The Harvey Girls (1946) – Movie Review

The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, and a plethora of Hollywood names, is a bright, show-stopping musical with the usual glamour only MGM could muster. Based on the true story of Fred Harvey’s restaurants and the waitresses he employed, this story takes place in small, uncivilized town in New Mexico.

Brief Synopsis:

Tired of her own home town in Ohio, Susan Bradley responds a matrimonial ad in the newspaper and agrees to marry a man she has never seen. She leaves for the remote town of Sand Rock with her hopes high. On the trains she befriends some girls who are going to Sand Rock as well to become waitresses at the new Harvey House. When she arrives, Susan is immediately surprised to find that the man who wrote all those beautiful letters is a rough cattle hand and not the learned gentleman she thought. She soon finds out that the whole trip was a joke played by the local saloon owner, Ned Trent. Infuriated, Susan tells Trent just what she thinks of men like him, and joins the Harvey girls in their fight for civilization. They endure trials and grave danger but in the end, the Harvey girls prevail. And Susan finds the writer of her letters to be the man of her dreams.

Judy Garland performs beautifully, singing as well as acting. She is accompanied by rising stars such as Cyd Charisse, and well-known actors such as Virginia O’Brien and Ray Bolger. Also in the film are the lovable raspy-voiced Marjorie Main, a hard-as-nails Angela Lansbury, and a tough and dangerous Preston Foster. John Hodiak, a rare man to find in musicals, pulls the character of saloon owner off well. Unfortunately for him, his only singing part was cut from the finished film.

Full Synopsis:

As the Santa Fe rail line moves westward, civilization follows close behind. Credit for this advancement is due in part to Fred Harvey’s chain of restaurants and his straight-laced, white collar waitresses dubbed the Harvey Girls.

Susan Bradley, a lonely girl from Ohio, is heading west with dreams of her beloved leading her on. Having responded to a matrimonial ad in the newspaper and started a relationship with its writer, she agreed to marry him and left her boring home for a new one.

Also on the train heading west are a group of young women just employed as Harvey Girls. A few of them take pity on Susan’s lack of food and offer her some of theirs which sparks a valuable friendship. None of them know just what they are getting into but they are soon to find out.

In Sand Rock, Judge Purvis, a man with the power of the town behind him, is none too happy to see a Harvey House opening up next to the Alhambra, a saloon owned by his friend Ned Trent. He advises Ned to be careful, having heard the effect Harvey Houses have had on the towns they’ve occupied. Not sharing his friends suspicious nature, Ned waves him off.

The train arrives with a grand entrance as nearly the whole town comes out to meet them. As the crowd dies away the Harvey girls gather up their belongings and move into the new building already set up for them.

Susan, on the other hand, is looking anxiously for her husband-to-be, H. H. Hartsey, Esq.. When she spots him though she is taken aback. The man who calls himself Hartsey appears to be a rough cowhand no more able to write a letter than fly to the moon. Obviously expecting someone different as well, the two eventually agree that the marriage wouldn’t be right for both of them.

Thinking out loud, Hartsey mentions the fact that the letters were written by a “friend” who must have thought it would be a good joke. Infuriated, Susan finds out he’s none other than the owner of the Alhambra, Ned Trent, and marches straight through the doors of the saloon. She tells him what she thinks of men who take liberties with innocent people and gives him more than a piece of her mind. As a last jab, she promises the Harvey girls will shove people like him and his dance hall girls out of the town for good, and immediately marches off to join them. Little does she know her spunk, despite the anger behind it, has sparked Ned’s interest in her.

In no time the Harvey House is open and ready for the next train. Eager to size up his new competition, Ned visits the Harvey House and orders a famous Harvey House steak.

Sonora, the cook, informs them all that the meat is gone, vanished. Rolling up her sleeves, Susan heads back over to the Alhambra. She grabs a pair of six-shooters and threatens to shoot if they don’t return the meat she knows they have taken. Hardly a menacing figure, the men go along with her anyhow, too surprised and delighted by her tenacity. Moments later, she returns to Mr. Trent’s table with one steak, very rare.

That night, Judge Purvis hires a man to shoot out the girls light, succeeding in scaring some of the girls away. But the next day, when Ned tells him to cut the rough stuff, he tells Susan and Deborah that Ned is the one trying to drive them away while he is perfectly happy to have them there.

Once again taking matters into her own hands, Susan bursts through the saloon doors for the third time. Expecting to find Ned, she instead finds Em, the saloon’s star dancer. Em tells Susan that she’s glamorizing Ned and inadvertantly clarifies him as the kind one, not Purvis. Though her words are biting, Susan quickly realizes that Em loves Ned. Em doesn’t deny it but bitterly adds that he doesn’t know she exists.

Em mentioned something about a valley and suddenly Susan recalls Ned having written to her about a valley he loved to go and visit. Now ready to thank him instead of fight, she finds him just where she thought, in his valley. Though at first cold, Ned falls prey to Susan’s good-girl charm, and Susan soon has to admit his feelings are mutual.

They return to town together, and closer than they were before, but in less than a minute, trouble pops its ugly head up. Hearing a scream from the Harvey House, Susan and Ned run up to to find a rattlesnake threatening Deborah in a closet. Ned heroically kills the snake but Susan realizes that as long as he runs the Alhambra and endorses men like Judge Purvis he is doing the same as helping them in running the girls out of Sand Rock.

Deborah, a dancer, hears the lovely music coming from the Alhambra and can’t resist the temptation to get a closer look at its creator. The young man, Terry O’Halloran, is enchanted with Deborah and sings the song for her. But when Susan arrives to bring Deborah back the jealous saloon girls move in on them. In no time Susan is joined by the rest of the Harvey girls and the battle rages with fists and screams.

The girls throw a ball for the men of the town and entertain them with dancing and singing. The air is festive and everyone is having a wonderful time, despite the appearance of Ned and Purvis. But when the dance hall girls arrive in their bold colors and feathers, the mood becomes tense. Ned stands up for his girls and they go their way.

After the ball, Susan rushes out to the valley. Not long after, Ned arrives. They love each other, they both know it, but they can’t come to terms with the differences in their beliefs. Ned informs her that he plans to move the saloon to Flagstaff and leaves. The moment is bittersweet for Susan, knowing that he loves her and yet they can’t be together.

When Ned returns to town alone, he catches Purvis and his henchman setting fire to the Harvey House. He takes them on singehanded but fails to save the building. Daylight reveals a burned down building where the restaurant used to stand. Ned offers to let them have the Alhambra until the Harvey House is repaired and prepares to leave for Flagstaff.

Only when the train is ready to leave, he admits to Em that he isn’t going with them. Em realizes she has lost.

As the train moves out, Em spots Susan in one of the cars. When Susan tells her that she would do anything for Ned, Em does the right thing and stops the train. Already riding to catch up, Ned finds Susan and the two get married right in his valley, all their problems resolved.

Behind The Scenes

The song that hit the charts higher than any other on the film was On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, sung by artists such as Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer, and even Judy Garland, but Mercer’s version was the most popular.

Since Virginia O’Brien was pregnant at the time of shooting she lost parts in the second half of the film do to Judy’s delaying the film because her condition became more and more noticeable.

Not surprising, Angela Lansbury’s singing voice was dubbed as well as rising star Cyd Charisse.

My Opinion

I’ve watched this movie for as long as I can remember, and though I wouldn’t recommend it for a historical piece, I love the music and simple plot. John Hodiak does an excellent job in the role of the saloon owner while Judy pulls off the necessary spunk for her character.

Other than the obvious inaccuracies, the only thing I really don’t like in the movie is the implications that compromising your morals for the man or woman you love is alright. The fact that Susan believes they’ll both have to compromise their standards to make a relationship work is wrong. Moral standards should never be compromised. Ned was the one who needed to change. Susan’s speech at the end about the only difference between her and Em was the clothing style they chose to wear was completely illogical. Hollywood once again gets the award for glamorizing real life. Em and her fellow saloon girls were prostitutes, or at least saloon girls in that day and time were.

Other than those apparent inaccuracies, I would definitely recommend this movie for anyone who wishes to see a quaint, enjoyable musical!

Share this


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *