The Harvey Girls is a film I have shied away from in the past – mainly because the cast, apart from Judy Garland and, possibly, Ray Bolger, hardly makes you suspect that greatness is in the offing (who was John Hodiak again?) but also because the “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” routine has been wheeled out so often that it is tiresome, although it seems that Ray Bolger got burnt by the steam from the locomotive during the shoot. When you run down the cast-list, very few names leap out at you.
The songs were written by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren, a strange pairing of rural youth and grizzled urban experience, but apart from that accursed number about a train company, nothing really survives. I think that Warren was at a stage in his career when he was husbanding his resources. He enjoyed working with Mercer because the young man was so fluent and versatile that he could fit words to anything that Warren came up with – there was no need to tamper with anything so that the words would fit. The score is not very distinctive melodically but Mercer’s lyrics always ride the line gracefully. “Wait and See”, the song that the saloon pianist played by Kenny Baker – the crooner in “At The Circus” – plays for Cyd Charisse – is possibly worthy of greater renown. It is one of those tunes that Sonny Rollins could sculpt.
Maybe the most interesting angle on the film is to consider that Judy Garland is up against Angela Lansbury as John Hodiak’s woman. They were very close in age. One was already a major star but doomed to an incandescent burn-out a mere 20 or so years later at a time when the other was just starting to consolidate a legendary Broadway reputation. In some ways, Lansbury gives a more mature performance than Garland in the film – but then Garland’s trademark was still a kind of tremulous innocence.
It is a nice film. It has Western ingredients – the saloon, the good girls versus the bad girls, a fight – but it does not have much of a plot. There are amusing moments – such as when Garland reclaims the purloined meat by holding up the saloon. There are touching musical moments – such as Garland’s ballad on the train or Charisse’s dance – but a lot seems to have ended up on the cutting-room floor. No clear narrative is built up – why is Virginia O’Brien so keen on Ray Bolger that she shoes a horse for him while singing of her disappointment in the “Wild, Wild West”? So disappointed, in fact, that she can hold a red-hot horse shoe in her hand without bother. It is fragmentary in structure. It goes for the obvious at all times. Angela Lansbury is woefully under-used and Ray “unfunny” Bolger is dreadfully over-used. Cinematography was by George Folsey – once the DP for Cecil B DeMille in the silent days – and it is a glorious film, visually. The desert has never seemed so colourful. But you wish that someone could have decided whether it was a chronicle, a love story, a Western…..