George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls combines my most beloved film genre – the musical – with my most dreaded – the western. What results is a splendid woman centered story about dreams, romance, civilizing the west (ah), and finding your place in the great big world.
The Santa Fe California Limited of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway brought Walt Disney out west to California – and it’s the railway that brings Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) to the Wild West. She first appears standing on the train’s caboose, miles of boundless blue sky and desert stretching out all around her. The camera savors the scenery and the girl. You can watch the gorgeous scene here.
When Susan enters the train, it’s lunchtime. Her basket of lunch is empty, save for a crust of bread which she ends up giving to a little girl. Her lack of food doesn’t go unnoticed however. A group of girls offer her lunch, taking care not to draw attention to her empty basket, and they’re so friendly and warm. Susan learns that the girls are heading to Sandrock, Arizona to be waitresses in Fred Harvey’s restaurant. (Read about his famous chain and the women who inspired this film here).
Susan reveals that she’s going to be a bride. She answered a lonely heart’s ad and has been exchanging love letters with her unknown beau. Susan is a dreamer extraordinaire, yearning for adventure, but she actually did something about it.
“It’s up to me to do the pursuing.”
When the train reaches Sandrock, we are blessed with the first big musical number, “On the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” The whole town sings in anticipation of engine 49 and the passengers she’s brought with her. The Harvey Girls disembark, singing briefly about their lives and homes. This number is pure hokey charm and I find it impossible to not get swept away. Then, Susan sings, with the divine blend of sincerity, emotion, and magic that was Judy’s alone. Maybe I’m the only one who feels teary watching and hearing her, but it’s just perfect and so was she.
Soon after, Susan meets her mystery man, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), a worn down cowhand. Not at all who she expected. She doesn’t do a good job of masking her disappointment, but he’s not eager for marriage either, so they both agree to call things off. He didn’t even pen those beautiful love missives! They were actually written by saloon owner Ned Trent (John Hodiak) as a joke, which obviously angers Susan. Ned finds her amusing, tells her to just get over it and leave, but Susan becomes a Harvey girl instead.
Fred Harvey’s restaurant is an alternative to the saloons, his waitresses being symbols of the decorum and respectability that the saloon girls (Angela Lansbury chief among them) lack. The girls have to contend with vigorous efforts to expel them. It’s a battle between the wholesome and the wanton.
There’s a love story playing out against this backdrop of civilization and lawlessness, as Susan learns more about Ned and the kind of man he is. It’s really smarmy Judge Purvis (Preston Foster), who’s trying to drive Fred Harvey out of Sandrock and he very nearly succeeds. Our Susan is not easily intimidated. When the steaks are stolen from Harvey’s place (and when he’s tied up in a back room), she bravely enters the saloon, swinging two pistols so they know she means business. She’s still quaking, and because Judy was 4’10 she looks more adorable than threatening. But her plan works! And Ned is more endeared than ever.
So there’s romance and a battle to civilize, but what really draws me to this film is the friendship between the girls. “It’s a Great Big World” is my favorite song, sung by Susan, Alma (Virginia O’Brien), and Deborah (my lovely Cyd Charisse, in her first speaking role, dubbed here as usual).
Now, just ignore the fact that we’re supposed to believe Alma is ugly (and that’s my only real quibble about this film). These three sing about how their dreams haven’t worked out, how unsure they are in this great big world. It’s such a tender song, the scene exquisitely staged as they dance beneath the night sky, embracing each other.
“And it’s cold, cold, cold
And we’ll soon be old
Alas and alack it’s a great big world.”
Susan’s journey is the one that matters most. She’s finding herself in this great big world and falling in love. We see Deborah’s brush with romance only briefly, but it’s Susan and Ned that we really care about. As I said, Susan learns more about Ned and her dislike slowly turns to love. Real, passionate, intense. Judy Garland and John Hodiak are a very distinct romantic pair. You might not place them together immediately, but when you see what they’re capable of, they make a lot of sense together.
If you’re not a fan of either musicals or westerns, I can’t sell you this film. But if you love Judy Garland, it’s one you need to see. She is so sincere. Susan is a dreamy young woman, but she’s full of spirit and moxie too. And Judy is absolutely luminous.
I wrote this post for Crystal’s Judy Garland blogathon, in honor of her birthday. To read more posts celebrating her irreplaceable legacy, click on the banner below.