“Don't try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.”
- Arthur Freed
In a period of roughly 2 ½ years, MGM producer, Arthur Freed made five movies in rapid succession; each, a unique contribution to the studio’s canon of popular entertainments; four, musicals; one of them – George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls (1946); a property initially begun as a ‘serious’ drama, starring Lana Turner. Producer, Bernard Hyman had grafted onto an as yet unpublished story by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin; also, optioning the book, ‘The Harvey Girls’, written by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Like Arthur Freed, Hyman was an untouchable at the studio. Had death not unexpectedly claimed him at the age of 45, Hyman might have had his way with The Harvey Girls – an ironic ‘blessing’ that he did not. However, in lieu of his passing, the property fell into limbo almost immediately – although, not for long. The western milieu had proven a good venue for Lana Turner. In fact, Metro’s reigning sexpot had made a noteworthy splash opposite Clark Gable in the film, Honky Tonk five years earlier. But in the spring of 1943, Freed would attend the New Haven premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!; an experience ultimately destined to propel his creative verve on to an original ‘western-themed’ musical extravaganza in its stead. In its heyday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had great success in creating original properties for the screen. Under Arthur Freed’s tutelage, the musical genre, in particular, experienced a miraculous renaissance. And L.B. Mayer, whose sentiments and tastes were closely aligned with Freed, simply doted on the man and what would eventually became known around Metro’s backlot as ‘the Freed Unit’; affording Arthur unprecedented autonomy to pursue and develop virtually any project he desired.
Despite the passage of time, changing tastes, and its absence from public view for many a good – and not so good – year, The Harvey Girls has lost none of its bright-eyed optimism and exuberance for wide open spaces or its intimate charm, chiefly supplied by its star – Judy Garland. Above all else, it is Garland’s intangible star presence that sells the picture as splendid entertainment par excellence; her inimitable blend of comedic/fiery temperament and/or dewy-eyed romantic fragileness compels us on to the film’s other myriad of treasures (and there are many more, as yet to be discussed herein). Ironically, Judy had expressed interest in another project simultaneously being prepared by Freed – Yolanda and the Thief. She was persuaded by Arthur to partake in The Harvey Girls instead. Perhaps, it was Judy’s inability to recognize her own extraordinariness that resulted in her bouts of depression and addictions to various studio-sanctioned prescription drugs to see her through the day. Miraculously, these demons never materialized on the screen; Garland – ever the peerless professional – wringing out her enactments with exacting precision, in spite of her crippling anxieties. “The thing about Judy,” husband, Vincente Minnelli once said, “…is that she would keep you waiting – not out of spite or simply because she could – because she was a star – but rather because you could see how much it was taking out of her to give it her all. You could tell her twenty things…and you never knew if you were getting through to her, because people were messing with her hair and wardrobe and so forth…but, by God when she came on the set she came there to work…she wouldn’t miss a thing.”
In preparing The Harvey Girls, Freed was marginally hamstrung by the estate of the late, Fred Harvey. The Harvey family, via Fred’s son, Byron and grandson (also named Byron) had given their blessing while Hyman was still alive, though not their permission to make just any movie based on their popularized restaurant chain, unless of course, it conformed to their standards of artistic integrity. In America then, the reputation of the Harvey House franchise was sacred. Indeed, it had all but entered the popular lexicon as bona fide legend; begun by Fred Harvey in 1876 in Topeka, Kansas and thereafter spreading across the nation’s landscape like fire on a wheat field. In developing The Harvey Girls, Freed turned to Metro’s seemingly bottomless well of writers, engaging Guy Bolton, Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, James O’Hanlon, Kay Van Riper, Samson Raphaelson, Harry Crane and Hagar Wilde to work on the screenplay. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned, except Bolton, would leave their mark on the final draft. But perhaps Freed’s most fortuitous decision during preproduction was to assign Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer to write the score. Warren and Mercer had collaborated on several memorable musicals over at Warner Bros., their cache in working together, destined for some very great things on The Harvey Girls – not the least, their Oscar-winning and infectiously hummable, ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. Freed knew he had a good thing going. Nevertheless, he was advised by MGM’s international copyright agent, Rudi Monta to rely on Loew’s New York legal representative, William A. Orr to secure the Harvey family’s necessary releases.
Freed assigned Roger Edens the weighty task of tying together these disparate contributions on the picture. Reportedly, Freed ‘discovered’ Edens while auditioning a nondescript chanteuse for a friend during which Edens played backup accompaniment on the piano. When the audition was over, Freed bluntly replied, “The girl’s okay but I really would like to hire the piano player.” Edens had, in fact, already established a reputation as a composer/arranger for Ethel Merman in 1932, so part – if not all of this story – may, in fact, be apocryphal. In any case, by the time Freed was preparing The Harvey Girls, Edens had become an indispensable part of the Freed Unit. Armed with a first draft screenplay and Warren and Mercer’s score, Edens flew to Chicago to meet with the Harveys and their right-hand, Harold Belt. In his inimitable fashion, he spent a cozy afternoon pleading Freed’s case, followed by a complete reenactment of the entire script and songs, at the end of which the family’s concerns were completely laid to rest.
Receiving a cablegram from Edens in Culver City, Freed dove headstrong into casting the picture. From the onset, he always had Judy Garland in mind as its star. But as Freed’s first choice to play the part of Em, the madam of the Alhambra, Ann Sothern, proved unavailable, he fell back on an admirable second choice – Angela Lansbury who, at the tender age of 21, nevertheless managed to pull off the persona of a glamorous and worldly woman twice her years. The picture’s romantic lead, John Hodiak could not sing a note, an oversight averted when it was decided even Hodiak’s few warbled bars of ‘My Intuition’ – a romantic duet with Garland - would remain on the cutting room floor (along with the rest of the song). Freed topped off the picture with a formidable roster of talent: Ray Bolger (as the dandified farrier, Chris Maule), Chill Wills (lovable lush, H.H. Hartsey), Marjorie Main (Sonora Cassidy, a very rambunctious Harvey House cook), Kenny Baker (in the rather thankless part of second string romantic interest and saloon piano player, Terry O'Halloran), Virginia O’Brien (as Alma from Ohio - a deadpan gal with the gall to call a spade a spade and get away with it), Selena Royale (as Harvey House chaperone, Miss Bliss) and Preston Foster (the spurious Judge Sam Purvis). In hindsight, The Harvey Girls would also be notable for dancer, Cyd Charisse’s early appearance as the toe-shoe loving, Deborah Andrews.
The Harvey Girls today is not as renowned as some of Arthur Freed’s other movie musicals; not because it lacks either the presence, star-power or immaculate pedigree of say, a Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1950) or even Gigi (1958), but ironically, because it arrived right in the middle of Freed’s most fertile creative period at MGM; seemingly swamped by an embarrassment of artistic riches that have long since conspired to dwarf and minimize its own contributions to this canon. In retrospect, The Harvey Girls is every bit as worthy a contender for such high praise. To helm the production, Freed turned to director, George Sidney; perhaps, not such an obvious choice, considering the two had had a minor falling out during the first month’s shoot on Ziegfeld Follies (1946) for which Sidney asked to be removed from the picture and was promptly replaced by Freed with Vincente Minnelli. Sidney, one of Metro’s most competent workhorses, effectively managed to wade through the numerous delays on The Harvey Girls while quietly moving the picture along to its successful completion, only slightly over time and marginally over budget. The cause for these delays is mostly attributed to Judy Garland, seemingly unable to work up enough gumption to get to the studio on time or exit her dressing room in a timely fashion once newly arrived.
