In 1950, Universal Pictures brought Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Harvey," to the big screen. The main character, Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), is a likeable but eccentric man who spends his days in a world of his own. He frequents local taverns and introduces people to his friend, Harvey. Harvey, it turns out, is a big white rabbit that only Elwood can see. Everyone thinks Elwood is crazy. Some take his odd behavior in stride, while others, like his older sister Vita Louise, refuse to put up with it. The twist in the plot comes when the audience discovers that Harvey is actually real! He is a “pooka,” a mischievous spirit that appears in animal form with an affinity for outcasts like Elwood. Looking at the beautiful messages hidden in each scene of this classic film, we can see a blueprint for how to present our Catholic faith to the world, a faith that has settled in a place between the intensity of in-your-face evangelism and the compromise of Sunday-morning-only devotion. There is much that the “Theology of Harvey” can teach us about what it means to believe.
Crazy Catholics and Our Invisible Friend
Elwood appears to have taken a vacation from reality. At one point in the film he even says, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” Elwood is a happy man, and his simple joy seems to spill over into the hectic worlds of those he encounters. He ends up causing a lot of disruption as well, though from the audience’s perspective, it is quite amusing to watch. Catholicism is like that. Though others may perceives us as outcasts, crazy people who believe in this invisible Savior, they still see the penetrating joy that is ours in Christ and it has an effect on them. Our desire to introduce Jesus to those we meet may cause disruptions in their orderly worlds; but in the eyes of heaven, it is delightedly joyful to behold.
Ellwood is a true evangelist who is totally committed to the cause of sharing his dearest friend with everyone in his life. One of the more comical moments comes early in the film when Elwood introduces Harvey to “Aunt Ethel Chauvanet.” Aunt Ethel is obviously upset to see that Elwood has apparently gone off the deep end. As she stares into the air, wide-eyed and stupefied, Elwood speaks to her: “Now, I can see that you’re disturbed about Harvey. Please don’t be. He stares that way at everybody. It’s his way. But he likes you, I can tell. He likes you very much.” This is such an accurate picture of the world’s reaction to our evangelistic efforts, and how we as Catholics should respond as well. We know that, like Harvey, Jesus is intensely interested in others and cares for them very much. Despite their shock, unbelief, and outright fear, we know we must continue to present our dearest friend to the world around us in the hope that one day they too will be able to see Him for who He is.
Worldly Reactions to Spiritual Realities
When Vita Louise can stand it no longer and decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium, the real fun begins. After Elwood is committed, the doctor on staff comes to believe that it is Vita Louise, and not Elwood, who needs to be committed. The doctor is forced to apologize to Elwood for at first trying to commit him and then tells Elwood that they have committed his sister instead. Elwood, of course, takes it in stride. As the doctor and nurse try to explain the situation, Elwood, with Harvey at his side, tries several times to make introductions, yet somehow is never able. The doctor and nurse appear too busy or too distracted to notice what is going on. It is almost as if Elwood’s mischievous friend orchestrates the whole thing to protect Elwood from harm.
After Elwood receives his visitor’s pass and leaves, the doctors discover their mistake and set off in a frantic search to find him. The head of the sanitarium, Dr. Chumley, decides to do something he has not done in years – get directly involved in the case. Eventually he finds Elwood, but then goes missing. The doctor and nurse from the sanitarium are desperate to find Elwood and get him back to the place where he – and society – will be safe. This is often how the world sees and reacts to Catholics. They become so distressed over our strange customs and the otherworldly realm in which we live that they get a little crazy in how they react to their misperceptions of our practices and our faith. They want to keep us in safe places – like churches – where we cannot do anyone any harm.
Going Places with Our Larger-than-Life Savior
These continual misadventures throughout the film become a picture of how God looks after those with a true childlike perspective on life who refuse to respond to misunderstandings with anger or resentment. Convinced that we are completely cared for, Catholics can be free to let go of anxiety and allow the Savior to move the world around us so that we end up exactly where we are supposed to be. It matters not if the world understands us; we know that we understand what is essential: that we love others as we have been loved and seek the good of all. And just as that whimsical little pooka takes care of Elwood, working out all the details of the plot so that they unfold in his favor, our Savior works all things out to the good for those whom He has called. Like Elwood, we are often unaware of just how this happens. We go on with our lives, happy to know that we are safe within the realm of the Church and loved by our larger-than-life spiritual companion who never lets the world get the best of us.
