While I’m never really expecting to see Judy Garland involved in a bar brawl, or threateningly brandishing a pistol in each hand, I really wasn’t expecting to see it happen in The Harvey Girls, a wholesome 1946 musical based on the true story of a restauranteur’s trainside western empire. But that’s what happened, and I’m glad it did—as little surprises like this were part of what made the film charming, if a little creaky, to behold.
Garland plays Susan Bradley, a midwestern gal traveling across the country to meet the man she intends to marry. She’s only ever spoken to him by letter, but she’s optimistic that he’ll be everything she desires, based on his eloquent and romantic prose. On the way there, she encounters a group of young women headed to the same rough-and-tumble New Mexico town as her, the recruited staff of a recently opened chain restaurant across from the rail station. Upon arriving, Susan discovers that, despite the beautiful handwritten notes she had received, her intended fiancé is a simple country rancher, who seems more than a little intimidated by her. Within a matter of minutes, they both agree to dissolve their tenuous understanding, with little conflict. Susan is much more troubled by the fact that a man named Ned Trent (John Hodiak), who runs the bawdy Alhambra saloon, was actually the one who was writing the letters to her all along, as something of a joke. Susan allows this hatred to fuel her, and she becomes the newest member of the Harvey Girls—the Alhambra’s new rival for the pocket change of the men in town.
The conflict between the wholesome Harvey Girls and the rowdy saloon girls of the Alhambra is drawn widely and colorfully. While the Harvey Girls dress modestly, in crisp black and white uniforms covering them from head to toe, the Alhambra girls dress in bright, clashing colors and vibrant mixes of patterns, with exposed appendages everywhere. The head of the Alhambra crew is the icy Em, played with great restraint by a cool Angela Lansbury. Em loves Ned, so her rivalry with Susan takes a personal turn when it starts to become obvious that Susan and Ned’s hatred is turning into affection, as emotions so often do in these types of pictures.
Everything comes to a head when the Harvey Girls burst into the saloon to defend Susan later in the film, and it turns into an all-out bar fight with the Alhambra girls. They swing chairs, break tables, pull hair—though it’s mostly played for comedy, I’d still wager this is technically one of Garland’s, and perhaps even MGM’s, most violent musicals. Earlier, Susan had started the cycle of violence when she attempted to retrieve some stolen steaks by entering the Alhambra with a pistol in each hand, demanding the return of the purloined meats. The saloon’s willingness to return the steaks perhaps had more to do with their shock at seeing a 4’11” girl brandishing the weapons with authority, and not actual fear—my favorite part of this scene is when she accidentally drops one of the guns, and one of her “hostages” helpfully hands it back to her. So, she’s not quite a criminal mastermind yet, but she gets the job done.
The Harvey Girls is featured in That’s Entertainment (I’m being very good on my list), with “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” It’s a fun, clever song full of twisting lyrics and a good introduction to Susan and the rest of the girls. The staging is very simple—the choreography is mostly limited to rhythmic swaying, but all the better to show off Garland’s always dazzling vocal skills and classic Freed Unit spectacle.
The eponymous Fred Harvey was indeed a real-life restauranteur, and his Harvey Houses were a real chain of restaurants, lunch counters, dining cars, and hotels, devoted to “civilizing” the wild west by means of good steak, strong coffee, and pretty girls. In places like New Mexico, which was still considered a developing area and a sometimes dangerous place, the Harvey Girls were a symbol of consistency and progress. Travelers could depend on the Harvey name to provide them with the same good food and impeccable service in El Paso that they’d experienced in Kansas City.
For many women, this represented the first opportunity they had to leave their families and live on their own. The Harvey Houses offered them the support and security of an established and trusted organization, but also the freedom to travel, experience new things, and meet people from all over the world. And though all of the Harvey Girls we see in the film appear to be white, Harvey had a history of hiring Latinos and Native Americans as waitresses and managers in his establishments—though that occurred more in the late ’30s and ’40s than in these early days.
While I mostly like the movie, I found that even a tiny bit of research into the real stories of the Harvey Girls offered up a bevy of more interesting stories than wholesome young girls fighting against the immoral temptresses of a western saloon. The film was, of course, limited by the time period, but it does enhance the feeling of it being dated in that regard. The film is bolstered by a great supporting cast though—Virginia O’Brien, Cyd Charisse, Ray Bolger—and a great view of MGM’s old west backlot.