Don’t you love how MGM’s theater poster for The Harvey Girls did not even pretend to make Judy Garland look like she did in most of the film — cute, perky and dressed in a 19th century waitressing uniform? Just as the film studio dressed up the wild west and the Harvey girls themselves, they presented their box office star at her most glamorous.
It doesn’t matter. I’ve loved this movie since I was a little girl, watching it whenever it came on TV, not because it’s great, but because it’s fun. Judy laughs delightfully; Angela Lansbury is a dream as saloon girl Em; and the musical spectacle of “On the Atchison, Topeka And the Santa Fe” is an absolute knock-out.
The basic plot has Susan Bradley (Judy) traveling west to Sandrock to marry the man who wrote her beautiful letters. Her fellow passengers are waitresses en route to establish a new Harvey House restaurant (civilization through steak and a cup of coffee). Susan shares their sandwiches and her letters, telling about the matrimonial ad she answered and reading one of the passages that inspired her to get on the train: “There is a dream here in this great land that not everybody sees: mountains in sunlight and the cleanest wind in the world waiting for a man and a woman with a little vision.”
Alas, her prospective bridegroom is an old ranch hand who didn’t even write the letters himself and begs Susan NOT to marry him.
“Do you mean I’ve come 2000 miles for a joke?!?” Susan demands indignantly. The true author of the letters, saloon owner Ned Trent (John Hodiak), tries to send her home with a wad of cash. But after calling him “a yellow dog,” our plucky heroine marches over to the Harvey house, dragging her trunk behind her, and becomes one of the new waitresses.
Fun, frivolous, and full of bouncy numbers sung by Judy and gang, and danced by Ray Bolger and a young Cyd Charisse, The Harvey Girls contains all the elements of MGM’s golden age of musicals. As well as a very different Angela Lansbury than we saw in later years in Murder, She Wrote.
The movie may be fiction, but the Harvey girls were real. Fred Harvey created America’s first restaurant chain when he established Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops along several railroad routes into the west, including the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. His descendants managed the chain until 1965. A few remaining facilities, such as El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, are still in operation under different management.
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