Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Pooka's a Pooka ...

"Harvey and I have things to do ... we sit in the bars ... have a drink or two ... play the jukebox. Very soon the faces of all the other people turn towards me, and they smile. They say, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fellow.' Harvey and I warm ourselves in these golden moments. We came as strangers — soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they've done and the great big wonderful things they're going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he's bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back, but that's — that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us."

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart)

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and he has been in some of my favorite movies, but my very favorite Jimmy Stewart performance of all was the one he gave in "Harvey," which premiered 65 years ago today.

As she so often did, my mother introduced me to that movie. She laughed at eventual Best Supporting Actress winner Josephine Hull, who played Stewart's sister, when she delivered lines like "Myrtle Mae, you have a lot to learn, and I hope you never learn it."

Myrtle Mae was her daughter (played by Victoria Horne), and Hull was always giving her advice about men, such as "Oh, Myrtle, don't be didactic. It's not becoming in a young girl. Besides, men loathe it."

I laughed, too, and I still do when I watch "Harvey." Josephine Hull reminded me then — and she still reminds me today — of the older women I knew when I was growing up.

Harvey was a pooka, a six–foot invisible rabbit — or, as Stewart (as Elwood P. Dowd) said in the movie, "Six feet 3½ inches. Now let's stick to the facts."

Speaking of the facts, Stewart was 6–foot–4 and wanted to change Harvey's height from what it had been in the original play. But the folks who made the movie wouldn't give in on that point.

Stewart played a mild–mannered tippler who was always embarrassing his family with his invisible rabbit — which led to some pretty delicious dialogue. With writing like that, it was no wonder the play on which the movie was based was such a hit.

For example, at an afternoon tea party, Hull and Horne had a delightful conversation with an elderly aunt, who noticed that Elwood wasn't around and wanted to know if "Elwood sees anyone these days."

"Oh, yes, Aunt Ethel," Myrtle Mae replied, "he does."

But no one else could see Harvey. Well, almost no one.

At one point, Hull confessed there were times when she thought she could see Harvey, too. And a doctor at the sanatorium where Hull tried to commit Stewart spoke of seeing Harvey as well.

But everyone else seemed to think Stewart was nuts — even though there was ample evidence that Harvey the pooka really did exist.

Anyway, whether Hull really did see Harvey or not, she conspired to have her brother committed to that sanatorium I mentioned earlier. When the head of the sanatorium told Stewart what his sister had done — "This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you. She's trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today she had commitment papers drawn up. She has your power of attorney and the key to your safety box, and she brought you here!" — Stewart's disarming reply was "She did all that in one afternoon. That Veta certainly is a whirlwind, isn't she?"

Stewart had several conversations with the head of the sanatorium (Cecil Kellaway), at one point getting the doctor to talk about his secret desires, the greatest of which seemed to be to spend two weeks in Akron, Ohio, with a woman whose name he didn't know. They would drink cold beer, and he would tell her of his life, and she would pat his hand and say, "You poor, poor thing."

"Wouldn't that get a little monotonous," Stewart wanted to know, "just Akron, cold beer and 'poor, poor thing' for two weeks?"

Wallace Ford was a character actor who probably was best known for his westerns, but he played a crucial role in "Harvey" as a taxi driver who drove Stewart to the sanatorium, where he was scheduled to be given an injection of a serum that would bring him back to the reality his sister wanted for him.

The cab driver tried to explain to Veta that it wouldn't be a good thing.

"I've been driving this route for 15 years," he said to her. "I've brought 'em out here to get that stuff, and I've drove 'em home after they had it. It changes them. On they way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me. Sometimes we stop and watch the sunset and look at the birds fly. And sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain't no birds. And look at the sunset when it's raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip."

"But afterwards, uh oh!"

Veta asked him to clarify, and the cabbie was only too happy to do so.

"They crab, crab, crab," he told her. "They yell at me. Watch the lights. Watch the brakes, Watch the intersection. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me or my buggy. Yep, it's the same cab, the same driver. And we're going back over the very same road. It's no fun. And no tips."

Then Ford delivered what has always been the line of the movie for me.

"After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being — and you know what stinkers they are!"

That statement certainly resonated with Veta. She ran back inside the sanatorium demanding to stop the procedure.

And Harvey remained a part of the family.

In addition to Hull, Stewart was nominated for an Oscar, but he lost Best Actor to José Ferrer.