What do you get when you combine cowboys and waitresses in a 1940s musical? In 1946, this combination became a musical western, The Harvey Girls. This MGM production was the first film I saw while at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in Hollywood this April. Starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak and Angela Lansbury, this is an old favorite of mine. In fact, I’ve watched this movie on DVD with my family for as long as I can remember. Seeing this film in one of the Chinese multiplexes on Hollywood Boulevard was a great way to see my film at my first TCMFF!
It had been years since I had seen a movie in a theater but not because of the pandemic. I’ve never been to the cinema because I prefer classic films to new releases. In fact, visiting the historic El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to see Disney fairy tale movies and vintage cartoons was my only childhood cinematic experience. That being said, I could probably count on one hand the times I’ve been to the cinema, and those times were random showings of old movies.
Rediscovering an old favorite made me appreciate the experience of seeing a classic film on the big screen the way it was meant to be. While modern films are made with home theater or online streaming in mind, 1940s filmmakers only expected their films to be viewed in theaters. I noticed things about the film that I had never seen before!
Each film in the festival was introduced by a host and sometimes a special guest. Some introductions, like the one before The Harvey Girls, were brief, but all provided excellent insight. This film was introduced by Tara McNamara, a film journalist and critic who, according to her TCM description page, “loves making audiences think about films.” She did just that when introducing this film. She told the small but appreciative audience, “Time travel does exist.” How, you ask? She explained, “Movies are a time machine.” Sitting in the dark theater, I felt transported to another time and place, along with the crowd of strangers sharing the experience.
The Harvey Houses
Who are the eponymous Harvey Girls? They were the waitresses at the Harvey Houses, restaurants that served westbound train passengers. As Miss McNamara described, the food on westbound trains in the 19th century was repulsive and dangerously unpreserved. Fred Harvey offered delicious alternatives at his trackside restaurants. This obscure chapter in the history of the American Western inspired this film, as described in its dedication: “As Fred Harvey pushed his restaurant chain farther and farther west along the Santa Fe’s lengthening railroad tracks, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces the country had.” known – The Harvey Girls. These charming waitresses conquered the West just as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons—not with a powder horn and gun, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. We sincerely dedicate this film to those unsung pioneers whose descendants continue this tradition to this day.”
In this story, a new Harvey House opens in the rough western town of Sandrock. Girls from all over the United States take the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe trains to become waitresses. The only girl on the train with other plans is Susan Bradley (Garland), who is going to Sandrock to marry a man she corresponds with but has never met. She is very disappointed to find out that her fiancé, HH Hartsey (Chill Wills), is a middle-aged cowboy who describes himself as “a mangy old buzzard”. He, in turn, is surprised that his bride is such a pretty young lady and suggests breaking off the engagement. Susan’s relief turns to outrage when she learns that Hartsey’s beautiful letters were written as a joke by cocky saloon owner Ned Trent (Hodiak). She decides to stay in Sandrock, become a Harvey Girl, and teach Mr. Trent a lesson.
Meanwhile, evil judge Sam Purvis (Preston Foster) fears the Harvey House will make the town presentable, while saloon singer Em (Lansbury) fears her beloved Ned will fall in love with one of the Harvey Girls. The sane waitresses face a lot of hostility and even violence as they open their restaurant and try to civilize the community. Along the way, Susan befriends two other girls who came west in search of love, farm girl Alma (Virginia O’Brien) and dancer Deborah (Cyd Charisse). Both seem to find it, Alma with a wannabe blacksmith (Ray Bolger) and Deborah with the saloon’s pianist (Kenny Baker). Meanwhile, Susan sees Ned’s softer side when she discovers his penchant for looking out over a beautiful valley. If he can appreciate nature, perhaps there is hope for him to embrace the changes that Harvey House will bring.
The Harvey Girls of this story symbolize the decency that characterized American films in the 1930s-50s. In 1934, Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code as its law, with all studios agreeing to abide by its rules on film content. This was nothing new; Hollywood had officially adopted the same code four years earlier, but no change in film content had taken place to date.
In 1934, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed to enforce the code, which was Hollywood’s last attempt at self-government. Unlike its unsuccessful predecessor, the Studio Relations Committee, the PCA had a strong leader, Joseph I. Breen, and authority, as films needed their seal of approval to be released in the United States. This time the code was destined to succeed. The films that were released during the ensuing Golden Age of Hollywood were wholesome, entertaining, and acceptable to all. They are now considered some of the greatest films ever made.
What does this have to do with The Harvey Girls, aside from being one of the films released during the Code’s Golden Era? Well, much like Sandrock’s Harvey House, people laughed at the code and thought the PCA was doomed. It seemed impossible that a few pages of basic ethics could reform the Wild West of the Hollywood film industry. It seemed similarly ridiculous that scrubbed waitresses could turn gamblers and drunks into respectable churchgoers and even husbands. Still, neither task proved impossible, and the naysayers eventually had to eat their words.
Rather than fight and destroy, the Harvey Girls came to make friends and help the Sandrock community. They faced opposition and hostility, but that did not stop them from continuing their reform mission. The PCA started out the same way, not as a body of harsh censors but as a group of sane friends. There were rules that had to be followed, but they were applied by sane people who just wanted to help the business make the best films possible. Sometimes a good cup of coffee can take down a lot more stubborn enemies than a musket!
A good time
An interesting point in this film are the Saloon Girls who work at the Alhambra Saloon, led by Em. With additional make-up, flashy clothing and bolder styles, these dancers could be described as the “Painted Ladies” of the Old West. However, they are not clearly portrayed as prostitutes. They are straight-forward women engaged in the business of “entertaining,” “recreating,” and entertaining men. Such “hostesses” can be seen in many code films. They are employed by establishments to keep male guests company, but their services are never shown and seldom implied to be more than dancing, drinking and conversation. Rather than being watered down children’s versions, Code films presented mature themes in a sophisticated way, leaving them up to personal interpretation based on one’s age, maturity and beliefs.
Everyone can enjoy this movie without worrying about explicit content. It’s just good, clean fun! The score is filled with unique, memorable songs, most notably the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” The period costumes are beautiful and colorful. The cast is full of top stars from the 1940s and beyond. It’s still a true western, despite its musical score and feminine title, so there’s some good gun scenes, horse sequences, an all-female bar fight and a tense fight in a blazing building!
The Harvey Girls has something for everyone. The only things that don’t exist are swear words, excessive violence, racy love scenes and nudity. The beauty of TCMFF is that it gives people a chance to celebrate films like this. Choosing between code movies and seductively lewd modern entertainment is like the men of Sandrock choosing the wholesome Harvey House dance during a night at the Alhambra, as summed up in this line: “On this evening, the male population of Sandrock went to the first time has turned down a wild time in favor of a good time.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.