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Film / The Harvey Girls

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"I don't know whether we're The Three Musketeers or the Three Blind Mice..."
Susan Bradley

Released in 1946, this MGM Musical film is based on the 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Directed by George Sidney, this Western-themed story pits characters played by Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury in a love triangle with John Hodiak. Set in the 1890s, the film follows the waitresses from the chain of Harvey House restaurants, who set up a new establishment in the Wild West town of Sandrock, Arizona. They have their work cut out for them, because there's already a saloon in town, with plenty of drinking, gambling and dancing girls as the local entertainment - and they're not keen on having to compete with a more respectable establishment.

Judy Garland plays Susan Bradley, a woman travelling to Sandrock to answer a blind marriage proposal. As her luck would have it, said husband is about thirty years her senior and even his personality won't cut it - since John Hodiak's Ned Trent was the one who wrote the love letters for him. And he's the one who runs the saloon. Susan joins the Harvey Girls and becomes part of the competition. Angela Lansbury plays Em, the main dancer in the saloon.

Cyd Charisse had her first acting credit here, playing Harvey Girl waitress Deborah. The film also won an Oscar for "Best Original Song" for Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe".

Tropes featured in this film:

  • Alpha Bitch: Em appears to be the leader of the dancer girls in the saloon.
  • Artistic License – Geography:
    • There are references to a nearby town called Flagstaff being a mining town. Flagstaff was actually a lumbering town and had no mines.
    • The scenery shown (agave, saguaro cactus) is more typical of southern New Mexico, but the ATSF ran along northern New Mexico (whose scenery is quite different).
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Em sings the song "Oh You Kid", which was written in 1909, long after the film's 19th century setting. Admittedly, new lyrics were written for the film.
    • The waltz is introduced as a "new dance". It had been known in the United States since the 1830s, long before the film takes place.
    • A justified example with the money Ned hands to Em. It's "movie money bills" because until 1958, it was illegal to accurately reproduce paper money in film (out of fear that a frame could be enlarged and used to make counterfeits).
  • Award-Bait Song: "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe", which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
  • Bad Girl Song: "Oh You Kid", sung by Em to establish her as the main performer in the saloon.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished:
    • Susan is involved in a massive brawl between the Harvey Girls and saloon dancers, and only has her hair lightly mussed.
    • Ned on the opposite end comes out of a brawl in a burning building with only mild Clothing Damage.
  • Beta Couple: Deborah, one of the Harvey Girls, and Terry O'Hara the saloon pianist. Their mini romance gives Susan something of a realisation about her feelings for Ned.
  • Brick Joke: Ned's first night in the restaurant has him order a steak, knowing the meat has been stolen. He orders it rare. When Susan has facilitated the meat's return, she dumps a raw steak on his plate and tells him it's extra rare.
  • Career Versus Man: Subverted! Susan is prepared to give up her career as a Harvey Girl and follow Ned to Flagstaff. But Ned chooses to stay, meaning Susan presumably gets to keep being a Harvey Girl.
  • Cat Fight: At one point, Em leads the rest of her girls to beat up Susan. The rest of the Harvey Girls join, and a massive cat fight ensues in the saloon.
  • Convection, Schmonvection: In the climax, Ned is able to have a fist fight in a burning building without suffering any heat stroke or smoke inhalation.
  • Cool Horse: Ned has one that's apparently able to catch up to a train travelling at forty mph.
  • Cool Old Lady: Sonora Cassidy, the formidable battleaxe and Deadpan Snarker that trains the Harvey Girls.
  • Cool Train: The Virginia and Truckee's "Inyo" standing in for a Santa Fe locomotive in the "On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe" number.
  • Country Mouse: Alma, who says she grew up on a farm
  • Costume Porn: The female characters always have a splendid fancy dress on in every other scene. Even if the Harvey House uniform is quite simple, there are always scenes where they're out of uniform. A ball scene near the end allows for everyone to be splendidly dressed.
  • Crowd Song:
    • "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe", in which loads of train passengers (some of whom never appear again) get solos.
    • "Swing Your Partner Round and Round", sung by everyone at the ball.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Susan damns her potential husband by calling him "kind and reasonable" twice, dodging comments on his looks.
