A Musical Romance of Daring Days!
The Harvey Girls may not be Singin' In the Rain, but it boasts what has to be the biggest catfight in the history of the golden era of MGM musicals.
Facts of the Case
In this 1946 musical directed by George Sidney (Show Boat, Bye Bye Birdie), Judy Garland plays Susan Bradley, an Ohio girl heading to Flat Rock, New Mexico because she answered a bridal ad and has committed to marrying a man she's never even seen. During her train trip, she falls in with a group of girls from all across America, heading west to work at one of the Harvey House restaurants on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway line.
Upon arriving, Susan finds her fiancé an ill-educated, unbathed cowboy who likewise has second thoughts about marrying because, now that he's gotten himself a woman, he doesn't seem quite sure what to do with her. They call off the wedding amiably and Susan decides to throw in her lot with the Harvey girls. Problem is, across the street from the brand new Harvey House is the Alhambra saloon and dance hall (and probably bordello) run by a dashing (in a Caesar Romero sort of way) but shady entrepreneur named Ned Trent (John Hodiak). The Harvey girls soon square off against the Alhambra tramps and their leader Em (Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote).
Real trouble ensues when Susan falls in love with Ned, for whom Em has been secretly carrying a torch. Will Ned choose our hero Susan over Em when such a choice would require cleaning up his act and getting out of the booze and gartered-floozy business?
Apparently, the men who tamed the West were in turn tamed by the waitresses of a precursor to Denny's called Harvey House. Fred Harvey (who was a real guy) set up a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway to service their stops with eating joints and hotels. Before Harvey came along, grizzled roughneck cowboys and settlers spent their time in whiskey joints, dance halls, and whorehouses, but nothing puts morals into a man faster than Grand Slam breakfasts and Rooty-Tooty Fresh 'n' Fruity pancakes served up by pretty but chaste waitresses with golden pipes and dancer's legs—at least in the world of Hollywood musicals.
And as musicals go, The Harvey Girls isn't too bad. The film is anchored by the tour-de-force "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" near its beginning, an eight-minute number that captivates with its catchy, Oscar-winning tune, sweeping cinematography, and multitude of singers and dancers. The heart of the movie is fairly light on musical interludes and none rise to the energetic fun of its signature piece. Near the end of the film, though, we're given "Swing Your Partner Round and Round," a clever square dance/waltz hybrid used to express the civilizing effect the Harvey girls are having on the rambunctious townsmen. The number is capped off by a comic and high-energy tap dance routine by Ray Bolger (best known as Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) as the klutzy and rubber-faced blacksmith Chris, sort of the The Harvey Girls' version of Jar-Jar Binks.
Twenty-three-year-old Judy Garland is, well, Judy Garland, which is to say Susan Bradley shows a mix of spunk and vulnerability similar to Oz's Dorothy Gale. She's almost too good, though, making the film feel a bit uneven because of how she dominates the other performers. And the supporting cast isn't a bunch of slouches. Along with Bolger and Lansbury (who's just too sympathetic throughout to make a strong antagonist), the film has Cyd Charisse (who contributes a graceful little dance number), Chill Wills (Giant, The Alamo), and gravel-voiced comedienne Marjorie Mains who played Ma in Ma and Pa Kettle. The real problem, though, is Hodiak; he may be okay as window-dressing, but he's not a musical performer and, as a result, just doesn't seem a match for Garland's Susan Bradley. He's dull—imagine how little passion Moulin Rouge would've had if Ewan McGregor never sang or danced.
Musicals aren't my area of expertise and all I know about Judy Garland is she was in The Wizard of Oz, is Liza Minnelli's mother, and consumed enough pills and booze to put both Elvis Presley and Jackie Gleason to shame. I suppose it's possible a Garland star-trip is at the center of the film's unevenness, a demand on her part to have the other performers' work watered down so she wouldn't be upstaged, but I doubt it. For one, her entire performance, both acting and singing, is so naturally vibrant she didn't have much to worry about. For another, the film has a very spotty production history. It started as a straight-up western that was to star Lana Turner and Clark Gable. The entire project nearly fell apart, but was resurrected when MGM executives realized that, with the addition of song and dance, the film could ride the coattails of the then hottest show on Broadway, Oklahoma. The script and musical numbers went through all sorts of rewrites, even during filming, so its actually pretty amazing things turned out as well as they did—it certainly helped that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren wrote the tunes.
The best thing about The Harvey Girls is its look, and Warner Brothers has done a splendid job with the DVD presentation. All I have to say is: three-strip Technicolor, baby! Wow! Colors are jump-right-off-the-screen bright. Be warned, if you sit too close to the screen, the red of Judy Garland's lipstick may do permanent damage to your rods and cones. The transfer is beautiful, although not perfect, but most of the flaws are inherent in the source material and it would be unreasonable to complain about any of them since we're talking about a 57-year-old film. The most glaring problem is some unsteady scene transitions, probably a result of the wear-and-tear on the original elements. There's also some heavy grain in a couple brief rear-projection shots, but that's the nature of that particular beast. Anyone who'd fuss about this presentation is being unreasonable.
Audio is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. While 2.0 mono might have been nice, the track is solid, all things considered. Dialogue and music are clearly rendered and, while not exactly expansive, about as rich as mono from an optical source gets.
The Harvey Girls was enormously popular back in its day—it was one of the biggest money-makers of 1946—and still has its fans. Warner's DVD, which is fairly loaded with extras, should make them happy. The best is a feature-length commentary by director George Sidney, who passed away in May of this year at the age of 85. The DVD gives no information about when the commentary was recorded (it may have produced for the 1995 laserdisc of the film), but Sidney is strong-voiced, fast-talking, and a pretty good storyteller. It's an anecdotal commentary in which he relays much detail about the film's production history and shoot. It's pretty amazing how vivid his memories are considering how long ago the film was in production.
There are three additional musical numbers included, originally left on the cutting room floor in order to shorten the film's running time. "My Intuition," which runs about four minutes, is interesting because it's a duet between Garland and Hodiak, with Garland doing most of the singing. Still, had it been left in, there would have been at least one musical number with Hodiak. "March of the Doagies," which runs about three minutes, is a beautiful production number with Garland and the townsfolk, nearly on the same scale as "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," but not quite as dazzling either musically or visually. While its removal from the film was probably a good idea, it makes a nice extra.
Singsong Express is an audio feature that contains songs from the film plus pick-ups, alternate takes, and songs like "Hayride" that were recorded on a soundstage but abandoned before production numbers were shot. There are 27 tracks total. Each can be accessed individually from a menu, and there is also a play all option.
Finally, there is a stereo version of the "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" production number. Although the film pre-dates the use of stereo sound in film, MGM was in the habit of recording many of the production numbers for their musicals with multiple microphones, creating multiple versions of the same performance and giving them a variety of mixes so that the most balanced recording with clearly discernible vocals could be used in the film. The fact they used this method allowed for the creation of this stereo mix of the number.
If you're a big fan of musicals from Hollywood's golden age, you should absolutely add The Harvey Girls to your collection. Warner Brothers has done a commendable job with this DVD, giving fans a pretty transfer as well as a solid batch of supplements.
All parties are found not guilty. This court is in recess.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Three Deleted Musical Numbers: "My Intuition," and the Original and Reprise of "March of the Doagies"
Review content copyright © 2002 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.