23 June 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The definitive production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Harvey" is the 1950 film version, starring James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. Stewart knew a good role; over the next two decades, he continued to play Dowd onstage in the United States and in London ... on several occasions persuading Helen Hayes to co-star as Veta Louise. Miss Hayes had previously starred on Broadway in a flop comedy-fantasy called "Mrs McThing", by the same playwright who wrote "Harvey". Hayes was less enamoured of "Harvey" than James Stewart was (possibly because her role isn't nearly as good as his), and Stewart had increasing difficulty persuading her to join him in subsequent revivals of "Harvey".
The 1972 TV version of "Harvey" is competently done ... but, really, why bother? The film version is better. The film version successfully "opens up" the play, whilst this TV version is still painfully stagebound.
Jesse White, an excellent character actor, who played the asylum attendant Wilson in the original Broadway cast of "Harvey" and in the film version, repeats his role here. (For some reason, Wilson's forename has been changed for this TV version.) White was a very talented actor, but by 1972 he was too old to be playing a strong-armer who subdues maniacs. The scene in which he looks up the word "pookah" in the dictionary is too slow, and not funny at all. Marian Hailey (who?) is a complete waste of space as Myrtle Mae, admittedly an uninteresting role.
Fred Gwynne (who appeared with Helen Hayes in the Broadway cast of "Mrs McThing") is a surprising choice to play the small but pivotal role of Lofgren, the cab driver in the play's final scene. Gwynne gives an excellent performance here; it's a shame that he will be best remembered as Herman Munster rather than for his wide range of stage roles.
The best performance in this TV version of "Harvey" is that of John McGiver, as Dr Cholmondeley. McGiver was a character actor who (with very rare exceptions) basically spent his whole career giving variations of the same performance ... but that performance is always hilarious and delightful to watch. McGiver is very good here in his few scenes.
I've never understood the appeal of Helen Hayes. The so-called "First Lady of the American Stage" (a title which was hung on her by a Hollywood radio show) has never impressed me in any of her roles. Her performance here is much too subdued (even in the "white slaver" scene), and she definitely drags down the pace of this production of "Harvey". Even worse is Madeline Kahn's shrill, nasal performance in a small role as a nurse.
If you've only got room in your life for ONE giant invisible white rabbit, I urge you to skip this TV version of "Harvey" and rent the movie instead.