Classic Film of the Week #18: The Harvey Girls (1946)

(image via Doctor Macro)

The Harvey Girls is a fun, glamorous, musical account of a legendary fight to win the old West. The titular Harvey Girls are lovely, respectable young women who are recruited to work in Harvey restaurants in early frontier towns across the west, in a bid to tame these towns and drive out the saloons and dancing girls that currently occupy the male population's time. The men who profit off of this debauchery aren't interested in seeing their customer base settle down, so they plan a counterattack to get the Harvey's out of town before they can do any damage to their businesses. Unfortunately for them, Susan Bradley--a last-minute Harvey recruit played by Judy Garland--is determined to make the restaurant a success, and won't let any man, no matter how dirty he plays, stand in her way.

I never got around to The Harvey Girls before this because I expected it to be silly, conservative fluff. I mean, a classic Hollywood musical about nice girls arriving in a rough town so they can drive out the hoodlums and make respectable men out of the townspeople? It just didn't appeal to me. But with my newfound appreciation for Judy Garland, I finally felt ready to give this one a chance, and found myself very pleasantly surprised. There's certainly a lot of fluff here, no doubt about it, but it's the fun kind of fluff--the "Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse on a balcony in their nightgowns singing about their futures" kind. Is it a little hokey, yeah, but it's very sweet and a lot of fun (and speaking of Charisse, this was her first speaking role!).

But underneath the songs and vivacious Technicolor, there's a lot more to the story than you would expect. For instance, the mayor hellbent on getting rid of the Harvey girls actually fires a gun into the room where they're sleeping, and hides a poisonous snake in their closet, leading several of the girls to leave out of fear for their lives. This film may be female-centric and have a lighter tone than the typical westerns Hollywood was churning out in the 1940s, but this is a western nonetheless, one that explores a viewpoint--that of the trailblazing women of the Old West--that was often unseen in those more serious outings.

This film was aired as part of Angela Lansbury's Summer Under the Stars day on TCM, and while her part here is small--and her voice is dubbed during her musical numbers--she still puts in an entertaining, entirely captivating performance. She plays one of the saloon girls, a woman who you can reasonably assume has had a rough life and has to fight for everything she gets. Her character was a primary reason why I was wary of the film; as a rule, I dislike films that pit women against each other, especially respectable women vs. "bad" women. Especially given the time period of this film--both the one it portrays and the one it was made in--it seemed ripe for outdated moralizing on how women are meant to behave and present themselves. While Lansbury's Em is an antagonist to Garland's Susan, it's the men--the mayor and John Hodiak's saloon owner, Ned--who are the real driving forces against the Harvey's, with Em and Susan's rivalry mostly stemming from their shared attraction to Ned, and Em's understandable concern for her career in light of the Harvey's popularity, rather than from any bigotry towards the other's social position.

Further, a scene at the end of the film actually serves to build a bridge between these two women in a way I never would have expected: Susan has finally accepted that she's in love with the handsome saloon owner and also that he will never settle down with her, so she hops a train with the saloon girls and approaches Em with complete humbleness and vulnerability, offering an apology for their getting off to a bad start and asking if Em can help her join the dancing troupe--she feels joining Ned is better than losing him. Unbeknownst to her, Em already knows that Ned has chosen Susan and, recognizing the younger girl's sincerity, chooses not to take her for a ride and instead tells her the truth, allowing the two to part on good terms. I was very surprised to see the film take this turn, but also really impressed. Ultimately, this is a film about women and aimed at a female audience, and I appreciated that the filmmakers were forward-thinking enough to recognize that such a picture shouldn't end with bad blood between the two main female characters (although according to Ben Mankiewicz in his closing comments, Judy Garland fans were very upset with Angela Lansbury for a long time after this film for daring to be so mean to their idol earlier in the picture. I love stories about over-dramatic golden age film fans--it shows some things never change).

The Harvey Girls certainly isn't anything groundbreaking in terms of form, but its storyline is unique even to this day, a fun and entertaining musical starring the forgotten women of the old West. Featuring a big female cast with the wonderful talents of Garland, Lansbury, and Charisse, an enjoyable romance, some great musical numbers, and a full-color view of the old West and the women who helped conquer it, it's an incredibly enjoyable and engaging time at the movies and well worth a look. The Harvey Girls comes highly recommended.

(image via Doctor Macro)

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