Food Music

One of the most popular movie musicals of the 1940s – a blockbuster, really – gets the Special Deluxe Warner Archive treatment with the new Blu-Ray edition of 1946’s THE HARVEY GIRLS.

A veritable textbook on how to make a classic postwar musical, THG has it all:  action, romance and action-romance, all wrapped up with a Technicolor bow around a fantastic score.

The movie, a “natural” (as the wags say) waiting to happen (indeed, why had it taken so long?) tells the true story of the Harvey House restaurant chain, forging their way West in 1870 to feed in style the increasing population of cowboys, railway workers, settlers, etc.  The hook that put the lofty concept over (aside from the ace chef-cooked vittles) was that the entire serving staff would be made up of young women, mostly of the fetching kind, and many with their own agenda:  to find that he-man and do some settling themselves.  How could it miss?  It didn’t in 1870.

Nor in 1946.

HARVEY was one of those elaborate Technicolor explosions that packed moviegoers in as the war became a recent memory.  Returning vets, reunited with their sweethearts/spouses couldn’t get enough of big-budget musicals – a point the studios took note of; Paramount (Blue Skies), Warner Bros. (Night and Day), Columbia (Down to Earth), Universal (Song of Scherherazade), Fox (State Fair) and even indies and Republic (Belle of the Yukon, I’ve Always Loved You) all went Technicolor ga-ga in a major way.  And it usually paid off handsomely.  But since MGM was the King of the Movie Musical, it turned out just that much better for them.

Of course, having the best people the genre needed all under one roof certainly helped – and that was true for both sides of the Culver City cameras.  Arthur Freed produced, George Sidney (who just had a massive hit with Anchors Aweigh) directed and an array of screenwriters and comedy scribes (Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon and last, but certainly not least, Samson Raphaelson working from an original story by Kay Van Riper, Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin – all based upon Samuel Hopkins Adams’ sourcework novel) devoted their considerable talents to the narrative.

Of course, none of this would matter if your lead was a wet noodle, and Judy Garland was hardly that.  Having come off the wildly successful Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was primed to do a lavish follow-up.  In St. Louis, “The Trolley Song” became a socko smash; for HARVEY, composers Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer went one better.  “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” almost instantly became a standard, still played today 75 years later.  For the MGM publicity department, it was a beautifully crafted use of ballyhoo and marketing smarts.  The song was released way before the movie, and, as predicted, became a Top Ten chartbuster, prior to the pic’s April 29 unveiling.  Fact, the record sales alone paid back some of HARVEY‘s lush cost before one reel unspooled in theaters.

Garland, whose character Susan Bradley is hoodwinked out West by way of a Cyrano de Bergerac ploy, is adopted by the title femmes, and becomes their champion – fighting the dastardly (but not too dastardly) rival town bigwigs and saloon owners.  Worse, her largest human thorn is dashing good-bad dude Ned Trent (John Hodiak), who, it turns out wrote the flowery prose that got her out there in the first place (the person in question being flea-bitten cowpoke H.H., played by Chill Wills).  Natch, no one is really murderously vengeful, since, in all Golden Age movies, especially musical Westerns, no one sweats, smells, gets dirty (even after 16 hours+ in the saddle) or even ruffles their clothes.  Everyone’s clean and ready to dance and sing – and, in this case, also have a hearty meal.  And I’m okay with that.

The supporting cast was phenomenal, including top tier musical attractions, up-and-coming groomed stars and starlets, beloved character actors and even an authentic smattering of Western thesp punims.  Aside from the aforementioned participants, THE HARVEY GIRLS also features Ray Bolger, Angela Lansbury, Preston Foster, Cyd Charisse, Marjorie Main, Kenny Baker, Selena Royle, Ruth Brady, Jack Lambert, Morris Ankrum, Stephen McNally (still going by “Horace”), Hazel Brooks, Vernon Dent, Virginia Gumm (one of Garland’s sisters), Peggy Maley, Paul Newlan, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Ray Teal and Byron Harvey, Jr. (Fred Harvey’s grandson).  It should be noted that Charisse was being pushed up the star ladder with this vehicle and she and Garland, along with my favorite most-underrated MGM lady, the great Virginia O’Brien, make a fine trio!

The specs on the new Blu-Ray are terrific – a thoroughly gorgeous, pristine 35MM transfer, bristling with Technicolor hues and tones (a big nod to the great d.p. George Folsey), and a clean mono track (perfect for enjoying the pleasures of the Lennie Hayton and Conrad Salinger score and songs by Warren and Mercer).  While “Atchison” not surprisingly dominates the proceedings (it won that year’s “Best Song” