The Harvey Girls (1946, USA, Sidney) is one of those pseudo-great musicals from the Hollywood studio system era that isn’t particularly interesting or even that good while watching it, but because it contains several impressive sequences inevitably anthologized in one of the That’s Entertainment! installments, it’s easily to start remembering it as a much, much better film than it really is.
Or maybe evaluating the potential greatness of The Harvey Girls requires an entirely different type of rubric altogether. The single greatest pleasure of the film is seeing Judy Garland so healthy and happy-looking; as soon as she steps out of the train halfway into the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, she takes a potentially tacky (and overworked ) number and transforms it to one of the Hollywood musical’s most magical sequences. And I am particularly fond of the “It’s a Great Big World” number performed by Garland, a young Cyd Charisse, and crackerjack comedienne Virginia O’Brien. The rueful and relentlessly sad lyrics function as a confessional-style litany of failures (“I thought by learning each social grace/ Some likely chap will forget my face”), but the cruel harshness of the words are offset by the the accompanying choreography, which emphasizes the women huddling together conspiratorially or resolutely linking arms together. As such, what begins as a meditation on the self-perceived shortcomings of being a young, unmarried woman in 19th century America is elevated through heartfelt vocal and physical performances into a stance of solidarity against the inequity of the relentless cruelty and coldness of the “great, big world.” It might not be as virtuosic as the big “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” number, but to my mind it is just as memorable, trading in scale and flash for an intimate and intense emotional potency.
Indeed, the note of female solidarity sounded by the “Great Big World” number characterizes the female-centric nature of the entire film, and all of the best elements of the film have to do with its female performers. As well as all of the individual performances and scenes already mentioned, the young Angela Lansbury is not given nearly enough screen time as the brash saloon girl that starts out as Garland’s archenemy, gravel-voiced Marjorie Main is always a welcome presence, and all of the best individual scenes uniformly center around the motley group of waitresses of the film’s title banding together to counter the misogynistic social forces that resent their “refining presence” in the knockabout, male-dominated wilderness town.
Which is why the tacked-on Garland/John Hodiak forbidden romance subplot is almost insulting in its perfunctoriness–if there’s a love story to be found in this film, it’s strictly of a sororal sort (that Hodiak is just an inherently bland, romance-adverse screen presence doesn’t help matters a bit). Ad there’s certainly lots else to potentially criticize: Ray Bolger’s fey comedy shtick is of a frantic type that hasn’t aged well at all, the untamed “Wild West” doesn’t seem to have a speck of dust out of place (and why exactly do the men of the town have color-coordinated neckties in pastel tones?), to say nothing of the maddeningly wholesome good cheeriness of it all. But as I began gesturing toward in my opening comments, this is a film where greatness–and there’s an awful lot I’d argue is just as great as anything found in any number of the more celebrated studio-era musicals–must be carefully picked apart from the surrounding dross, and savored carefully on its own.