By MATTHEW BAKER
The Harvey Girls (1946)
Directed by George Sidney
Angela Lansbury was nineteen when she started performing in Hollywood. She would be more than twice that age before she became a Broadway megastar but spent her youth building a truly spectacular career as a scene-stealing character actress, creating heartfelt individuals out of stock archetypes. In The Harvey Girls, Lansbury makes a sultry, sincere, intensely passionate meal out of the standard whore-with-a-heart-of-gold ingredients provided by the script.
The Harvey Girls is ostensibly a tribute to the women of the Old West who worked as waitresses in Fred Harvey’s pioneering chain of restaurants that served the cattlemen of the frontier towns in the part of the country that we have seen cinematically immortalized by filmmakers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Featuring laughs galore from wonderful character actors including Marjorie Main, Chill Wills, and Ray Bolger, it also provides stunning scenery and photography, exquisite chemistry between its romantic leads Judy Garland and John Hodiak, and a dynamite score featuring the legendary Oscar-winning song “On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe.” Consequently, the film fits comfortably into four different genres: it’s at once a musical, a romance, a comedy, and a Western. Perhaps surprisingly, it works best as a Western, covering ground less seen in other examples of the genre.
Garland plays Susan Bradley, a naïve girl from Ohio who has come to the frontier to answer a matrimonial ad for which she quickly finds she is utterly unsuited. To make lemonade of the situation, she takes a job at a Harvey restaurant across the main street from the Alhambra, a racy gambling joint that provides “entertainment for men.” (Prostitution was, of course, never explicitly mentioned in 1946 MGM pictures.)
We first meet Em (Lansbury) as she sings a love ballad by the Alhambra’s piano. While she is there to entertain, it is clear she is singing directly to her boss, Ned Trent (Hodiak). Though there is obviously something between them, Em is never completely confident in Trent’s affections. “Why do you go out alone in the desert all the time?” she asks him. And she can never quite believe the simplicity of his answer, “It’s nice to look at.” So, when the Harvey Girls show up, Alhambra recognizes serious competition for its business. And when Susan shows up, Em recognizes serious competition for Trent’s heart. And everyone gets the fight of their lives.
The Harvey Girls runs one hour and 42 minutes. It occasionally streams for free on TCM on Demand, but can be seen anytime for $2.99 on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDJVzKccWg4.
Matthew Baker is a New York City historian and tour guide, newsletter editor for the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, and producer of the annual GANYC Apple Awards. A Player since 2000, he is artistic director of Poetry At The Players. His "Players On Screen" posts feature lesser-known appearances by our members.