In this first-rate musical from director, George Sidney, some people come to Sandrock to work. Susan (Judy Garland) is there to get married, but when it isn’t love at first sight with her would-be fiancé, H. H. (Chill Wills), Susan decides to become a waitress instead (and because this is a musical, Susan can decide that’s what she wants to do and know the job is hers, without asking).
Harvey Houses really did exist in the late 1800s and the women who worked there were known as “Harvey Girls,” but it’s one thing to champion waitresses and another to call them a “civilizing force” in America. That’s colonialism, and as much as The Harvey Girls promotes a deeply flawed and “moralistic” view of history, there are scenes that indicate these views aren’t so rigid (particularly the scenes between Susan and Angela Lansbury’s Em).
Basically, the movie pits the Harvey girls against the women who work across the street at the Alhambria (there’s also a guy named Judge (Preston Foster) who’s against them, but he should’ve been a crooked sheriff instead). While there’s no reason a saloon and a restaurant can’t share the same space, Sandrock has turned this turf war into a battle for its soul. Either the Harvey Girls will lift it up or the bar will drag it down, but there’s no version of this story where they get to co-exist.
The Harvey Girls also tells a story of women seeking out opportunities for themselves. For the price of a train ticket, Susan is able to pursue her dreams and the film never insults her intelligence, by making out like she must be overly trusting, if she’s from Ohio.
Along with reuniting Garland with her Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in Saint Louis co-stars, Ray Bolger, and Marjorie Main (who sings!), The Harvey Girls stars a droll Virginia O’Brien and dancer, Cyd Charisse. While the actresses are set-up to be a trio in the song, ‘It’s A Great Big World,’ the film never really capitalizes on that. O’Brien was pregnant at the time, so her absence from the second half of the movie can be explained by that.
Warner Archive’s Blu-Ray comes with an enthusiastic commentary by Sidney that was recorded in the mid-90’s, a bunch of audio recordings of the scoring stage sessions, and three deleted scenes/songs that were cut from the final picture. A fourth song – a duet between Garland and Bolger – is only available as one of the scoring stage sessions. While the film doesn’t miss any of these numbers, ‘My Intuition’ would’ve been the only time Susan sings with her love interest, Trent (John Hodiak). The part was originally intended for Clark Gable (hence the lack of songs) but it’s a shame the number couldn’t have been restaged for another point in the musical.
Other reasons to watch The Harvey Girls:
- Garland beating Urkel to the punch with her line reading of, “Did I do that?”
- Robert Alton’s choreography, and how it corresponds with Harry Warren‘s music to emphasize real world experiences, like a train leaving the station in “On the Atchison, Topeka, and The Santa Fe,” or O’Brien shoeing a horse in “The Wild, Wild West”
- Helen Rose’s dazzling dresses (and all of Lansbury’s hair accessories!)
- Susan’s ex-fiancé getting to make a reappearance later on as one of her dance partners (the film doesn’t forget him)
- While it’s unclear whether the film cast Indigenous extras, it does feel notable that the film shows Native Americans attending the Harvey girls’ big soiree
The Harvey Girls is available on Blu-Ray now from Warner Archive.
Note: Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-Ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.