The Harvey Girls (1946): The Painted Desert Meets The Musical

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It was during a pit stop along a cross-country trip through the Petrified Forest that I first became aware of The Harvey Girls. Because you see, The Painted Desert Inn is a bit of a relic of the past, and it preserves a history of the famous waitresses who helped pave the way for a certain brand of civility in the Southwest. They brought the sensibilities, respectability, fine china, and world-famous sirloin steaks from back east to forsaken lands normally ruled by saloons and brothels.

So while The Harvey Girls (1946), a cheery musical directed by George Sidney, does not have the same mythological quality in the taming of the West as a John Ford picture, the same process is being captured, albeit in more practical (and more musical) terms.

We get a taste of where all these girls come from thanks to the very catchy, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which suggests the vital importance that the transcontinental railroad played in such an endeavor. The recording would prove a viable hit for star Judy Garland and many others, taking on a subject akin to “The Trolley Song” out of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In that regard, Garland is out of sorts residing on the pioneering prairie with their dive saloons and floozies of ill-repute. But that’s exactly her charm. She traveled to this far-off, unknown destination as a mail order bride; her only correspondence with her future matrimonial partner is through letters.

He’s quite eloquent with a pen and yet she meets the colloquial but good-natured H. H. Hartsey (Chill Wills) and receives the shock of her life. All of a sudden they’re both a bit flustered and decide to dispense with the marriage on amicable terms.

As a result, Susan decides to join The Harvey Girls in their newly formed restaurant to bring entertainment and quality diversions to this godless territory of Sand Rock. Their main competition comes from a man named Ned Trent (John Hodiak) who runs the local watering hole replete with gambling, drinking, a whole host of dancing girls. One of them, Em (Angela Lansbury) is deeply in love with him, and it shows.

Trent conveniently has a partnership with the local Judge who has made it a practice to scare off anyone with a smidge of decency. He even ran a preacher out of town and his scare tactics include a gunshot fired into the Harvey Girl dormitory.

Though only a recent recruit, Susan soon mobilizes the women who are trained up by (Majorie Mann) ready to fight back against their opposition. Her distaste and inexperience with guns are endearing just as her plucky fearlessness gains her a certain amount of admiration.

Trent proves to be a far more complex man than he’s given credit for even as he tries to distance himself from the Judge and push the Harvey Girls out fair and square. It’s still a competition, but at least it’s honorable. Simultaneously, Em begins to see the twinkle in his eyes as he becomes enamored with Susan. Her principles and feisty nature are attractive, but Ems not about to lose him without a fight nor does Susan particularly fancy Trent. The romantic triangle is firmly in place.

In one sense, Lansbury feels poorly miscast, no fault of her own because they all but dubbed her singing voice to make her seem American. Her charm has to do precisely with the fact she is not one of us. And yet remarkably, she does a fine job as a sympathetic antagonist, if you will, that we grow to admire.

John Hodiak is easily clumped with actors of the 40s like Brian Donlevy or Cornel Wilde who are not quite buried in obscurity. However, because there is nothing that can be deemed electric about them, it’s easy for them to get lost in the fray. All that being said, I rather like Hodiak opposite Garland. He’s both slightly antagonistic but genial when he has to be.

“It’s a Great Big World” provides a fine showcase for Garland and her companions to dream together. On her own, Virginia O’Brien provides a comic aside singing “Wild Wild West” and giving the town’s jumpy new blacksmith (Ray Bolger) a capable helping hand. I must say I hardly recognized the young Cyd Charisse who earned her first speaking role to kick off a shining career in Hollywood as one of its preeminent dancers.

The most comedically gratifying scene has to be when the two rival factions resort to physical catfights to exert their dominance and show that they have a right to stay. The Harvey Girls also throw a party where Bolger’s length on taps is positively charming. It’s the old story that a dancer must be highly skilled to make their style look so very idiosyncratic, and I kept on thinking how I would never in a million years be able to pull of such a routine.

What follows is a Waltz that has everyone dancing even as the town is plagued further by arsons and a heated fistfight to right a few wrongs. We are getting down to the wire. However, with the outbound train about to leave, decisions must be made and one could wager that our leads make the right one, though fate and Em give them a helping hand in the end.

The Harvey Girls, produced by the Arthur Freed unit, and blessed with the song-smithing of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, delivers a repeatedly delightful western musical experience, despite the very fact that it was not initially supposed to be. However, a drama earmarked for Lana Turner got a facelift and pulled Judy Garland away from working with Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire to score her a low-stakes, lightweight hit.

To make things even better, she would finally get her chance to work with Astaire two years later in Easter Parade (1948). For now, let’s relish this one for the frothy pleasures it affords. My sojourning through the painted desert was almost 10 years ago, so it’s a pleasure to finally get around to see The Harvey Girls. 

3.5/5 Stars

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