Unable to find fault with Garland’s performance while she worked (indeed, after a deferral of several hours, Judy burst into the recording booth and sang ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’ in one uninterrupted and perfect take, ultimately used in the film), and, equally as sympathetic to the fact she was undergoing an exorcism of her own private demons throughout the shoot, Sidney plied his neurotic star with comforts and complements, pleased to note she was pouring every last ounce of energy and effort to ensure his hard work had not been wasted. “With Judy it was never artistic temperament,” Sidney would later admit in an interview, “You could forgive her almost anything, because she was so fragile and so committed to doing her best for you once she had beaten back the personal stuff that was bothering her. Very sad, but she was just brilliant. I don’t mind working with somebody like that.”
‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’ is undeniably one of The Harvey Girl’s set pieces; a brilliantly conceived ‘travel’ number at the very start of the picture, introducing us to the character of Susan Bradley (Garland) and her small army of cohorts, soon to be bound for the Harvey House in Sandrock, a little no-nothing of an outpost in the American West. Cinematographer, John Alton tirelessly rehearsed the number for twenty days prior to committing it to celluloid; a series of meticulous camera movements to follow the arriving steam locomotive and railway cars carrying the entire cast into Sandrock’s tiny depot with each of its soon-to-be Harvey girls warbling a line or two about their background and dreams for future adventures. Fred Harvey’s ‘girls’ had been chosen from all over the United States, mostly for their beauty, though also for their strict moral respectability, and then, trained in the art of becoming good waitresses. Freed’s bevy of beauties proved no less equal to this task; at varying degrees, singing about their conjoining pasts with musical bridges interpolated by Roger Edens and his musical collaborator, Kay Thompson.
Two other ‘set’ pieces, the melodic, ‘It’s A Great Big World’ and the whirling waltz, ‘Swing Your Partner Round and Round’ round out The Harvey Girl’s musical repertoire, with novelties and solo songs feathered in for good measure; the singular and, arguably, unforgivable sin being the excision of Garland’s towering performance in ‘March of the Doagies.’ Viewed today, ‘March of the Doagies’ remains a heartbreaking loss, Garland – in outtakes - witnessed at the peak of her powers, carried on waves of love while provoking all of Sandrock to accompany her across the wide open spaces of Chatsworth at midnight; a torch-lit processional ending with Garland’s exuberant, Susan Bradley hoisted high above a roaring bonfire; all of it dramatically lensed by John Alton to absolute perfection. Surviving production memos suggest the number was cut merely for time constraints; The Harvey Girls final cut eventually clocking in at 1 hr. 42 min.
In hindsight, The Harvey Girls is such a perfect movie musical, one is apt to forget, that like most any well-conceived and finely executed spectacle, this one too was not entirely without its setbacks and most decidedly the net result of meticulous behind-the-scenes planning. Predictably, the first day’s shoot did not go according to plan. As the company gathered to photograph Susan Bradley’s reunion with John Hodiak’s notorious gambler, Ned Trent, their pas deux set against the starkly picturesque natural splendor of Chatsworth, several ominous clouds settled in, obscuring the sunlight and forcing cinematographer, John Alton to delay. Somewhere during their mid-afternoon hiatus, news reached the isolated camp that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. For many, the loss was overwhelming. Judy Garland admittedly went to pieces and left the set. George Sidney gathered cast and crew to regale them with the solemn news, after which production was shut down for the day, allowing everyone to regroup their thoughts. For the next few weeks, the Sandrock Street, built on MGM’s Lot 3 and complete with facades of several dozen buildings, including the Alhambra Saloon and Harvey House (built at a cost of $395,969.40.) became home to cast and crew. The climatic torching of the Harvey House raised a few eyebrows and cause for concern in that the set, while isolated, was nevertheless in the vicinity of others. For safety’s sake, Freed called out Metro’s police and fire departments to standby, just in case a sudden wind cast its pyre of flame in the wrong direction. On this particular night, Sidney, on a boom, prepared to capture the deluge. Alas, a stuntman disguised as Judy Garland, inadvertently ruined the shot by exposing his knobby knees to the camera. Disheartened, though perhaps more nervously anxious than anything else, Sidney called ‘cut’ – bringing scores of firemen out of hiding to douse the five alarm blaze. The Harvey House, lain in charred ruins, would have to be rebuilt, and, the sequence completed re-staged and re-shot all over again the next night.
Set in the late 1890’s The Harvey Girls opens with an uncharacteristically intimate moment; hopeful mail-order bride, Susan Bradley, clinging to the open back of a caboose, lazily careening back and forth, dreaming of her new life ‘In the Valley’ (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down). Susan has answered a lonely hearts ad, presumably written by H.H. Hartsey. Also aboard the train are Miss Bliss, Sonora Cassidy, Deborah Andrews, Alma from Ohio and the rest of the young women on route to start their new lives as ‘Harvey’ girls. Susan is optimistic – though perhaps, more than a tad ‘unrealistic’ about what the future will hold. With a blast of the conductor’s whistle, everyone arrives in Sandrock ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. Meanwhile, at the Alhambra Saloon, Hartsey – a chronic, though lovable drunk – confides in its proprietor, Ned Trent that ‘his girl’ is newly arrived in town. Ned cannot believe it. He only wrote the mash letter as a joke, never believing Susan would reply, much less follow through and make the trip to this isolated outpost. Encouraging Hartsey to step down from accepting Susan as his mail-order bride, a decision the commitment-shy Hartsey is only too pleased to accept, Ned intervenes on his behalf and explains the situation to Susan. She is, of course, properly outraged. Ned offers to pay for Susan’s return ticket home. But instead, she takes up Miss Bliss’ offer to become a Harvey girl. Em, the madam of the Alhambra, is not amused. Perhaps even from the outset, her womanly intuition tells her Susan’s arrival will do more than merely distract Ned from his casual romantic overtures toward her.
Ned is visited by Judge Purvis and Rev. Claggett (Morris Ankrum); a pair of acrimonious plotters who, along with thug muscle, Marty Peters (Jack Lambert) aim to do harm to the Harvey House in order to maintain Sandrock’s lawlessness. A hot time in the ole town has proven very profitable for all concerned and Purvis and Claggett expect Ned to play along with their plans to evict the newly arrived lovelies. Ned suggests everyone can coexist in Sandrock – a decision ultimately leading to more than a few botched threats, including a planted rattlesnake in Deborah’s trunkful of belongings; the poisonous attack narrowly averted when Ned puts a bullet through the serpent to save her life. Deborah begins to fall for the Alhambra’s piano player, Terry O’Halloran while Alma latches on to the somewhat effete farrier, Chris Maule. Simultaneously, Susan harbors affections for Ned. He is mildly smitten with Susan too, but repeatedly toys with her affections, incurring both Susan and Em’s ire in tandem. Em wants Susan out of Sandrock - period. But Susan has dug in her heels with renewed confidence, particularly after a gutsy move to rescue her employer, Jed Adams (Edward Earle) and recover raw meats stolen from the Harvey House’s cooler by Purvis and Claggett – hidden in the backroom of the Alhambra, proves a success.
Ned is increasingly delighted by Susan’s resourcefulness. Moreover, he isn’t so far gone as to not be able to recognize how virtue alone can, in fact, be its own reward. Naturally, Purvis and Claggett do not share this sentiment. Em, however, is sympathetic as, at least in her own way, she deeply cares for Ned, and, would sincerely hope her love is enough to convince him to remain at her side. Alas, after Purvis and Peters sneak into the Harvey House, determined to burn it to the ground, Ned attacks them in a knock-down/drag-out brawl. The Harvey House is lost to the hellish flames. But the girls escape unharmed and with a renewed vigor to rebuild the restaurant. The next day, Ned gives over the Alhambra to be used as a makeshift Harvey House. He packs his bags and prepares to leave with Em and her prostitutes for another outpost further down the line where lawlessness still prevails. But even Ned knows these days are numbered. Thus, at the last possible moment, he has a change of heart. Susan’s goodness, it seems, has poisoned his blood. He will remain in Sandrock and propose marriage to her, if she will have him. Em is bitterly disappointed, masking her sadness with a glib “Thanks…thanks for nothin’!” as the train pulls out of the depot.
