The Harvey Girls (1946)
The Harvey Girls is a delightful musical about young women who venture into the Wild West and find adventure, romance, and snakes. The movie is based on a 1942 novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams, who also wrote the short story “Night Bus” that would later become It Happened One Night (1934).
Adams’ novel was about the real life Harvey Girls who were waitresses at restaurants called Harvey Houses in the late 19th century. Mr. Harvey wanted to have clean, family friendly establishments serving good food everywhere the trains stopped. He started opening his restaurants along the western rail lines in the 1870s.
Harvey Houses were the first chain restaurants, and there were over 80 of them at their peak. The restaurants and their waitresses known as Harvey Girls became “agents of civilization” conquering the lawless, un-family-friendly towns of the Wild West. The beginning of this movie features a dedication to those “winsome waitresses” and “unsung pioneers,” and the typical Western conflict between wild/civilized is very clearly demarcated, with the Harvey Girls on the side of “progress.” For more on the Harvey Houses, check out this article.
Fun fact: to keep the Harvey House from becoming a different sort of “house,” only women with “good character” were hired, and a senior Harvey Girl served as a sort of house mother to keep everyone in line. There was a strict curfew, a regulation hairstyle, a voluminous uniform, and a ban on makeup. Fortunately, the makeup and the hairstyle regulations were ignored by MGM…
The Harvey Houses make for a great premise for a movie– the Wild West, trains, cowboys, corrupt lawmen, “good” women and “bad” women (with hearts of gold, of course!). As Variety noted, the story “is a curious blend of Technicolor wild-westernism, frontier skullduggery, and a troupe of Harvey restaurant waitresses who deport themselves in a manner that’s a cross between a sorority and a Follies troupe.”
But The Harvey Girls almost became something else entirely. MGM bought the rights to the novel and originally planned to make a dramatic film starring Lana Turner. But after the success of Oklahoma! on Broadway, MGM re-worked the story into a musical.
Producer extraordinaire Arthur Freed (responsible for Meet Me in St Louis, Good News, Kismet, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade) took on the project, Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren wrote the songs, and Judy Garland was cast as the lead.
But Garland didn’t want to make this movie. She’d been hoping to work with Fred Astaire, and she wanted to be in his next film called Yolanda and the Thief (1945). Plus, her husband Vincente Minnelli was directing Yolanda, so she lobbied hard for the role.
But MGM wanted her in The Harvey Girls, so producer Roger Edens told Garland that Yolanda wasn’t going to be a big enough role, and instead promised that the lead in The Harvey Girls would be written specifically for her.
Garland finally agreed, which was a wise choice. She dominates this film and “makes much of it believable and most of it acceptable,” according to Variety.
And Yolanda and the Thief? Lucille Bremer, who played Garland’s older sister in Meet Me in St. Louis, got the part. But the film is an odd, almost surrealist musical in which Minnelli and Astaire go wild with the sets, costumes, choreography, and the strange guardian angel/con man plot. It’s relegated to movie buff status, while The Harvey Girls remains a classic of MGM musicals.
Onward to “MGM’s Gay and Lusty Musical Romance!” Those words have changed a bit since 1946.
We open on a train chugging its way across the western desert. Susan Bradley (a 24-year-old Garland) stands on the caboose singing about the “valley where the evening sun goes down.”
She’s beautiful in her pale blue dress with yellow neck ruffle (matching the train and the blue sky!)
It becomes obvious immediately that Garland is performing this number on a soundstage. The train car is being jostled, steam is pumped by occasionally, a fan blows a light breeze, and rear projection whizzes by to simulate movement. When I watch this scene, I always think of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) when Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor stroll through the backlot and pass a set where an outlaw battles a man on top of a stationary train. The backdrop loops by and fans ruffle the actors’ clothes. We are seeing similar tricks in action here.
These obvious marks of a “movie,” (the rear projection, fake train, etc.) are one reason I love this film so much. It’s all very fake, but in a beautiful, knowing way. The real Old West was dirty and dangerous, but this Old West is gorgeous, clean, and very healthy. I think some people have trouble with old movies because they lack that verisimilitude and accuracy that we tend to prize today. Those viewers might scoff at the “errors” and dismiss a movie, and its makers, as silly, too silly to watch.
But it’s important to remember that the filmmakers weren’t trying to make this movie accurate and failed. Actually, they didn’t care. Their job was to make a gorgeous, entertaining musical, and they definitely did, so we should appreciate and view the film for what it is. Sure, sometimes it stretches even my tolerance for logic or realism, but that’s okay. It was made to be beautiful, light, and above all, entertaining. I have no problem with the disconnect between reality and movie. But if you’re looking for a rough and tumble western, or an accurate depiction of the Harvey Girls, keep looking!
Rant over. As Susan returns to her seat for lunch, we meet a gaggle of gals in the same train car. They’re Harvey Girls on their way to open a new restaurant. That’s Virginia O’Brien reading the manual, and Marjorie Main seated next to her.
As the Harvey Girls distribute baskets of fried chicken and sandwiches, Susan turns to her own cute lunch basket. She spreads a lacy napkin on her lap and stares at the nearly empty contents. Just half a cookie (or biscuit?) remains…Susan seems to have run out of cash. She looks longingly at the fried chicken.
Then a chubby little girl walks by and tender-hearted Susan gives her the remains of the cookie. What a horrible child. Two Harvey Girls notice Susan’s empty basket, so they offer her some sandwiches. They pretend they need her input to settle a disagreement over which sandwich is better. They’re very tactful.
The ladies get to talking, and Susan’s story comes out. She is from Ohio, but has always yearned for romance and adventure. She didn’t like her prospects at home, so she answered a lonely hearts ad and began a pen-pal affair with a man in Sandrock (a fictional town in New Mexico).
They wrote beautiful, romantic letters to each other, and eventually he asked her to marry him. So here she is traveling on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe rail line to meet/marry her fiancé, Mr. Hartsey. She reads from one of his letters, and then shows the girls her white satin wedding gown.
Most of the Harvey Girls swoon at her story and marvel at her courage. Alma says that she once sent her picture to a Lonely Hearts Club, but it came back marked “We’re not that lonely.” And then they all laugh at how ugly Alma is. O’Brien is beautiful, but it’s part of her schtick to be plain and comically resigned to it.
When they’re warned of their imminent arrival in Sandrock, Susan rushes to the window with her wedding dress, repeating her new, married name in romantic whispers. I’m worried that she’s going to get lipstick and a whole lot of dust all over the white satin and lace!
Cut to the Alhambra Saloon in Sandrock. Em (Angela Lansbury) sings a new song for her boss/love Ned Trent (John Hodiak) as Judge Sam Purvis (Preston Foster) watches in his black hat. He’s not a good Judge. In fact, he came to talk to Ned about the Harvey House and its effect on Sandrock. He doesn’t want “civilizing” ladies around his wild town, but Ned doesn’t seem concerned about it. You can watch the scene here.
Ned owns the Alhambra, and Em is his head showgirl. She’s in love with him, but he won’t commit. She’s also incredibly rich, going by her gold gown and jewels.
Fun fact: although Lansbury has a lovely voice, her mezzo-soprano range was deemed ill-suited for Em’s character. So Virginia Rees dubbed Em’s singing in this film.
After the song, Susan’s fiancé Hartsey (Chill Wills) rushes into the saloon with the terrible news that Miss Bradley is arriving that very day! We learn that Hartsey, a toothless, mangy old cowpoke, asked Ned to help him get a girl. So they posted that lonely hearts ad, and when Susan answered it, Ned wrote flowery, tender letters as Hartsey. So the man with whom Susan has been corresponding, and falling in love, is actually Ned Trent! Both men seem surprised that she’s here, though surely she would have written that she was coming.