The doctor and his staff eventually find Elwood at a local tavern and learn how Elwood and His mysterious friend met. Elwood says that one day he was helping an inebriated man into a cab – because he “needed conveying” – when he heard someone calling his name. Elwood was untroubled by the sight of a large white rabbit, but felt at a disadvantage because he did not know this stranger’s name. But Harvey was completely accommodating. In Elwood’s words: “And, and right back at me he said, ‘What name do you like?’ Well, I didn't even have to think twice about that. Harvey's always been my favorite name. So I said to him, I said, ‘Harvey.’ And, uh, this is the interesting thing about the whole thing: He said, ‘What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey.’"
Elwood then explains how every day he and Harvey go to the bars and talk with those who enter as strangers and leave as friends. The people share their terrible deeds, their wonderful dreams, their hopes, regrets, loves, and hates – “All very large,” Elwood says, “because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.” And when they meet Harvey, who is bigger and grander than anything they share, they “leave impressed.” Our Savior too seeks out the castaways of the world, calling our names and offering Himself in the way that best speaks to our needs. When we take Jesus with us into places where the lost reside, where their big sins and big dreams collide, He makes a grand gesture of love and leaves a grander impression than they could ever expect. Touched by His presence, they leave as changed souls.
I Recommend Pleasant – Encounters with Christ
Back at the sanitarium, Elwood meets up again with Dr. Chumley, who by now has become convinced of the existence of Harvey, though in a fearful way. Elwood tells the doctor how Harvey can stop time so a person can go anywhere, with anyone, to do anything they want. Dr. Chumley wants Harvey to do this for him. He tells Elwood that he is his friend, but that Vita Louise and the others are not because they tried to commit him. Elwood is unfazed by all this and Doctor Chumley is confused by Elwood’s lack of indignation. But Elwood replies, in perhaps the most poignant quotation from the movie, “Oh, Doctor, I - I – Years ago 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. And you may quote me.”
Each person Elwood encounters could represent a different stage along the way of salvation. Mr. Wilson, the sanitarium orderly, is an angry man who responds to Elwood’s strange ways and exultant worldview with cynicism and contempt; and yet, as he is exposed to the love Elwood shares, the shell of his hardened heart begins to crack. Mr. Cracker, the bartender, is one who humors Elwood and accepts him as a harmless fellow with an innocent delusion; but Elwood’s good nature draws Mr. Cracker to engage the idea of this invisible friend and what living with that reality brings to his world. Dr. Chumley sees the personal advantage of “being in the club” but does not want to make the deeper relational commitment that knowing Harvey entails. There are a few other minor characters who become open to Elwood’s gentle spirit as he invites them to stop at his house to meet the honored guest. But it is Vita Louise who embodies the person at the edge of conversion, for she is caught between rejecting the life change that Harvey has brought, while reluctantly accepting that he is a reality she cannot quite explain away. She is a part of this wonderful reality but cannot bring herself to face down the world that refuses to believe. All this is a progression perhaps not intended by the author, and yet it comes shining through as the natural consequence of people being exposed to a beautiful mystery that calls each person who encounters it to respond in some way.
The “Stuff” of Everyday Living vs. Our Wonderful Walk with God
The movie comes to its climax with everyone insisting Elwood take an injection that will stop him from seeing this big white rabbit. Elwood, not wanting to upset Vita Louise, agrees. While he is in the doctor’s office, the cab driver who brought everyone to the sanitarium comes in, insisting that he be paid. Vita Louise, who has misplaced her coin purse, asks Elwood to come out to pay the man. Afterward, Vita Louise asks the driver why he refused to wait until Elwood had taken the injection. The cab driver tells her that for years he has driven people to the sanitarium to get “the stuff” – and once Elwood got it he would become miserable, angry and pessimistic just like so many others. As the driver so perfectly puts it, Elwood would become, “a perfectly normal human being' – and you know what stinkers they are!” That event – and the sudden realization that she had her coin purse with her the entire time – leads Vita Louise to stop the injection and finally accept the inevitability of Harvey and all that this will mean for her from now on.
This is the call of Christ: to put aside our arrogance, our superiority, our position, and our “stuff” and pursue a life where, rather than trying to use the Savior for our own ends, we share freely the “pleasantness” of God’s love to the world. We can choose either to walk in joy with our wonderful friend, or become “a perfectly normal human being’ – a stinker – who is focused on the negative things of life, who misses the beauty and grace to be found in sharing our world with Jesus Christ. “Harvey” is a thoughtful commentary on humanity’s seeking state and the power of a joyful Savior whose gaze overcomes the “normal” state of affairs and allows us to see the hidden miracle of God’s love in a broken world.