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

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars