Silverscreen standards: The Harvey Girls (1946)
I have a special preference for The Harvey Girls (1946) since I first saw it, but my love grew even bigger when I visited the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon a few years ago and learned more about the fascinating history of the real Harvey Girls, the beef steak and civilized manners in the Westerns brought borders. The exhibit at the hotel contained references to the 1946 film Judy Garland, which is dedicated to the women who went west on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads to work at Fred Harvey’s facilities. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the chance to visit one of the few remaining Harvey Houses, but they can see Garland and a fantastic supporting actress in this energetic western musical from director George Sidney. While it’s not a perfect movie, it’s one of my favorite Judy Garland films, not just because I like the protagonists Garland, but because I absolutely adore Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, and Virginia O’Brien and have them all with the same picture really a treat.
Garland plays Susan Bradley, who answers a marriage notice and agrees to take the train to Sandrock to marry a man she only knows through his letters. When that doesn’t work out as expected, Susan joins a co-arriving troop of Harvey Girls and goes to work feeding passengers and locals at Harvey House. The local saloon crowd isn’t happy with the competition or the idea of Sandrock settling in a respectable town, but only the duplicitous Judge Purvis (Preston Foster) is villainous enough to terrorize the newcomers with increasingly nasty tricks. Even as they fend off the judge’s attacks, the girls find romance and sparks flying in unexpected places between Susan and the Alhambra saloon owner, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), much to the annoyance of Ned’s usual pinch, saloon singer Em (Angela Lansbury).
The Harvey Girls offers a decidedly feminine perspective on going west, even if it skips the worst dangers and hardships of the experience in favor of technicolor singing and dancing. The girls may be nice young ladies from the East, but they are more resilient than it appears at first glance, a point that is made abundantly clear in the glorious fight against everyone with the dance hall crescent moons. Susan’s friend Alma (Virginia O’Brien) proves adept at shoeing horses and in a blacksmith shop, while Susan herself grabs a pair of pistols and marches into the saloon to retrieve the hotel’s stolen meat. It is very satisfying to see the ladies of the film so capable and determined despite all the obstacles, and at the end of the picture we even see Susan and Em value each other. Two older women take care of the girls, and both are robust, calming appearances; Miss Bliss (Selena Royle) doesn’t have enough scenes to be fully developed, but Sonora (Marjorie Main) steals almost every scene she starred in, and she even starts her own romance with Susan’s mail-order groom, Hartsey (Chill Testaments). On the less reputable side of the road, we have Em, a more complicated character but not really a bad one, even if she annoys Susan for entering her territory.
While the women get most of my devotion, I can’t fault the male actors either, especially John Hodiak as Ned. His cheeky, snarling grin covers the surprisingly honest and even poetic side of Ned’s personality well, and he has excellent chemistry with Garland. It is also a pleasure to see Ray Bolger reunited with Garland, though we don’t get to see much of his character’s developing relationship with Virginia O’Brien’s Alma. Her plot disappears because Garland’s delays on set caused the pregnant O’Brien to be too advanced to hide her condition any longer, and as a result, Alma disappears roughly in the middle of the picture, right after her wonderful “Wild, Wild West “number. Kenny Baker has few scenes as the piano playing love interest for Cyd Charisse, but they look very cute together in their one big number. Chill Wills actually gets more screen time than Baker thanks to Hartsey’s first encounter with Susan and growing camaraderie with Sonora, but he’s a lovable genre star who helps make the movie feel more like a real western.
The music to this picture also makes me love it, even though Angela Lansbury’s vocals are dubbed for reasons I’ll never understand. “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and it really catches the eye, although I also love Virginia O’Brien’s hilarious performance of “The Wild, Wild West.” The film has so many song-and-dance numbers that it rushes west like a train. It’s hard to believe that several music numbers were removed from the picture prior to its release, and there’s never a point where a song really feels like it’s missing. Dances accompany most of the great musical moments; Ray Bolger’s extended solo at the Harvey party is a highlight, and Cyd Charisse gets a few minor dance scenes in her first speaking role as Susan’s friend Deborah. I also really like the quieter segment that has “It’s a Great Big World” starring Garland and O’Brien (and Charisse, voiced by Marion Doenges). In fact, the biggest flaw in the movie is that O’Brien is just enough to tie us to her performance and then disappears thanks to the delays and her impending motherhood. When MGM gave up their contract in 1948, they made a huge mistake and cost us all the chance to see O’Brien reach her full potential as a brilliant vocal comedy star.
Hopefully this adorable movie will inspire you to learn more about the history of Harvey Girls or take a train ride to the west yourself. You can even take the Grand Canyon Railway to the South Rim and visit the El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. Another Harvey hotel that still operates today is La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, whose famous guests included Betty Grable, John Wayne, and Amelia Earhart. If travel isn’t an option, check out more classic film musicals about Wild West women, including Disaster Jane (1953), Red garters (1954), and Cat Ballou (1965). Do not miss To the west the women (1951) if you want to look more dramatically at women’s borderline experiences.
– Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen writes our monthly column on Silver Screen Standards. You can read all of the articles on Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic films on her blog Virtual Virago and presents classic film programs for lifelong learning groups and retirement communities. She is the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 film classics worth seeing and its continuation, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 film classics worth seeing, and she is also the co-editor of two books on the work of Jim Henson.