Josephine Sherman decided to study drama at Radcliffe College because she couldn’t fight the urge to perform. The Newtonville, Massachusetts native began her journey to become one of the greats of the American theater in a stock company in Boston. Hers was not the built of a glamour queen, but when she stepped onto a stage her undeniable presence and brittle delivery rendered her unforgettable. Her Broadway career, which lasted from 1907 through 1955, brought her much acclaim in dramatic roles, but it was her exquisite comedic timing that earns her a spot among the greats.
Miss Sherman changed her last name to Hull after marrying stage actor Shelly Hull in 1910. Sadly, Mr. Hull died of Spanish influenza at the age of 35, at which time Josephine left the stage for three years. But when she returned she did so with renewed energy, with the first of her many major hits in 1936 with her portrayal of Penelope Sycamore in “You Can’t Take It with You.” She played the batty Penny for two years on the stage, with the role going to Spring Byington in Frank Capra’s popular 1938 film version.
With only 13 film and TV credits in her resumé, it was Josephine’s reprisal of the two Broadway roles that followed “You Can’t Take It with You” she is best remembered for. The first is her portrayal of Abby Brewster, one of the two homicidal old ladies in Frank Capra’s 1944 comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. Hull played Abby on stage from 1941 to 1944 before reprising the role in the film – a great performance. By the way, by the time Josephine starred in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace she’d been a staple on the Broadway stage for five decades.
It was in 1950 that Hull reprised the role of Veta Louise Simmons, that one would bring the veteran stage actress her greatest accolades – accolades that include fantastic reviews across the board, huge box office returns and an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in Henry Koster’s Harvey (1950).
The original Broadway production of “Harvey” by Mary Chase opened on November 1, 1944 at the 48th Street Theatre and ran for 1775 performances – the longest-running show in history to date. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1945.
Describing Harvey to non-classic movie fans, something I’ve tried to do quite often, always results in eye rolling. On the surface Harvey is a film about a man, Elwood P. Dowd (played by the great James Stewart), a kind eccentric who enjoys an occasional drink (all the time) and has an imaginary friend named Harvey. Harvey happens to be a 6’8″ pooka, defined by an in-film dictionary as “P-O-O-K-A: Pooka, from old Celtic mythology – a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there , now and then, to this one and that one – a benign but mischievous creature – very fond of rumpots, crackpots…” and, you get the picture. In this case the pooka takes the shape of a rabbit.
An interesting side note: Stewart got to play Elwood P. Dowd in Koster’s film – several different actors played the part on stage, all opposite Josephine. Stewart was present at one of the performances and commented during intermission that he’d give anything to play the part in a film version. The show’s producer, who happened to be nearby, overheard and replied, “What I’d give to have you play Dowd.” Stewart was signed the next day. To get the rights to the play, Universal International Pictures paid the highest price in film history for a single property and decided to use several of the same players that had appeared in the stage production in the film version. Aside from Josephine Hull, Jesse White and Victoria Horne also reprise their stage roles, something not usually done at the time. White plays Wilson, the heavy at the asylum that has to deal (physically) with all the “crazies” who need to be dealt with and Horne plays Myrtle Mae Simmons, Elwood’s niece and Veta Louise’s daughter. There’s not a loser in the bunch.
In any case, as the story goes – Elwood P. Dowd (the kind eccentric) lives in a grand house left to him by his mother, with whom he was very close. He shares the home with his older sister Veta Louise Simmons and her daughter, Myrtle Mae. Elwood’s constant companion, Harvey, is the cause of constant consternation and embarrassment for the two women who have all but been shunned by their high society friends and family due to Elwood’s odd behavior.
As the story opens the high-strung Veta Louise is in a tizzy because she’s planned a social gathering in the house in hopes of finding a husband for Myrtle Mae, who’s not getting any younger. Having invited every who’s who she could think of Veta Louise made plans for Elwood to be distracted long enough for her gathering to go off without a hitch. Unfortunately for Veta and Myrtle May, Elwood (with Harvey by his side) visits his favorite, local tavern, where he’s told about the gathering almost immediately. Convinced Veta simply forgot to inform him, both Elwood and Harvey return to the mansion to take part in the festivities.
Well, as soon as all the snooty party guests get a load of Harvey – or rather, fail to get a load of him – they flee the house, which is the absolute last straw for Elwood’s family. So a heartbroken Veta Louise sets forth plans to have her baby brother committed to an asylum. Now the fun begins, as Elwood and Veta Louise arrive in the asylum and while trying to explain the specifics of Elwood’s “problem” to the doctor, it is Veta Louise herself that is committed and subjected to all sorts of “situations.” “I want you to sue them,” she later says about her ordeal. “They put me in and let Elwood out.”
As the film progresses and mayhem builds with regards to who actually lacks sense among the characters, we are treated to many wonderful moments of pathos as we learn this is not a simple story about a man and an imaginary rabbit. Harvey offers hearty laughs and a hell of a lot of heart, thanks in large part to the performance of Josephine Hull, who, for my money, makes this film great. As much as I adore James Stewart, the film would not work without Hull’s delivery, timing, reactions…everything I mentioned at the onset of the post. She delivers here a comedic performance for the ages. Hull utters not one throwaway line in the entire movie. Not to mention that her actual physical form – short and stout – adds so much to this picture because of the contrast to that of Stewart’s and Horne’s, who are both tall and lanky.
I can’t say enough about what Hull does in Harvey – she is hilarious, scatter-brained, confused perfection. And, in this movie, also a perfect example of why so many acting greats have said comedy is much tougher to do than drama. Veta Louise Simmons is not an easy part to play and could have easily gone the way of cookie-cutter hysterical mother roles, so we should all be thankful the one actress who’d known the part since the original play’s inception was given the change to bring it to life on screen. It also warms the heart to know the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized her great work in this film.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the character of Veta Louise is the one through which Harvey, the rabbit, becomes believable to the audience. If Veta didn’t believe in Harvey despite her better judgment neither would we as an audience. I have to say that I always want to yell and do a fist pump when she says that she too sees the rabbit now and again to the doctor before she’s committed. It is the gift of this film that in the end we all want to believe in Harvey, and Veta gives us permission to do so – in a way. That’s not to discount the loveliness of Elwood P. Dowd, by the way. Elwood’s strength of character grows throughout the film from what seems as “flightiness” at the start to one of the most perceptive, genuinely kind men in all of film. Or, rather, we grow as we come to understand we should have a bit of that flightiness in us.
“In this world you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant,” Elwood says at one point in Harvey. “I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” We are all crazy if measured against Elwood P. Dowd.
One last thing worth mentioning; director Henry Koster, recognizing the success of the stage version of Harvey, insisted on filming the movie as closely as possible to the stage production. As explained by James Stewart in the DVD commentary, Koster would assemble the cast and rehearse each scene extensively, then film each in single master shots without breaking for close-ups, etc. As a result, the film has the feel of a stage play in many of the key scenes, which greatly enhances the story and the mayhem as we are treated to ensemble scenes rather than individual performances. In essence– and to his credit–Koster played to the strength of his cast.
Following Harvey, Josephine Hull appeared in only one more feature film– Joseph Pevney’s The Lady from Texas (1951)–after which she did television work until 1955, when she retired from acting. Ms. Hull died in New York in March, 1957 of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 71. She was an American treasure.
Aurora is a classic film fan and blogger. By day she works in higher ed. administration and teaches mass media. By night she watches movies. You can read more about what she watches at Once Upon a Screen.