It almost looks as though a costume department outfitted all the cowboys so that they coordinate perfectly…it’s looking a lot like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Designer Valles was in charge of the men’s costumes in this film. Also, everyone is so clean! And has such nice teeth!
Fun fact: most of the movie was filmed at MGM’s Culver City studios on their twelve acres of exterior western sets, though the production did head to a ranch near Los Angeles for some location shooting, and the ubiquitous Monument Valley also appears (on the rear projection in the first scene). But the train arrival scene, and most of the other exterior Sandrock sequences, were shot on MGM’s Back Lot #3 on the “Western Street” set. The Western Street was originally built for Stand Up and Fight (1939), but appears frequently in other MGM films.
I wonder if the town greeted every train like this, or just the ones packed with pretty women? As the Harvey Girls stream out of the train, each one sings a little song about where she is from and how happy she is to have travelled on that tremendous rail line.
“We were schoolmarms in Grand Rapids, Mich; but reading-writing-‘rithmetic were not our dish…”, and “I finished high school in Providence, Rhode Island, and Providence, Rhode Island, is where I learned to dance!” etc. My favorite is this one, sung in a French accent: “I was born in Paris; I was raised in Paris; went to school in Paris, where I met a boy. I was married in Paris; almost buried in Paris… Then I finally left Paris–” the chorus jumps in with this snarky line: ‘Paris, Illinois!'”
It’s all very exciting. Susan is the last to disembark. The music slows, and every head turns to look at her. She sings her homage to the railroad line and the fresh start and adventure it provides. Everyone else sort of fades into the background. That’s Judy for you!
Fun fact: “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe” was inspired by Judy Garland‘s incredibly popular “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Both became huge hits. MGM quickly learned to put Judy on a vehicle and have her sing about it.
“On the Atchison” is a fairly complicated production number with loads of singing and dancing cowboys, complicated blocking of Harvey Girls, a moving train, and even some very politically incorrect Indians. Garland rules over it all. That’s Chris (Ray Bolger) in the checked suit and pink bow tie dancing beside her. Fun fact: Bolger played the scarecrow seven years earlier with Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
The story goes that Judy Garland watched her stand-in perform the complex choreography once, just once, and then she hopped right in and they filmed the whole thing up until the tempo change in one take. And it is perfect, except that Ray Bolger suffered burns from the train steam. You can watch the number here.
Fun fact: the train chugging along beside Garland and the cast is a real locomotive built in 1872. MGM bought it for this film, but it shows up in many subsequent movies set in this vague era, including Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) starring Esther Williams.
The Western Street had a railroad spur for train scenes like this one, but the track also came in handy for camouflage purposes. Western Street was a large set with typical saloons, storefronts, etc., but it also had a brick courthouse and town square. So if those fancier elements didn’t fit with a film’s look, tall boxcars could be rolled onto the railroad track to hide the incongruous facades.
(This information about the backlot comes from the fantastic book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. I highly recommend it!)
The men might be thrilled at the Harvey Girls’ arrival, but the ladies of the Alhambra definitely are not. And so the dichotomy between good/bad women begins!
When my sisters and I watched this when we were little, we definitely preferred the saloon girls’ bright, sparkly dresses to the Harvey Girls’ more proper, claustrophobia-inducing gowns. So that juxtaposition backfired.
After the song, Susan gets a nasty surprise. Her fiancé is not to the handsome, sophisticated man she was expecting from the letters. What is she to do?
Susan’s grand adventure has taken a dark turn. Fortunately, Hartsey realizes that he has done a bad thing, and he isn’t going to force Susan into marriage. He was expecting an older, plainer woman, whom he apparently would have been thrilled to bamboozle and marry, but he can’t do that to a pretty young thing like Susan!
They both slide around the subject until Hartsey finally begs Susan not to marry him. And she’s very happy to comply!
When Susan compliments Hartsey on his beautiful letters, he tells her that Ned Trent wrote them, which gets Susan spittin’ mad. She rushes into the Alhambra to confront the devious jerk who tricked her into coming all the way to Sandrock.
She gives him a piece of her mind, and he feels pretty bad for tricking her. He never thought someone as young and beautiful as Susan would answer Hartsey’s letter! Again, he seems to think it would be perfectly acceptable had an old, ugly woman shown up!
Ned hands Susan a wad of cash and tells her to take the next train home. But she’s not leaving! She’s going to join the Harvey Girls and help civilize this terrible town! Ned laughs as she lugs her trunk across the street. He likes her spirit. Em watches it all with interest. She doesn’t like how Ned looks at Susan.
Here are our stars between takes on the porch of the Alhambra:
Costume appreciation break. First, Em’s spectacular golden gown with its feather trimmed train and shimmering accessories. It’s eminently practical for a saloon girl in the Wild West in the daytime. The women’s costumes for this film were designed by MGM’s designers Irene and Helen Rose. They do not disappoint if you’re looking for Wild West Barbies and dainty, impractical frocks more suited to afternoon tea in Boston than Sandrock. Lansbury’s hair is a work of art in itself in this film. I’ve never seen so many elaborate sausage curls draped on a person’s head.
Now Susan’s more demure blue traveling ensemble. It looks as though some mothballs got stuck in the netting of her hat, but the swirling detail on her skirt and the jacket is quite pretty. I’m not sure how such a floaty, sheer fabric would have held up in an actual 1880s Western town, but that’s not important. Already there is a strong contrast between Em and Susan just in their costumes.
As I mentioned, not everyone is happy about the civilizing presence of the Harvey House. Judge Purvis is determined to close the restaurant and get rid of the women. It’s not entirely clear why, perhaps something about how he gets a portion of the Alhambra’s revenue and doesn’t want the women or a church or anything else standing between the men of the town and the saloon…regardless; the film needs a villain, and the Judge is it!
While Judge Purvis plots the Harvey House’s destruction, the girls are getting ready for opening night! There’s a charming number about the rules and regulations of being a Harvey Girl. We learn about the proper uniform, table setting, and demeanor, but are repeatedly told that even without any of that, “the trains must be fed!”
The uniforms are actually pretty close to the real Harvey Girl attire, though I doubt that every Harvey Girl was as beautiful and young as an MGM extra. Notice how one Harvey Girl at the top put the saucer in front of her face for this clear table shot. Whoops!
Then it’s go time! A train slides into Sandrock, and the manager of the Harvey House rings his gong to summon customers. Here is an actual Harvey House in 1899:
Meanwhile, back in the movie world, Em is entertaining the fellas with an enormous feather boa and her rendition of “Oh, You Kid!” just across the street.
You can watch it here:
Fun fact: the coral and black striped costumes worn by Em’s backup dancers were used again in Easter Parade (1948) in Fred Astaire‘s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” routine. The top two images are from The Harvey Girls, and the bottom three are Easter Parade. You can see that the costume test shows the costume as it was in the earlier film, but a skirt was added for the dance with Astaire.
Three more saloon girl costumes (at least) also show up in Easter Parade.
Everything is going great in this suspiciously spotless restaurant until Susan takes Ned’s order. He asks for a juicy sirloin steak, raw, and gives Susan a big grin. She hurries back to the kitchen to place the order, but the cook Sonora Cassidy (Marjorie Main, who also acted in Meet Me in St. Louis and Summer Stock with Garland) has some bad news. All the meat has disappeared!
Susan understands Ned’s grin, now. She is certain the meat is at the Alhambra, and she is equally determined to get it back. So Susan summons all of her (immense Garlandian) pluck and takes two six-shooters from a holster hanging by the door. Then she makes her way slowly across the dusty street to the den of iniquity that is the Alhambra Saloon.
It’s an amusing image: the leather-faced gunslinger making a stand in the street is replaced by a small woman in a voluminous dress with a huge white apron and hair bow. She drops both guns at one point and has trouble collecting them underneath her ballooning skirt.
It might be my favorite part of the movie. Susan peeks under the door and has a moment of panic. But she perseveres! After all, the trains must be fed!
No one takes her seriously when she bursts through the swinging doors shouting “Stick ’em up!” Em is particularly dubious. Then a very tall man (wearing the exact same thing as the smaller man next to him?) decides to help out.
Susan confronts the bartender, who claims innocence until she shoots the glass right out of his hand! She’s practically Calamity Jane!
There’s a great moment after she shoots when she looks at the gun in horror. Then she realizes that she’s won, and she blows on the smoking revolver like a hardened gunfighter.
The bartender leads Susan to the back room, and she recovers the Harvey House manager and all the stolen victuals. Success! Ned is bewildered when she presents him with a completely uncooked steak. One point to the Harvey Girls! You can watch it here.
That evening, our three main Harvey Girls sing a song about the “great, big world” that is so cold, and “alas and alack,” did you know that they’ll “soon be old?” It’s a downer, but it gives each one a chance to sing about what brought them to Sandrock.
For Alma, it was her hideous face. No suitor would want a woman who looked like that! So she hoped to do better out West. For Susan, it was a lack of romance and adventure, and Deborah just wanted to dance, but her family didn’t think it was respectable. (She does realize she’s a waitress, not a dancer, right?)
It’s a very silly song performed in very silly frilly robes. I’m just glad these women were able to bring so many delicate clothes to this hick town. Fun fact: this was Cyd Charisse’s first speaking role in a film. She does her own talking, but her singing was dubbed by Marion Doenges. You can listen to another recorded version of the song here.
Fun fact: the design of the Harvey House, including the balcony where the ladies dance and the dining room, was based on the Castaneda Harvey House in Las Vegas.
The ladies twirl and sashay before heading back inside. They each sing one last line about their petticoat/dancing slippers/knitting before settling into their beds. Then someone shoots the light out! Most of the Harvey Girls want to flee, and I don’t blame them–someone did just shoot into their dormitory. But our three favorites decide to stay.
The next day, Ned hears about the shooting and confronts the Judge. He’s furious that Judge Purvis would resort to such tactics, and tells the Judge to stop his harassment and go apologize right away.
So off the Judge goes, but instead of admitting his devious deeds to Susan and Deborah, whom he finds gardening outside the Harvey House, he tells them that it was Ned Trent who shot the light!
And he claims that he is thrilled to have the Harvey House in town! We know it’s all lies, but perhaps Susan and Deborah are too overheated in their heavy “gardening dresses” to know that he is lying.
Off Susan goes to the Alhambra to confront Ned. He’s out staring at his valley, though, so she talks to Em, instead. Em is not a fan of Susan, nor of the Harvey Girls. Like the Judge, she likes the town the way it is, and she doesn’t like the sparks bouncing between Ned and Susan. He’s Em’s man, though actually he doesn’t seem that into it.
But she does tell Susan that Ned isn’t the one behind the Harvey House’s troubles–it’s actually Judge Purvis who wants to run them out of town.
What a great costume contrast between Lansbury’s black, shimmering sheer gown and Susan’s laughably frilly gingham ensemble. Susan looks like a child’s doll next to Em’s Wild West Barbie.
Susan’s outfit originally included a hat, but they wisely decided against it in the movie.
Fun fact: after this film was released, people hissed at Lansbury and even sent her hate mail; Judy Garland was such a beloved star that Lansbury’s onscreen villainy was not easily forgiven by the audience.
Susan determines to find Ned in his valley. While she changes dresses (how many did she bring to Sandrock?) Alma makes her way to the smithy.
Chris (Bolger), who came out on the train with the Harvey Girls, has just hung up his shingle as the new blacksmith. But he struggles to shoe his first client because he is deathly afraid of horses. He’s so afraid that he faints, leaving Alma to shoe the horse, instead.
Cue the song! Alma sings that she was “hopin’ to be ropin’ something’ wild in the Wild, Wild West,” but that she’s been terribly disappointed. “It’s too darn mild in the Wild, Wild West!” she sings in her unique expressionless style as she plays farrier.
You can watch the number here. Fun fact: O’Brien was known as Miss Deadpan because at an early performance in her career she was so overcome by stage fright that she froze and sang her song without any facial expression nor movement. The audience loved it, and it became her signature style.
Another fun fact: although Alma is a prominent Harvey Girl early in the movie, after this number she disappears from the film. She was pregnant during production, and it became difficult to hide, so she isn’t featured after this song.
The production of this movie did go on for about five months, which was quite a long time in those days.
After Alma’s song, we return to Susan. She changed out of her gingham and into a very Christmasy outfit with a shirtwaist of red, white, and green stripes, and a green skirt with a velvet sash. She has somehow found Ned in the wilderness.
Ned isn’t thrilled that his solitary valley-gazing is interrupted, and he’s even less enthused when Susan trips on her way down to him and crushes his hat.
But he recovers and they have a nice chat. They discuss love, letters, and Longellow’s poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” which has particular significance for their own relationship. (In the poem, one man woos a woman on behalf of his friend). Fun fact: that same poem comes up in Nancy Goes to Rio (1950)!
Then Ned kisses her. Their love blossoms inexplicably and very quickly. I suppose Susan had already sort of fallen for him because of the letters, but you’d think that Ned’s deception in that whole affair would lessen the letters’ romantic effect somewhat.
This budding relationship might have made more sense had the song “My Intuition” been included in the film. Garland and Hodiak recorded it, and they even filmed the scene (to have started soon after the kiss), but it was cut from the final film. Fun fact: Director George Sidney apparently cut and replaced the song in the film so many times that he nicknamed the scene “My Indecision.” Fortunately, the footage still exists. You can watch it here:
Here is Judy Garland in her Christmas dress between takes:
Susan and Ned return to town just as poor Deborah gets trapped in a closet with a coiled snake. Ned shoots it dead, but Susan accuses him of putting it there! Susan sure runs hot and cold. Ned is hurt by her distrust, and furious that the Judge is still threatening the Harvey Girls.
Deborah is entirely recovered the next day, and wanders into the Alhambra, pulled by the dulcet tones of the piano player, Terry (Kenny Baker). They’ve already fallen in love even though they haven’t met before; for days he has been playing special songs just for her, and she has been listening from across the street.
They introduce themselves, then he plays and sings, and she dances. Her deceptively demure dress has a hot pink petticoat, and Charisse makes it twirl!
Cyd Charisse might be most famous as the girl in the green dress in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). She’s one of my favorite dancers from this era, though I will admit her sweet spins and balletic poses in this film aren’t nearly as fun as her dynamic, powerful dancing in later movies like The Band Wagon. Though I do love her prim dress with that flash of pink!
You can watch the number here:
Fun fact: in The Belle of New York (1952), prim and proper Alice Pearce pulls that pink dress out of a trunk and throws it away in a number about being “naughty.” The dress also shows up on an extra in Take Me Out to the Ball Game! I love finding recycled costumes!
While Deborah and Terry gaze at each other towards the end of the song, Em and her gals emerge to watch, and Susan arrives, too.
Garland’s blue paisley dress also shows up in Take Me Out to the Ball Game:
Anyway, it’s all sweetness until the dance ends. Then, Em corners Susan, Deborah runs to the Harvey House for reinforcements, and a brawl begins! A Harvey Girl even swings from the chandelier, and Susan flails unsuccessfully with a chair leg.
It’s a great scene except for one moment when John Henry (Ben Carter), an African-American employee of the Alhambra, gets his hand stuck in a brass spittoon. It’s played for comedy, but it’s awful to see. It reminds you that this movie was made in 1946…
The fight peters out. Susan is exhausted, and we’re not really sure who won, though Terry and Deborah came out okay. They just kissed under a table the whole time.
You can watch the fight here:
Susan barely has time to catch her breath before the Harvey Girls throw their fancy ball! All the ladies are in their most stunning ball gowns (how many dresses fit in those trunks?) and they sing and dance in a kaleidoscope of pastels. There is so much skirt swishing and petticoat flashing that I can practically hear choreographer Robert Alton entreating his cast to really get those gowns moving!
I love their 1940’s hair styles in the 19th century movie. Also, you might think that Susan is wearing her wedding dress, but it’s actually a different white ball gown! Yes, she brought two such dresses to this podunk town on the edge of civilization. The pleated underskirt that peeks out through the triangle opening at the bottom of the skirt is a tremendous touch.
After a dance by Ray Bolger, the Harvey Girls teach the men how to dance the newfangled waltz. Marjorie Main, dressed as a grape-flavored lozenge, emcees the dance and makes sure things don’t get too cozy between Deborah and Terry…
Everything is going well until the saloon girls make an appearance. Ned is not pleased at Em’s initiative. His presence is fine, but it’s highly improper for his disreputable female employees to be there! Double standard.
Susan takes the womens’ tickets, and glances between Em and Ned to see what they are planning to do. Triangle!
Costume appreciation break. Em is utterly resplendent in hot pink satin and feathers. I love the photograph of her knitting in this costume!
Em tells the girls to grab a partner, but the wild men of Sandrock actually prefer the proper Harvey Girls to the saloon girls! Shocking! And very difficult to believe.
Em and Ned dance, though, so Susan grabs the reverend and takes a turn with him. Everyone else just stares. Finally, Ned calls a halt to this ridiculous display. He and his saloon girls leave the party. He seems to have made his choice: Em, not Susan.
But as the cheery reverend says, it’s still a great night because for the first time, the men of the town turned down a “wild time in favor of a good time.” But that doesn’t heal Susan’s broken heart. (Though last time we checked, she was angry at Ned and thought he’d planted the snake. So who knows what’s going on?)
Fun fact: the coral and black costumes I mentioned earlier aren’t the only ones to show up in this film and in Easter Parade. This orange dress with black and white stripes pops up several times in The Harvey Girls, and can also be seen on a dancer in the same “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” routine in Easter Parade. The top image is from The Harvey Girls, the bottom two from Easter Parade.
After Ned and Em leave, the film cuts to Susan alone in the valley where she’d once sat with Ned. But that wasn’t the original plan.
An enormous production number with Susan leading the town in the song “March of the Doagies” was shot but eventually scrapped. You can watch the deleted scene here. It’s got torches, a bonfire, and a cast of hundreds skipping through the town. It makes less sense than normal.
Fun fact: this isn’t the last deleted song in the movie. Garland recorded the vocals to “Hayride,” but never filmed it. But don’t worry, the melody was paired with new lyrics for an Esther Williams movie, Pagan Love Song (1950). Howard Keel sings the new version of “Hayride,” now called “The House of Singing Bamboo,” in the 1950 film. You can hear both versions, and see Howard’s, here.
But back to The Harvey Girls. After Ned chooses Em, Susan rushes to the valley in her white gown and lace wrap, and plops on the ground. She apparently has no concern for the state of her dress.
Ned joins her, rather fortuitously, and they have an intense conversation in the brightest moonlight I’ve ever seen. It allows for some beautiful shadows to be cast through the lace, though.
Ned tells Susan that he is moving the Alhambra to Flagstaff. He knows that the Harvey Girls have won the battle for Sandrock. So he’s cutting his losses, and astonishingly quickly, too–the entire Alhambra crew will be on the morning train out of Sandrock!
