“In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.”
I thought that I would go a little off-brand for my first Scene Stealers post by looking at Harvey (1950), one of my absolute favourite films; and there’s not a superhero or spaceship in sight. For those that haven’t seen it, Harvey tells the story of one Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) and his friend Harvey, an invisible and yet 6-foot tall white rabbit. I maintain that it’s my favorite James Stewart performance; yes, I think it’s even better than It’s a Wonderful Life. I suppose the best way to sum the film up, and indeed James Stewart’s character, is whimsical. Whimsical and fascinating and utterly devoid of hate, cynicism, and malice.
I think I could have picked any number of scenes from Harvey as there are so many moments that have stuck with me, and still make me smile whenever I think of them. Most of the film is just people stood together talking, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need effects or dazzling camera angles, just genuine human connection, and a big, big heart.
The scene I settled on, in the end, is towards the end of the film with Elwood just away chatting to Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), a psychiatrist who runs a sanitarium. However, this is not just any sanitarium; this is the place where his sister Veta (Josephine Hull) has tried to have him committed after finally growing tired of his antics with Harvey. I think Stewart’s reaction to this sums up the character beautifully. He’s not angry nor does he swear to get his revenge. Instead, he’s impressed (“My sister did all that in one afternoon? That Veta certainly is a whirlwind, isn’t she?”) and it’s just delightful.
What follows is a perfect motto to live your life by, and something that has stuck with me ever since I first saw Harvey (which is probably 15-20 years ago). When pressed about why he isn’t angry about his sister’s actions Elwood shares a piece of advice given to him by his late mother. She always told him that you can be, “oh so smart, or oh so pleasant”, and he says that “for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant”. It’s such a simple scene, and such a corny line, but it doesn’t feel schmaltzy or twee to me. I think it’s a great idea and something that I try to remember as often as possible.
If you’ve never seen Harvey I thoroughly recommend you give it a whirl. There are far fewer people that I would rather spend time with over a martini than Elwood P. Dowd and his good friend Harvey.