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The opening title cards read: "Universal-International presents Harvey starring James Stewart," followed by the names of Josephine Hull and ten additional cast members, ending with Clem Bevans. In the cast of characters list at the end of the film, however, Bevans' name is not included and the order of the actors is reversed, ending with Stewart and "Harvey." The end credits run over photographs of the actors, and during "Harvey's" credit, a door is shown opening and closing, indicating the exit of the invisible rabbit. In a 1945 Cosmopolitan article about the play Harvey, theatrical producer Brock Pemberton wrote that silent film comedian Harold Lloyd was willing to appear in a film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and that Preston Sturges expressed interest in purchasing the screen rights. In June 1947, according to Los Angeles Times, Universal paid a record-breaking one million dollars for the film rights. Author Mary Chase and Pemberton were to receive $100,000 per year for ten years against one-third of the film's profits, and the start of the film was contractually delayed until the end of the play's run. Pemberton died in March 1950, before the start of the production.
Before starring in the film, Stewart had played "Elwood P. Dowd" on stage during the role's originator, Frank Fay's, vacation. Josephine Hull recreated her original stage role of Veta for the film, and Victoria Horne and Jesse White also reprised their theatrical roles. This film marked White's motion picture debut. As part of her deal with Universal, Chase had the right of final approval over any actor hired to play Elwood. Among those considered for the role were Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Rudy Vallee, Joe E. Brown (who had also played the part on stage), Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Jack Haley and James Cagney. A April 17, 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Charles Drake had replaced Alex Nichol in the part of "Dr. Sanderson" when the latter was assigned to Tomahawk.
Contemporary sources report that Chase wanted the audience to see Harvey walking with Elwood at the fadeout, because she did not "want anybody to go out of the theater thinking Elwood is just a lush. He believes in Harvey...and I think the audience ought to believe in Harvey, too." As Los Angeles Times reported on December 17, 1950, the studio experimented with a live Harvey, a silhouette and a rabbit tail attached to the taxi driver, but rejected them all. In the Cosmopolitan article, Pemberton recalled that a giant rabbit appeared onstage only once, during the first performance of the play in Boston, and "a chill descended on the gathering, which never quite thawed out afterwards."
Stewart received an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and Hull won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Veta. Stewart reprised his film role for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of the play broadcast on the NBC network on March 22, 1972, which co-starred Helen Hayes as Veta. According to modern sources, although Harvey did fairly well at the box office, it failed to make enough money to recoup production costs and the high cost of the film rights, but a video of the film, with an introduction by Stewart, was MCA's biggest selling classic film in 1990. In many interviews, Stewart referred to the role of Elwood P. Dowd as his favorite. Although in 2000 producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein announced a planned remake of Harvey, possibly to star John Travolta, as of spring 2005 that project remains unproduced.