both the story’s comedic and dramatic elements and carries it all with ease as the heart of the film.

I wrote this as a part of the 2019 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

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