The Harvey Girls (1946)
starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, and Angela Lansbury
co-starring Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, Chill Wills, Kenny Baker, and Cyd Charisse
I remember LOVING The Harvey Girls the first time I saw it, so naturally I was curious to see if that emotion had staying power since I hadn't seen the movie in over a decade. As it happens, yes, I still love it, and with good reason.
I've never minded mail-order bride stories, and that's how this one begins, with young Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) headed west to marry a man who she's only corresponded with, but never met. Full of hope and light, a tad bit hungry, she encounters a group of young women also headed west, known as the Harvey Girls. They are employed by Fred Harvey to open a Harvey House restaurant that brings culture and refinement to western towns. Enthralled with the young ladies in this group, Susan immediately befriends them, especially since her stop and theirs is the same one.
Imagine her horror on getting off the train and meeting her betrothed. Lanky H. H. Hartsey (Chill Wills) is nothing like she imagined, just as she is far younger than he ever dreamed. Together, they are equally relieved to undo the betrothal, except that now Susan has a question. How did this shy, unassuming farmer win Susan's heart with just words on paper?
Let's just say that he didn't. And when Susan finds out that Ned Trent (John Hodiak), the owner of the Ahlambra saloon, is the man who penned the words of love she treasured, she gets her ire up right quick, refuses his offer of funds to take her back to Ohio, and instead joins the Harvey Girls. Ned never intended for the girl to be so lovely and pure as Susan Bradley, although I'll never understand what he thought he was doing writing those letters for his friend! With the Harvey Girls bringing a breath of fresh air to Sandrock, Ned starts wondering if just possibly he wants more out of life than running a saloon and dance hall. An idea that doesn't sit well with his star attraction, Em (Angela Lansbury), who can't control her heart's leaning towards Ned anymore than Ned can control his heart racing full tilt towards the prim Miss Bradley.
Let's just say we have an entertaining train wreck on our hands that includes the dancing comic, Ray Bolger, the forever graceful Cyd Charisse, the memorable Marjorie Main, and dear Kenny Baker who wasn't in nearly enough movies in his day.
One of the things The Harvey Girls really has going for it is its sense of humor. From Garland storming across the street with two colt .45s in her hand preparing to take on the Ahlahmbra to the brawl between the Harvey Girls and the dance hall girls, it's a wild ride of good humor and entertainment. Yep, it's also a musical, but unlike my last review of a Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime, the songs here seem to work: On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, The Train Must Be Fed, It's a Great Big World, and The Wild, Wild West just to name a few. Angela Lansbury was, sadly, dubbed, but I guess I'm not surprised since Hollywood loved to dub their stars if their singing voices weren't up to scratch.
I laughed so much in The Harvey Girls it was refreshing. Not the Danny Kaye or Bob Hope comedy kind of laugh, but the kind that says the humor felt authentic and timely for the story.
Plus, I bought Hodiak and Garland as a couple. He actually seemed capable of standing his own against her considerable charm and charisma! I can't say that of very many actors and so I must applaud him for selling me the idea that they were in love. Their first kiss is soooooooooooo cute!
Let me just say one thing: Judy Garland was born for color pictures. The woman had so much pizzazz and sparkle that almost nobody stood a chance against her in a color film, which is probably why MGM continually shot her movies in color. The Harvey Girls is nothing if not lovely, not just because of the bevy of beautiful maidens paying the Harvey Girls, but also because of the gorgeous costuming overseen by a woman credited only as Irene, who also supervised the costuming in the always memorable Meet Me in St. Louis, also with Garland.
If you love Garland, of course you're going to love her in this movie. There is everything to love because she's wonderful in the role of Susan Bradley and I'd say it's my favorite of her roles to date excepting Dorothy.
Cyd Charisse has a bit part as one of the Harvey Girls who falls madly in love with the dance hall piano player, Kenny Baker. They're sickeningly cute almost and naturally, I just loved them.
And now, because most people praise Garland above anyone else in her films, I'm going to focus a little more on Angela Lansbury.
Angela Lansbury, poor dear, was constantly being cast as the other woman, usually portrayed with a vindictive streak. But in The Harvey Girls (she was only 19 in this picture!) I actually felt genuine remorse for her character; it can't have been easy to love a man for so long and then lose him to some fresh, young thing fresh off the farm. So, while Em can be mean-spirited and combative, she also has an ending that made me love her, for it showed that beneath her tough exterior beat a heart of gold.
Plus, look at her style!
The train of this dress is gold feathers . . . GOLD FEATHERS. I mean, come on, and get a load of that headpiece! Angela was so gorgeous in her youth.
I'm loving the curls and she is quite stunning in pink. The gown she's wearing is only knee-length because she's a dance hall girl, but it's still gorgeous.
And her farewell scene with John Hodiak. Dig that hat!
The above scene is when the girls from the Ahlambra crash a Harvey Girls hosted party in an attempt to chase the men back to their own establishment. And here's what I love about The Harvey Girls.
It's a film about society evolving, leaving behind the unhealthy and going for something healthy instead. It's almost an "eat this, not that" mentality. When comparing the dance hall girls with virgin women of upstanding moral character, the men realize that they were dining on chicken bones when they could have had steak instead. This scene ends with only a handful of men returning to the dance hall. The rest of them stay at the Harvey House to finish out the party in good company . . . company that the town minister approves of.
It's a gorgeous scene and it speaks to my heart the belief that when given the chance, men will choose innocence over worldliness.
And now for John Hodiak, my friends. There's a good chance that you've never heard of him, and for good reason, I guess. He was a replacement for all of the leading men who were off serving their country during World War II. Which means that when they returned, he was dumped back into secondary roles again. But he is absolutely marvelous, enough so that I want to watch some of his other movies. I've read from a few other reviewers that some folks felt he didn't fit in The Harvey Girls. He doesn't sing and he doesn't dance, but who cares?! He's a rough and tough guy chasing the next dollar who's drawn up short when he meets Garland's character. By the end of The Harvey Girls, I loved him completely. And I grieve dreadfully that he died at such a young age, only 41 years old. Some things are just wrong.
For good measure, one photo of Marjorie Main simply because I love her shimmering roughness so very much. She's one of those quirky characters that audiences always remember.
Seeeeeee, I don't hate musicals. It just needs to be the right musical with the right story and the right casting. The Harvey Girls was perfect in every way, especially for someone like me who loves to admire historic clothing done right. Well, nearly right. This is still 1940s Hollywood, after all. ❤