Jennifer Finney Boylan and I have two Jimmy Stewart Christmas movies to recommend to you in addition to “It’s A Wonderful Life.” My favorite is “Shop Around the Corner” and I watch it every year at this time, much to Faith’s chagrin! It stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two employees in a leather goods store in Budapest at Christmastime who can barely stand one another but are involved in an amorous secret correspondence. Sound familiar? Well, it was remade as “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. “Shop” is listed as one of Time Magazine’s “All Time 100 Movies” and can be streamed on Amazon Prime now.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a contributing opinion writer for The Times and is a professor of English at Barnard College. Her favorite Christmas movie is “Harvey” as she explains below. (“Harvey” is also available on Amazon Prime.)
From The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2017:
In my favorite Christmas movie, Jimmy Stewart says, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”
No, it’s not “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a movie I have seen so many times now that I have begun to root for Mr. Potter. It’s “Harvey,” a movie that, on the surface at least, is not a Christmas movie at all but the story of a man whose best friend is a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit.
“Harvey” often leaves me in tears — but then I’m an easy cry, I guess…
Many of the tears these films make me shed are happy ones, and why not? I like a Christmas miracle as much as the next woman.
But sometimes I fear that my tears are the tears of loss. Christmas movies put me in mind of my parents, dead now many years, and my sister, whom I hardly ever get to see any more (she lives overseas). Basked in the blue glow of television light, I am a child again, safe in my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, all the trauma of our lives off in the distant future. How sweet it is, to be restored, fleetingly, to that world, and how bitter to be reminded of how long it has been gone. It’s a loss that can feel especially keen to me at Christmas.
Which is why I turn away from tears in December and instead embrace a giant rabbit.
“Years ago,” Mr. Stewart says at one point in the film, “my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
“Harvey,” which premiered in 1950, is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, played by Mr. Stewart, and is based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Throughout the film, Elwood genially frustrates a series of plots to have him institutionalized. There are a number of complications involving the sanitarium (Chumley’s Rest) and Elwood’s long-suffering sister, Veta Louise (“I wouldn’t want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating and sleeping and taking my clothes off, I mean putting them on”).
Harvey, the rabbit, is invisible to most people, and why not — he’s a pooka (“a fairy spirit in animal form,” Mr. Stewart says, “always very large”). And yet Elwood, rabbit or no, brings grace to everything he encounters: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I go, whoever I’m with,” he says. “I’m having a fine time, right here.”
It’s impossible to watch the film without something of Elwood P. Dowd rubbing off on you. I always like to watch it early in the holiday season; it makes my sorrows and exasperations with the world melt away, like snow on a warm mitten. Afterward, I walk around — for a little while, anyway — with a sense of wonder, looking at the world with the same eyes I had as a child, when I believed in all sorts of things that now seem impossible.
Speaking of the impossible, it’s Linus, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” who steps onto the stage and recites from Luke 2:8-14: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ ”
At a similar moment in “Harvey,” Elwood explains what happens when he goes into a bar with his giant invisible rabbit friend: “Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers — soon we have friends. They tell us about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey, and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed.”
“Isn’t there anyone,” laments Charlie Brown, “who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”
I’m no Linus. But if the holiday season means anything at all, it’s about believing in things that we cannot actually see. That virtues as shopworn as faith, hope and love can abide, even if others think you’re a crazy person for believing in them. That those we have lost — parents, friends, even our own younger selves — can live on, in us. That there really are spirits that can make us more than ourselves, that can turn our perilous, fallen lives into something sacred.
Late in “Harvey,” Elwood encounters the wife of his psychiatrist, and he tells her about his friend. “A pooka?” she asks. “Is that something new?”
“No,” Elwood responds with a smile. “No. As I understand it, that’s something very old.”