Silver Screen Standards: The Harvey Girls (1946)
I’ve had a particular fondness for The Harvey Girls (1946) since the first time I saw it, but my love increased when I visited the El Tovar Hotel in the Grand Canyon some years ago and learned more about the fascinating history of the real Harvey Girls who brought beefsteak and civilized manners to the Western frontier. The exhibit at the hotel included references to the 1946 Judy Garland film, which is dedicated to the women who went West on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad in order to work in Fred Harvey’s establishments. Sadly, not everyone gets the chance to visit one of the few remaining Harvey Houses, but they can watch Garland and a fantastic supporting cast in this energetic Western musical from director George Sidney. While it’s not a perfect movie, it is one of my very favorite Judy Garland films, not only because I like the protagonist Garland plays but because I absolutely adore Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, and Virginia O’Brien, and having all of them in the same picture is really a treat.
Garland plays Susan Bradley, who answers a matrimonial ad and agrees to ride the train all the way to Sandrock to marry a man she only knows through his letters. When that doesn’t turn out as expected, Susan joins a troop of Harvey Girls arriving at the same time and gets to work feeding passengers and locals at the Harvey House. The local saloon crowd isn’t happy about the competition or the idea of Sandrock settling down into 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 in unexpected places, and sparks fly between Susan and the owner of the Alhambra saloon, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), much to the disgruntlement of Ned’s usual squeeze, saloon singer Em (Angela Lansbury).
The Harvey Girls offers a distinctly feminine perspective on going West, even if it omits the worst dangers and hardships of the experience in favor of Technicolor song and dance. The girls might be nice young ladies from back East, but they’re hardier than they first appear, a point made abundantly clear in the glorious free-for-all fight with the dance hall demimondes. Susan’s friend Alma (Virginia O’Brien) turns out to be skilled at shoeing horses and working a blacksmith’s forge, while Susan herself grabs a pair of pistols and marches into the saloon to retrieve the hotel’s stolen meat. It’s very satisfying to see the ladies of the film so capable and determined in spite of the obstacles they face, and by the end of the picture, we even see Susan and Em reach an appreciation of each other. Two older women are in charge of the girls, and they’re both sturdy, reassuring presences; Miss Bliss (Selena Royle) doesn’t have enough scenes to be fully developed, but Sonora (Marjorie Main) steals almost every scene she’s in, and she even strikes up a romance of her own with Susan’s mail-order groom, Hartsey (Chill Wills). On the less reputable side of the street, we have Em, a more complicated character but not really a bad one even if she resents Susan for trespassing on her territory.
While the women get the greater part of my devotion, I can’t fault the male cast, either, especially John Hodiak as Ned. His rakish, toothy grin provides good cover for the surprisingly fair-minded and even poetic side of Ned’s personality, and he has excellent chemistry with Garland. Seeing Ray Bolger reunited with Garland is also a delight, even if we don’t get to see much of his character’s developing relationship with Virginia O’Brien’s Alma. Their plotline disappears because Garland’s delays on set caused the pregnant O’Brien to be too far along to hide her condition any longer, and as a result, Alma vanishes about halfway through the picture, right after her wonderful “Wild, Wild West” number. Kenny Baker only has a few scenes as the piano playing love interest for Cyd Charisse, but they look very sweet together in their one big number. Chill Wills actually gets more screen time than Baker, thanks to Hartsey’s initial encounter with Susan and growing camaraderie with Sonora, but he’s a lovable genre stalwart who helps the movie feel more like an actual Western.
The music for this picture also makes me love it, even if Angela Lansbury’s singing is being dubbed for reasons I will never comprehend. “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and it really is an earworm, although I also love Virginia O’Brien’s hilarious delivery of “The Wild, Wild West.” The movie has so many song-and-dance numbers that it rockets along, much like the train barreling West. It’s hard to believe that several musical numbers were removed from the picture before its release, and there’s never a point where a song really feels like it’s missing. Dances accompany most of the major musical moments; Ray Bolger’s extended solo at the Harvey party is a highlight, and Cyd Charisse, in her first speaking role as Susan’s friend Deborah, gets a couple of smaller dance scenes. I also really like the quieter segment that features “It’s a Great Big World” with Garland and O’Brien (and Charisse dubbed by Marion Doenges). In fact, the biggest flaw in the movie is that O’Brien is in it just enough to hook us on her performance and then vanishes thanks to the delays and her own impending maternity. When MGM dropped her contract in 1948 they made a huge mistake and cost all of us the chance to see O’Brien reach her full potential as a brilliant singing comedy star.
Hopefully, this delightful movie will inspire you to learn more about Harvey Girls’ history or take a train trip out West yourself. You could even take the Grand Canyon Railway to the South Rim and visit the El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. Another Harvey Hotel still in operation today is La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, whose famous guests have included Betty Grable, John Wayne, and Amelia Earhart. If travel isn’t an option, try more classic movie musicals about Wild West women, including Calamity Jane (1953), Red Garters (1954), and Cat Ballou (1965). Don’t miss Westward the Women (1951) if you want a more dramatic take on women’s frontier experiences.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.