The age of Hollywood musicals at their height was dead smack in the middle of the 20th Century- the 1940s and 1950s. And no American actor, director, nor composer was more readily associated with that subgenre of film than Judy Garland. Often dubbed ‘The Greatest Entertainer In The World,’ there were few who could argue the claim. She was a great actress, a great dancer, and, most of all, a great singer. In fact, she was likely the greatest female recording artist of the 20th Century. She could do any form of music with her near perfect voice, from the time she was a child performer in Vaudeville, with her sisters, till her final glory on her own 1960s television variety show. And her claims to greatness were not fleeting nor overblown, such as those accorded to sex kitten Marilyn Monroe- who could not act, dance, nor sing well; or to Frank Sinatra- whose vocal stylings were always inferior to lesser ‘name’ singers like Tony Bennett or Vic Damone; much less to her childhood costar in many pictures- the egregious overrated and unfunny and woefully limited actor and comedian, Mickey Rooney.
And nothing exemplifies the greatness of Garland as an entertainer, and even a real performing artist of the highest caliber, than how her presence and performance could raise films that would have been, sans her presence, utter mediocrities. One such mediocrity was the 1946 Western musical, The Harvey Girls, directed by journeyman studio director, George Sidney. Sidney was the quintessential studio director, and usually of musicals- most of which are not considered classics of Hollywood. The Harvey Girls, a 1946 Technicolor romp that runs an even 100 minutes, is quintessential Sidney, and vintage Garland.
Like most musicals, the story is simplistic- Garland is fooled into leaving Ohio for Arizona in the 1880s, and ends up falling in love with the proprietor of the town’s local cathouse, saloon, and gambling joint, The Alhambra. Naturally, the feeling is mutual, and the film never has any suspense- but, so what? It’s a musical, and a musical with Judy Garland, who’s spunky and winsome and lovable and audacious. The film never makes any real sense, the other characters, aside from Garland (character name, Susan Bradley) and her love interest, Ned Trent (John Hodiak, who died less than a decade later, on the cusp of superstardom), are off the rack as can be- just human props for the often engaging song and dance numbers- the best accorded to Garland’s former The Wizard Of Oz costar, Ray Bolger- the town’s new blacksmith. After Susan hits town, she finds out the love letters that lured her west were written by Trent, who did a favor for an old cowboy. Susan quickly dispenses with her ‘engagement,’ literally tells the female manager of the Harvey Girls- matrons and waitresses for the Harvey House railroad town restaurants of yore, that she’s coming to work for her, and then is the only one in that company to stand up to the threats and criminal bullying tactics of Trent’s partner, Judge Sam Purvis (Preston Foster), as well as the putdowns from Trent’s lover and Alhambra madam, Em (Angela Lansbury).
In the end, of course, Susan and the Harvey Girls are triumphant, as Trent gives them The Alhambra and plans to move on to Flagstaff, after Purvis and a henchman burn down the town’s first Harvey House. In an O. Henry nod, Trent decides to not take the train to Flagstaff, to be with Susan, while she decides to take the train to be with him. Em sees her true love for Trent, and stops the train, bringing the lovers together, for the film to fade out at the couple’s happy wedding.
The most famous musical number is the film’s Academy Award winning, On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, but two other standout numbers involve the then up and coming Cyd Charisse: It’s a Great Big World, in which she, Garland, and Virginia O’Brien sing, and Wait And See, in which Charisse dances as she is wooed by The Alhambra’s pianist, played by the tenor, Kenny Baker, who sung the song to Charisse’s character. The technical aspects of the film, aside from the vividly restored Technicolor for the DVD, is lackluster, and the film actually treats its lone black character, played by Chill Wills, a bit better than most films of that era.
The DVD features included three musical numbers that never made the film’s final cut, a stereophonic remix of the film’s hit song, On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, the original theatrical trailer, and a few other minor features. But, bar none, the standout extra is the film length DVD commentary track recorded by director Sidney, sometime in the late 1990s, according to some references he gives. While not greatly insightful into the art of film directing, he gives a grand old walk down memory lane, with numerous anecdotes on the film’s making, his experience of asking the studio, MGM, about the cost of the film, and even about how they had to do certain things to get an old fashioned train car onto the studio lot from Northern California. But, the two most memorable anecdotes are his recollections of seeing post-World War Two footage of a Hitler ordered Nazi attempt to copy Hollywood’s film musical style, and his then relevant anecdote on film colorization. Incredibly, he was al for it, claiming that those who did not like colorization could merely turn the color off. It shows how little he actually knew about film, as he even advocates for the colorization of Jimmy Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. He even opines on what the future holds, technically, for film, and even two decades on, some of it is silly and some of it is accurate.
Overall, The Harvey Girls is a solid entertainment, but nothing more. The DVD package is certainly a plus, as mentioned and, of course, there’s Judy Garland, always Judy Garland, for which her name suffices in place of any more specific recommendation.