Comedy number three is Harvey, the play that earned its author, Mary Coyle Chase, the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Harvey opened at the 48th Street Theatre on November 1, 1944, and remained the brightest light on Broadway for more than four years; it ran 1,775 performances, and closed on January 15, 1949. Harvey advanced the cause of female playwrights, as it did for female directors. Harvey was directed by Antoinette Perry — yes, that very inspiration for Broadway's Toni Awards. (It saddens me that we had to wait until 2010 to acknowledge the talent of a female film director.)
Harvey is a lovely story about a gentle, likable man, Elwood P. Dowd, and his presumably imaginary friend Harvey, a very tall rabbit whom Elwood met while walking home after a night of drinking in a local pub. They became inseparable friends who spent a great deal of time in the local watering holes. When the ever-polite Elwood introduces Harvey to guests attending his sister Veta's afternoon musicale, the society matrons rapidly make their excuses and leave. Veta tries to explain to Elwood that his behavior is damaging her daughter Myrtle Mae's chances to find a suitable husband.
Elwood and his sister, Veta Simmons, were played by Frank Fay and Josephine Hull. Jane Van Duser was featured as Myrtle Mae.
Frank Fay (1897 - 1961) was an American stage and film actor, emcee and comedian, best known for his star turn in HARVEY. He was a popular comedian and in the 1920s was Vaudeville's highest paid headliner. When talkies arrived, Hollywood reached out to Frank Fay who acted and sang in numerous films throughout the 1930s and early '40s. He was also exceedingly popular on radio, and a very big draw on the night club circuit.
As Josephine Hull (1883 - 1957) was featured in all three enduring comedies, I can only imagine how the superstitious acting community regarded her talents. Every play she was in seemed destined to become a hit, keeping actors working for years. Josephine Hull was the ultimate theatrical good luck charm. She performed brilliantly throughout her 50+ years on stage.
After Elwood and Harvey ruined her party, a teary Veta, no longer able to tolerate her brother's eccentric behavior, calls a friend, Judge Gaffney (played by John Kirk), and they conspire to have Elwood committed to Chumley's Rest, a sanitarium at the edge of town.
At the sanitarium, Nurse Kelly (played by Janet Tyler) listens to what Veta says about her brother, then sends Elwood upstairs to begin his treatment. Meanwhile, Veta is interviewed by Dr. Sanderson (played by Tom Seidel), and in her nervous confusion, leads him to believe that she, not Elwood, is the one who sees Harvey. Sanderson commits her and sends her upstairs with Wilson, the orderly (played by longtime character actor, Jesse White). They bring Elwood back downstairs, apologize for inconveniencing him, and release him.
Tom Seidel (1917-1992) had a minor film career, playing scores of bit parts through the 1940s. He retired in 1950 and ran a successful contracting business. He was married to MGM actress Jean Hagen.
Jesse White (1917 - 1997) played Wilson in both the stage play and the motion picture, as well as in a 1972 made for TV version. From Vaudeville to Burlesque to Broadway to Motion Pictures to Television, Jesse White entertained several generations of Americans. He is well remembered for his active television career in the 1950s and 1960s, but probably best remembered for his long-time portrayal of "the loneliest guy in town," the Maytag repairman.
Veta's friend, Judge Gaffney, threatens Drs. Sanderson and Chumley, for having committed the wrong person, and finally gets them to free Veta, who's determined to sue them for the embarrassment she suffered at their hands.
Meanwhile, Elwood returns to Chumley's Rest, looking for his pal Harvey. It seems that Harvey had been visiting Dr. Chumley, but had left his office. Elwood and Dr. Chumley visit for awhile, discussing the wonders of Harvey.
Veta, Myrtle Mae and Judge Gaffney show up, as well, and when Elwood hears Veta explain how difficult it is for her to live with his delusion, he agrees to take an injection of Dr. Chumley's Formula 977, guaranteed to erase all delusions and restore normalcy. While Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly are preparing the formula, taxi driver C. J. Lofgren (played by Robert Gist) enters, seeking his cab fare. When he discovers that Elwood is about to get an injection of the special formula, the cabby explains how he's been driving that route for 12 years, that he's driven nice people on their way to Chumley's, but on the ride back, those same passengers are mean, nasty, impatient and penurious. In other words, they're perfectly normal people, "and you know what stinkers they are!" he says.
Robert Gist (1924 - 1998) was an actor and director, who grew up as something of a hooligan in Chicago during the Great Depression. He barely avoided reform school after injuring a boy in a fist fight, ending up instead in a Chicago settlement house where he became interested in acting. He started out in Chicago radio, followed by a few stage roles before moving to New York. His very first Broadway show was HARVEY. Gist's acting and directing careers were long and distinguished.
In the end, Veta realizes she'd rather have the carefree, kindly brother she loves, even if it means living with a 6-1/2 foot rabbit. She runs to Dr. Sanderson's office and prevents him from injecting Elwood
Harvey was made into a film in 1950, directed by Henry Koster and starring James Stewart, with Josephine Hull and Jesse White reprising their stage roles.
Of course, the story is essentially the same, but film always calls out for a little expansion of scenery. In Harvey, we get a little local color, by seeing more buildings and streets in Elwood's home town.
We become privy to Harry's Bar & Grill and other watering holes where Elwood and Harvey spend much of their time, and we see and hear Elwood's interaction with other patrons, giving us a fuller picture of the man's kindness and generosity, and his genuine concern for everyone he meets.