But only a few moments later, Em realizes Susan is also on board, having erroneously assumed Ned is too. Susan confides in Em. She has decided to ‘join’ Em’s lot in life to please Ned. Em is sincerely touched by the depths of Susan’s love in this noble gesture, pulling on the emergency cord to stop the train; wrestling with Susan until she explains Ned is not travelling with them. Em and Susan share a moment in understanding: one woman’s loss, decidedly the other’s gain. Susan departs and meets Ned, who, presumably having discovered she is on the train is presently speeding towards it on horseback. As Em looks on, Susan and Ned are reunited on the rocky plains, tripping over the foliage and falling to the ground (a running gag throughout the movie, symbolic of their similarities as the ‘perfect couple’). The scene dissolves to Ned and Susan’s staged ‘outdoor’ wedding – actually shot on a rather obvious MGM stage bound replica of the Chatsworth landscape; the bridal party singing a reprise of the Oscar-winning ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’.
The Harvey Girls is a joyous MGM musical, exuberantly realized from the very first to last frame. Even for its sneak peek on July 12, 1945, the picture had already undergone several deletions; the loss of the aforementioned ‘March of the Doagies’; also, ‘My Intuition’ – a love ballad between Susan and Ned, and ‘Hayride’ – another big and blustery outdoorsy number. In the audience opening night, young composer, Ralph Blaine (who had worked under Edens’ tutelage on the picture) narrowly averted catastrophe, when a lit cigarette he thought he had extinguished and had inadvertently stuffed into the breast pocket of his dress jacket, suddenly caught fire. Riding high on anxiousness, Blaine and the others in attendance could breathe a sigh of relief when spontaneous applause broke out in the audience after ‘On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. From that moment forward, the picture was a smash hit, easily making back its $2,524,315 budget, and topping out with a very lucrative, $5,175,000. However, its official premiere had to be delayed until January 18, 1946, as virtually all of MGM’s premiere Loew’s Theaters were already pre-booked for the Christmas holidays.
Warner Home Video’s DVD, one of the earliest endeavors to bring deep catalog classics to light back in 1997, remains one of the studio’s better efforts. In 1993, MGM/UA Home Video had released a chemical ‘restoration’ of The Harvey Girls to LaserDisc with conflicting results. For starters, a few scenes were plagued by mis-registration of the original 3-strip Technicolor negatives, equally suffering from differential shrinkage and resulting in annoying halos. For the DVD reissue, some marginal corrections have been performed; although there remains a curious ‘snapping together’ of these mis-aligned records, intermittently perceived whenever a cut occurs. It would be exceedingly prudent of Warner Home Video to hand this one off to WAC for a Blu-ray reissue with the aforementioned shortcomings corrected. Otherwise, it appears as though very little additional clean-up and/or restoration would be required. The Technicolor dye transfer exhibits exceedingly rich and vibrant colors throughout, with accurately rendered flesh tones. A modicum of film grain has been preserved, although occasionally I detect some residual softness in the a few long shots that otherwise might require attention. There is no untoward digital manipulation of the image, however, resulting in a relatively smooth and pleasing transfer that, at least for now, is passably acceptable. The mono soundtrack has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and sparkles with amazing clarity. Better still, extras include two alternate takes of the deleted ‘March of the Doagies’, plus an audio commentary from George Sidney and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: all aboard for Sandrock. The Harvey Girls is an exceptional movie musical – one that needs more exposure to the general public today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)