A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1850
January 1, 2017

ELWOOD P. DOWD

MONTPELIER – It was a series of apparently unrelated happenstances that saved us. It’s de rigueur at the end of a year – especially one so turbulent as the one just past and facing another so fraught with uncertainty – for the media to recall the important stories and departures of the last twelve months and speculate about the as-yet-unreported ones. This is done exhaustively, and I shrink from following that herd over the cliff. But I couldn’t help but think that there must be something worth mentioning and writing about in our current situation.

I’d spent the week before Christmas finding a DVD player to hook up to the television set in Mother’s room, and then hunting down the appropriate cable to connect the two. Flushed with success and feeling virtuous about finding the gift she’d said she wanted, I mentioned it to our younger daughter, who asked, “Dad, have you looked at the end of her TV set?”

Well, how about that! There was a little slot there for playing DVDs. No wonder the control was so much more complicated than the regular ones. Abashed and unhappy (I’d almost rather have a root canal than return stuff to a store), I asked what I could do to try to make up for the mistake. She suggested I root through her collection of DVDs at home – mostly the old movies – and bring some with me to look at together when next I came to visit.

I rooted and rummaged, and came upon a beautifully boxed set of films starring the late James Stewart. It rang a bell: I remembered how Mother had lamented the actor’s death about twenty years ago: “Oh, Jimmy!” she had cried.  “You promised you’d wait for me!” Perfect! I thought, and took the set with me that afternoon.

The first film my eye fell upon when I opened it was “Harvey,” that whimsical story of the flaky bachelor with the large, invisible rabbit pal. With little enthusiasm – we’d save “Vertigo,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Rear Window” for other evenings – I inserted it, and we settled down to watch.

I’d probably watched “Harvey” half a dozen times in my life, but discovered about five minutes in that I’d never seen it, if you know what I mean. I must have gone with girlfriends or something, or maybe just been too young. In any case, this viewing was a new experience.

Almost everybody’s familiar with the central image of the story: the friendship of Elwood P, Dowd and his invisible (to everybody else) pal, Harvey. Originally a play written by Mary Chase, “Harvey” won a a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945. It was made into a movie in 1950, starring Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull, both of whom had starred in the play in its long run in London. Ms. Hull won an Oscar for her performance in the film. It’s easy to see why: Nobody – excepting maybe Jack Lemmon – does panic better than she.

Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, an amiable and well-off, but batty small-town bachelor with a gift for making friends, inviting them – including sanitation workers, sanatorium guards, and cab drivers – for dinner at his home, run by his sister, Veta, who’s desperate to maintain her place in polite society and marry off her conspicuously plain daughter, Myrtle Mae.

The problem with Elwood is that his constant companion, Harvey, is a 6 foot, 3-and a half-inch-tall pooka in the shape of a rabbit. A pooka is an ancient Celtic spirit that brings good or evil. Many primitive societies believe in similar creatures, – as do some modern ones, come to think of it. Veta considers Harvey a dangerous hallucination, and Elwood a nut.

Elwood, meeting someone new, almost invariably introduces him to Harvey and reaches into his breast pocket, saying, “Let me give you one of my cards.” It’s not clear whether he’s a problem drinker, but he does spend a great deal of time at Charlie’s Bar and invites new acquaintances to join him there, where the regulars and the bartender all cheerfully accept Harvey. The bartender always asks after their healths and sets up two martinis, one for Elwood and one for Harvey. Elwood finds everyone interesting and is utterly harmless – except to the social aspirations of his sister, who tries to keep him separate from her guests.

The drama begins when Veta and her pal Judge Gaffney, try to commit Elwood to Chumley’s Rest, a sanatorium for the insane. It’s obvious that a fine line separates Elwood from the folks who run the place, and that he’s on the better side. Released by mistake (the staff instead locks up Veta, who admits to believing in Harvey herself now and then), he’s traced to Charlie’s by the psychiatrist and his nurse, where he innocently reveals that he knows more about his condition than anyone suspects. “Years ago,” he tells them, “my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

For years I’ve recommended that Congress begin each session with a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg, as an example of the awful result of intractable political positions. I still will, though without any hope of its ever being done. But now I’ll add another prescription: a viewing of Jimmy Stewart playing Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.” In a world full of striving men and women who are conspicuously oh-so-smart, there’s a tremendous need for more people who are, perhaps, a little batty, but who admire everyone they meet and are themselves oh-so-pleasant.

Photo by Willem lange