We see Elwood and Harvey strolling about town. And we have a pretty good idea what Harvey looks like from seeing that picture on the Dowds' mantelpiece.
Up-and-coming young film actors Charles Drake and Peggy Dow play Dr. Lyman Sanderson and Nurse Ruth Kelly in the movie version.
New Yorker Charles Drake (1917 - 1994) was a well-educated young salesman when in 1939 he turned to acting. He moved to Los Angeles and signed a contract with Warner Brothers, but WWII snapped him up before he could make a name for himself, and by the time he returned to Hollywood in 1945, he no longer had a WB contract. After a few years of freelance work, he turned to television, where he was rediscovered by film makers. He made 83 pictures in his film career.
Peggy Dow is now 81 years old. In the late 1940s, the pretty, wholesome blonde was a U-I contract player with a great future in film. But soon after her 1951 marriage to Walter Helmerich III, she retired to Tulsa OK, where they brought up five sons — Rik, Zak, Mat, Hans and Jon — and are happily enjoying their 12 grandchildren.
Dr. Chumley and Mrs. Chumley were portrayed by longtime character actors Cecil Kellaway and Nana Bryant.
Cecil Kellaway (1893 - 1973) spent many years as an actor, author and director in the Australian film industry befoe trying his luck in Hollywood in the 1930s. When he discovered that he could get only gangster bit parts, he became discouraged and returned to Australia. Then William Wyler called and offered him a part in the 1939 production of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and from then on he was always considered for every part that called for a kind-hearted middle-aged man. He worked steadily in films through 1970, then moved on to guest roles in several television series. He died of arteriosclerosis at the age of 80.
Nana Bryant (1888 - 1955) was born in Cincinnati OH and worked on stages throughout the midwest. In her late 40s, she headed for Hollywood where she made 108 films, all in the last 20 years of her life. She was talented, versatile and very well liked by her co-workers. She was also a pioneer in early 1950s TV soap operas.
Elwood's niece (Veta's daughter) Myrtle Mae was played by Victoria Horne who, in real life, was the loving wife of Jack Oakie.
Victoria Horne (1911-2003) was an American actress who appeared in numerous films in the 1940s and '50s. In 1950 she married actor Jack Oakie, and they lived their entire married life at OAKRIDGE, their 11-acre estate in the Northridge area of Los Angeles. She was widowed in 1978, after which she arranged for the publication of her husband's book, JACK OAKIE'S DOUBLE TAKES, and also published a number of other books about him.
SIDEBAR: Before starting to make this film, James Stewart played Elwood on stage for 6 months in England, and grew very comfortable in the role. He talked about it in an introduction to the film that was added when it was transferred to video for home viewing (and is now available on DVD). When Mary Chase wrote the play, she described Harvey as 6 feet 3-1/2 inches tall. Mr. Stewart, himself, was 6 feet 3 inches, so during the London run, and the film, Harvey became 6 feet 8 inches, as Mr. Stewart believed the pooka should be 5 inches taller than Elwood. Since then, that has pretty much been the rule of thumb. It seems about right, don't you think?
Like any popular comedy, Harvey has been played on stage an infinite number of times here in the U.S., and in Canada, Australia, and throughout Great Britain. But five additional motion pictures of Harvey were also made: In 1958, Art Carney starred as Elwood in a made-for-TV version; in 1970 a version for West German TV starred Heinz Rühmann as Elwood; in 1972, a TV version starred James Stewart as Elwood and Helen Hayes as Veta; in 1985, another version for West German TV featured Harald Juhnke as Elwood and Elisabeth Wiedemann as Veta; and in 1998, Harry Anderson and Swoosie Kurtz starred in a TV film of Harvey which has since been converted to DVD. Until recently, I didn't know that one existed, so I rented it last week and was pleasantly surprised.
Actor Harry Anderson is a working magician, but you may remember his eight seasons as Judge Harry Stone on the TV sitcom Night Court, followed by four seasons as Dave in Dave's World, loosely based on the life of humorist and popular newspaper columnist Dave Barry.
Versatile actress Swoosie Kurtz played Elwood's sister, Veta. More recently, you may remember her and her colorful eye patches in the delightful but short-lived series, Pushing Daisies.
Featured were two well known character actors, Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Chumley and William Schallert as Judge Gaffney.
Supporting actors included Lisa Akey as Myrtle Mae, Jessica Hecht as Nurse Kelly, Robert Wisden as Dr. Sanderson, and Jonathan Banks as the taxi driver.
Now here's something to contemplate: Yet another Harvey film for theatrical release almost became a reality last year when Steven Spielberg showed interest in directing a remake of Harvey, with production to begin in early 2010. The film was to be co-produced by 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Studios. However, Spielberg and the scriptwriter had different visions for the film, and in December 2009, Spielberg opted out of the project.
While Mr. Spielberg was considering the project, he first approached Tom Hanks to play Elwood, but Hanks turned it down. Later, Spielberg approached Robert Downey, Jr. who appeared interested in the role. The way I see it, Robert Downey, Jr., would be perfect for Elwood. And if the writer beefed up the role of Dr. Chumley, it could be a delightful character turn for Tom Hanks.
Oh, isn't this fun. How would you cast the show? Please share your casting ideas in the comments section.
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