Ned returns to town and sees something strange in the Harvey House. He goes to investigate, and finds the Judge and his henchman setting the place on fire. They fight:
Despite Ned’s heroic efforts, the Harvey House burns down. Notice the saloon girls manning the water pump (in their dresses)! How nice of them!
Fortunately, Ned, the Judge, and his henchman make it out alive. The next morning, the train must be fed! So the Alhambra becomes a makeshift Harvey House. They paint over or cover up all the improper signage, naturally.
As Em walks down the staircase for the last time, she pauses next to the gingham draped, previously nearly nude statues on the stairs. She’s rather happy she’s leaving for Flagstaff if this is the new normal.
Meanwhile, Susan and the other Harvey Girls zoom about in their uniforms serving the train passengers. But look who stopped by the set between takes!
Susan tries to serve her customers with a smile, but she’s distraught at Ned’s departure.
She doesn’t know that at the very last moment before the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe pulled out of Sandrock, Ned changes his mind.
He’s choosing Susan and respectability, and giving up Em and the Alhambra. Em probably suspected this was going to happen. She looks imperious and resigned as she stands on the train and says her farewells to the man she thought she loved. To her credit, she manages a smile and a wave. She knows it’s for the best.
Costume appreciation break. This green, sequined, cobwebbed and butterflied dress with that enormous hat and matching purse and boa is so over the top. I love the fluffy ruff fastened with a butterfly brooch to mimic the sequin butterflies on the skirt and purse.
It’s quite unlike Susan’s pale blue wispy dress she wore in that exact same spot when the movie opened.
When Em makes her way to her seat, she notices Susan sitting alone in her uniform. She has decided that she loves Ned enough to leave Sandrock and become a saloon girl like Em. That’s what she thinks Ned wants. Shades of Grease, anyone?
Susan gives a naive, but nice speech about how she and Em aren’t that different. It’s all a matter of style; she wears one type of dress, and Em wears another, but surely Susan could change if that’s what Ned wants!
Em pulls the emergency break and throws Susan off the train. But not in anger. She does it because she knows that Ned is galloping after the train to retrieve Susan.
Off runs Susan to meet up with her love, whom she barely knows at all. They’ve really had just three conversations, remember, as well as several fraudulent letters. But they do have an inside joke of tripping, so when both fall down they can laugh and feel close to each other.
Then they kiss, and it morphs into their wedding smooch.
Susan finally got to wear the dress she brought all the way from Ohio! In the background of the wedding party, you can see Marjorie Main cozying up to Chill Wills, and Deborah and Terry getting a kiss of their own. All will be well!
Variety‘s verdict on The Harvey Girls was positive, despite the silly plot and obvious ending: “the story, obviously, is one of those things but under the lush Metro production auspices, along with the color, the fine scoring, and director George Sidney’s megging and the rest of it, the film more than sustains itself.” I agree.
The Harvey Girls‘ score was nominated for an Oscar, and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe” won for Best Song. It also became a chart topping hit. The Pied Pipers’ version held the #1 spot on Billboard’s Singles chart for seven weeks before the movie even opened (it was not uncommon in this era for songs to be recorded by other artists and released pre-movie). Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra recorded their own version in the summer of 1945, as did Bing Crosby. That fall, Judy Garland released a version with The Merry Macs, too.
That’s why The Harvey Girls poster includes the blurb, “Hear Judy sing “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe.” People already knew the song before the movie premiered in January, 1946; indeed, Variety‘s review of the movie notes that the film “owes its prime b.o. [box office] heft to its beautiful Technicolor and its hit song ‘Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe.’ The way that this Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren tune gets a slugfest would make any Lindy’s songplugger do nipups with envy.”
Final costume appreciation break. The wedding gown:
Variety excerpts from “The Harvey Girls.” Weekly Variety. 2 Jan 1946. 8. 161: 4.