The Harvey Girls - a Musical Movie From the Old West
Cast of Characters
The Harvey Girls
1 hr 42 mins Comedy, Musical, Western 1946 7.1 Stars
Director: George Sidney
Cast: Judy Garland - Susan Bradley
John Hodiak - Ned Trent
Ray Bolger - Chris Maule
Angela Lansbury - Em
Preston Foster - Judge Sam Purvis
Virginia O’Brien - Alma from Ohio
Kenny Baker - Terry O’Halloran
Marjorie Main - Sonora Cassidy
Chill Wills - H.H. Hartsey Esq.
Cyd Charisse - Deborah Andrews
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
The Movie Trailer
Judy Garland as a Harvey Girl
The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe - Train
The story opens up with Judy Garland singing on the back of a train caboose, scenery rushing by. She is Susan Bradley from Ohio and she is moving to New Mexico to meet a pen pal who has proposed marriage, a sight-unseen proposition for both her and her betrothed – H.H. Hartsey Esq. (played by Chill Wills). It’s a daring move in more ways than one. She is prepared to commit her life to a husband she’s never met and she’s relocating across the country to the wild west leaving all she knows behind. It is the late 1800s and as just stated, it’s the wild wild west.
The movie is about a chain of restaurants, called Harvey Houses, strung along the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroad. The chain was named after their founder, Fred Harvey. This is a true historical fact and the restaurant chain was started in 1879. It lasted well into the 20th century. Harvey Houses were eventually built along other rail lines as well. The girls employed as waitresses worked under strict conditions of behavior and propriety. As a result they had an incredibly powerful civilizing and moralizing influence on the old west. This influence put them in direct competition with the brothels and saloons for which the west was infamous. This then is the back drop of our story and the conflict that frames the movie.
When Susan arrives at her destination, Sand Rock, NM and meets her betrothed it is immediately evident that this is not a workable match. H.H. Hartsey confesses that he didn’t even write the love letters to her, that they were in fact penned by a man named Ned Trent (played by John Hodiak). Ned is the proprietor of the local saloon and brothel called The Alhambra. Susan is very angry at having travelled all the way out there from Ohio as the butt of some sort of joke so she marches herself over to the Alhambra to give Mr. Trent a piece of her mind. Trent is supposed to be a man of questionable character, yet the moral Susan is strangely attracted to him (and really throughout the movie we see nothing questionable about his character).
The bulk of the movie focuses on the competition between the two establishments and by extension the moral climate of the town. There are a series of intimidations perpetrated upon the Harvey House and girls including the kidnapping of their manager and the theft of their steak supply. In a comical scene Susan steals two pistols, marches over to the Alhambra and demands that the steaks and manager be returned at once. A couple of accidental pistol discharges from the nervous Susan made this an effective strategy.
There are several romances that come about in the movie, but the romance of Susan and Ned impinges upon the interest which Em has for Ned. Em is the madam of the Alhambra and she instantly realizes the competition, intended or not, posed by the establishment of a Harvey House just across the street. Also it corresponds to the competition which she has with Susan for the affections of Ned.
At two points this competition erupts, first there is a big fight (what western would be complete without one?) which is completely a girl fight at the Alhambra between the Alhambra girls and the Harvey girls. Secondly there is a party hosted by the Harvey House. This is also a scene of competition between the two establishments because, reading between the lines, it is an invitation for the men there to select which form of entertainment they will choose for their town.
Shortly after the dance some bad guys on the Alhambra side of things set fire to the Harvey House. And again a fight ensues, but this is between Ned and his partner the local judge. Ned is now on the side of Harvey House and the judge is the arsonist. After the fight ends Ned allows the Harvey organization to set up in the Alhambra building. Immediately afterwards Ned decides to give up his business and relocate the Alhambra to Flagstaff AZ – he will leave the next day. In the morning the Alhambra girls board the train west. But Susan has also boarded the train because she wants to be wherever Ned is. Ned however hasn’t boarded the train. He has stayed behind to be with Susan.
On the train Susan talks to Em and asks if she can join up with them! Em is touched that Susan would do that for Ned but tells her no. She pulls the brake chain and tells Susan to get off, that Ned isn’t even on the train.
In fact Ned is chasing after the train because he has learned that Susan is on it!
Susan gets off the train and is re-united with Ned – The End.
This movie has it all: Romance, fights, singing, dancing, history, scenery and an all-star cast. Songs in this movie were pop hits in its day especially the theme song, “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”.
The plot is a predictable romance – good girl and bad boy, who’s really good inside, fall in love despite external conflicts. A subtle hint at the direction of the plot is found early on before Susan and Ned actually meet. During the train ride west we hear a snippet of a letter he has written to her. Susan reads it aloud to her traveling companions, the Harvey Girls. In it a beautiful valley is described, spoken of in loving detail. The letter was supposedly penned by H.H. Hartsey, but we will later learn that it was ghost written by Ned. And indeed Ned has a particular valley in mind when he wrote. It is a special place to him, a place that inspires him, a place where his dreams run wild. Later in the movie it is the place where the Ned and Susan romance develops. Curiously it is this portion of this letter that she chooses to share. This is because her imagination is captured by his words about that valley.
In 2017 I took a train trip on the modern equivalent of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe main line which is now run by Amtrak as The Southwest Chief. It doesn’t go to Atchison and it doesn’t go to Santa Fe. In fact it never went to Santa Fe, but instead passed 18 miles south of the city with a stop at Lamy NM as it does today. As to Atchison their main line didn’t go there, but was considerably south going through Kansas City instead. However in its early days the railway did start there. But both then and now it does go through Topeka. In the New Mexico State History Museum in Santa Fe I found a room dedicated to Fred Harvey and his Harvey House chain as well as his Harvey Girls. Rolling through Las Vegas NM, I caught sight of the Hotel Casteñeda one of the few remaining Harvey House buildings.
The Casteñeda was the actual model for the set which was constructed for this movie. It was likewise located across the street from a saloon. Las Vegas NM may well be considered the model town for the fictitious Sand Rock, NM of the movie. It has the perfect southwestern appearance and reminds us that Judy Garland was not in Kansas anymore.
The train conductor who hollers “All Aboard” in the number “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” is the actual grandson of Fred Harvey founder of the Harvey House chain and was president of that company when the film was made.
This movie was the first speaking role for Cyd Charisse.
Critic Howard Barnes called it, “a big animated picture post card.”
This movie was a reunited two actors from The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland who played Dorothy and Roy Bolger who played the Scarecrow.
I've attached a few video clips so that you can both see and hear the beauty of the movie.