The Harvey Girls is hard to beat for sheer corny, likable nostalgia. Is it one of the great MGM musicals? Not in my opinion. The narrative is too long, John Hodiak isn't an intriguing romantic lead and some of the comic relief is too broad. Still, the movie carries with it such a high degree of good-natured professionalism that it's easy to like. The story itself is uncomplicated. A group of Harvey girls arrive at Sandrock, Arizona, to open a Harvey House, one of many restaurants Fred Harvey was establishing along the western rail lines. A Harvey House offered good, wholesome food and good, wholesome company. Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) joins them when she and her groom-to-be (Chill Wills) decide in a friendly way that their mail-order marriage arrangement wasn't such a good idea. Determined to stop the Harvey House girls are Ned Trent (John Hodiak) and Sam Purvis (Preston Foster), owners of the Alhambra, a wide-open saloon, dance hall and gambling establishment across the street from the new Harvey House. Em (Angela Lansbury), the dance hall star, doesn't like the competition, either, especially when Susan and Ned begin to notice each other.
Great movie musical or not, there are many things to enjoy. Judy Garland dominates the movie. She was 23 when she made it. Despite her immense talent and almost unnatural professional skills (I mean this as a compliment), there is an innocence about her in this movie which seems fresh and unforced. She handles the comedy and pratfalls in a very winning way. Angela Lansbury steals the scenes she has with everyone except Garland, and comes close even there. Lansbury moves from a woman with a mercenary heart who is more complex than we first think to a woman who not only is willing to concede defeat to Susan when it comes to Ned, but who is instrumental in finally bringing the two together. Lansbury was 21, doesn't seem that young for an instant and was already proving her skills as an actress. The songs by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, with one exception, never became well known on their own but they serve the story extremely well. As usual, Mercer's lyrics capture the style of the characters and are worth listening to carefully. He was among the very best at writing lyrics that were character-driven and conversational. One particularly nice song is "It's a Great Big World," a charming combination of ruefulness and romantic hope sung by Garland, Virginia O'Brien and Cyd Charisse:
I had no petticoat trimmed with lace,
My angel cake was a pure disgrace,
My face was my fortune, my mother said,
And my dancing slippers of bright, bright red.
A million miles I have danced, or more,
In hopes Prince Charming would cross the floor,
I can't understand it, I've waltzed and I've whirled,
But my goodness me it's a great big world.
And it's cold, cold, cold,
And we'll soon be old.
But I'll keep on knitting and doing it well,
My slippers are one thing I never will sell,
My petticoat's waiting because who can tell?
It's a great big world, it's a great big world.
The big hit, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," is featured in an eight-minute production number at the start of the movie. It's just about worth the price of the DVD.
Do you hear that whistle down the line?
I figure that it's engine number forty nine,
She's the only one that'll sound that way.
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
See the ol' smoke risin' 'round the bend,
I reckon that she knows she's gonna meet a friend,
Folks around these parts get the time o' day
From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
The number is an fine example of the full-throttle MGM style...hundreds of extras taking part, different characters telling in song their stories as well as the story of what the Harvey girls were all about, the introduction of nearly all the main or featured characters, plus cowboys, horses, buckboard wagons, lariats and a giant, polished steam engine moving down the tracks...all wrapped up in this memorable and catchy song. The featured characters all have their own stories and are used in different ways. Some, such as Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, Chill Wills and Virginia O'Brien, are used as comedy relief, some with their own numbers, others such as Cyd Charisse and Kenny Baker bring low-key subplots to the story. The look of the movie adds immeasurably to its charm...bright, Technicolor sets and costumes, perfect outdoor scenery, cowboys in immaculate pastel shirts, the bargirls in ostrich feathers and risque (but not too risque) costumes and the Harvey girls in their prim dresses and starched aprons. And all the girls, whether they work in the dance-hall or in Fred Harvey's restaurant, are gorgeous.
There's also one other bit of nice nostalgia. Six years previously, when Garland was 17 and made to look like she was 12, she and Ray Bolger as her friend the scarecrow were skipping down the yellow brick road on a wonderful adventure. With The Harvey Girls, Garland has become a young woman on the brink of romance, and Bolger is still next to her as her friend.
The DVD presentation is excellent. The extras include an interesting, perceptive commentary recorded 50 years after the movie was made by the director, George Stevens.