Wednesday, October 21, 2015

CMBA Blogathon: THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946)

The theme for this year's CMBA Blogathon is "Planes, Trains, & Automobiles," which makes the 1946 musical, The Harvey Girls, an obvious choice. The movie won an Oscar for its train themed song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe," and it depicts, in a fictionalized and colorful way, the importance of the train in bringing women to the American West. Adapted from a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Harvey Girls stars Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O'Brien as three young women who head West on the train to find new opportunities and romance. While it's not a perfect picture, this is a fun, lively musical that tells an often unknown story about women's part in settling the frontier, made even more entertaining by the presence of outstanding actors like Angela Lansbury, Marjorie Main, Ray Bolger, and John Hodiak.

The Harvey Girls were real people; these young women went West to staff the Harvey Houses that sprang up along the railroad lines in the late 19th century. Fred Harvey recruited young women with good backgrounds and civilized manners to work in his establishments, where train passengers found a short rest and a good meal during their stops. For women of that time, there were few respectable job opportunities out West, but the Harvey Houses provided good wages along with room and board. The crisp uniforms and cheerful manners of the Harvey Girls brought a wholesome, civilized femininity to rough country, and their presence helped to tame wild frontier towns. One notable Harvey House location was the Grand Canyon, where the Fred Harvey Company provided concessions and visitor services until 1968. Today, the El Tovar Hotel at the South Rim includes a display honoring the Harvey Girls and the 1946 film tribute to their legacy. Becoming a Harvey Girl changed the lives of many women who yearned for independence and adventure. Over 100,000 young women took the opportunity that the Harvey Houses offered, and you can learn more about their stories by watching the trailer for the 2013 documentary film, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound.

In the movie, Judy Garland's character, Susan, doesn't set out to be a Harvey Girl at all. She responds to a call for a mail-order bride, but when she meets the intended groom (Chill Wills) she jumps at the chance to become a Harvey Girl like the other young women on her train. Marjorie Main plays a funny but effective chaperone and manager for the young ladies in her charge, while Cyd Charisse and Virginia O'Brien appear as two Harvey Girls who befriend Susan. The girls encounter a different type of Western womanhood in Angela Lansbury's saloon singer, Em, who doesn't appreciate the competition or the straitlaced morality of the new arrivals. Susan attracts the interest of the bar's owner, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), while Virginia O'Brien's character, Alma, engages in an awkward but entertaining romance with Chris (Ray Bolger). Sadly, O'Brien disappears from the movie in the third act, thanks to shooting delays that made her pregnancy impossible to hide, but she does get in a particularly funny performance with the song, "The Wild, Wild West."

If The Harvey Girls romanticizes the real experiences of the women who staffed the restaurants on the Santa Fe lines, it also depicts women as individuals who went West for many reasons, and not just as daughters, wives, or prostitutes. Women's Westerns have been few and far between in Hollywood history, but when they do come along they reveal fascinating hints at stories that have largely been left untold. As a musical comedy, The Harvey Girls is lighter and sweeter than Westward the Women (1951) or cattle queen dramas like The Furies (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954), but it does a great job leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the real women who took that chance for a new life out West. Trains made Harvey Houses necessary, and Harvey Houses made a place for young women to earn a living and lead independent lives. That's a theme worth singing about!

You can find a full-length review of The Harvey Girls in my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, available on Kindle at For more about The Harvey Girls, try the 1994 book by Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West.

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