  • Escalating War: The main conflict is the local saloon trying to sabotage the new Harvey House restaurant in town. Tactics include stealing the restaurant's meat, shooting at a light bulb in the girls' dormitory and putting a snake in their closet.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Ned doesn't want the Harvey House in town but he's furious when he finds out someone fired a shot into the Harvey girls dormitory to try and scare them off.
  • Fainting: Susan nearly faints after kissing Ned, and seems embarrassed about it.
  • Family-Friendly Stripper: The dancers in the saloon just wear skimpy costumes to sell themselves as more 'common' than the wholesome Harvey Girls.
  • Fanservice Pack: For the dance scene, the normally modest Susan wears a tight dress with a lower neckline.
  • First-Name Basis: It's a poignant moment in the ending when Em calls Susan by her first name.
  • Funny Background Event: During the fight in the saloon, in one shot you can see a girl inexplicably swinging on a light.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Ned kills a snake in the closet by firing a gun at it from a distance. The shot only shows the shadow of the snake falling to the floor dead.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Em realises that both Ned and Susan are genuinely in love, and facilitates their Last Minute Hook Up.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The hairstyles of the female characters are more in line with the 1940s. The real life Harvey Girls were not allowed to wear make-up either, but of course in the film they wear obvious lipstick and full 1940s Hollywood make-up.
  • Lady in Red: The dance hall girls usually have some form of red on their costumes, presumably to sell them as the antagonists.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The take of Susan's solo during "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" is a single, continuous shot.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Susan's hair is largely worn in various buns and updos at the start. Once she begins warming up to Ned, her hair is shown down more frequently.
  • Love Redeems: Ned's growing feelings for Susan lead to him turning his back on the saloon.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: The conflict is largely between the wholesome, respectable Harvey Girls and the scantily clad saloon dancers. That being said, Susan gives a little speech close to the end about how neither profession is better than the other.
  • Mail-Order Bride: Judy Garland starts her journey as one of these, but when she arrives, she takes one look at the prospective groom and gets a job as a Harvey Girl instead. (The Harvey Girls, who actually existed, were waitresses at Harvey House restaurants.)
  • Mood Whiplash: The sweet song "It's a Great Big World" ends on a mellow note...and then someone fires a shot into the room and shatters a light.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Em spends the majority of her screen time either in skimpy stage costumes or tight dresses with very low necklines.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Purvis attempting to sabotage the Harvey House restaurant by burning it down. It just results in the saloon becoming the new restaurant, and the dancers having to move out of town.
  • Plucky Girl: Susan is very outspoken and spirited. Case in point - when the first attempt at sabotaging the restaurant involves the saloon stealing the meat, Susan borrows a pair of pistols and threatens them at gunpoint!
  • Purple Is Powerful: For the dance, Sonora Cassidy wears a deep purple gown. It should be noted that she continues to one-up her dancing partner in this sequence.
  • Rule of Funny: Alma drops a horseshoe into a pot of water and it sizzles. This trope is the reason she clearly didn't get burned while holding it.
  • Southern Belle: Em is the vampy and antagonistic 'Mauvaise Belle'.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Done in a way when the audience already knows the outcome. Susan chooses to board the train taking the saloon workers out of town, believing Ned is still on it. She's prepared to become a saloon girl to be with him. Luckily he's already decided to stay in Sandrock.
  • Town Girls: Alma is a practical former farm girl who shoes a horse better than a man (butch). Deborah is a Head-Turning Beauty looking out for her Prince Charming (femme). Susan is a Plucky Girl but still has some ladylike mannerisms (neither).
  • Train Song: Susan and the company sing "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" — after arriving at their destination.
  • True Blue Femininity: Susan arrives in Sandrock wearing a magnificent blue dress, as befitting a feminine bride to be.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Subverted. It would have been the case with Susan about to marry a man who turns out to be much older and less handsome than she expected. Thankfully for both of them, they agree to call the marriage off within a few minutes of meeting each other.
  • The Vamp: Em is incredibly vampy, and is the Veronica to Susan's Betty.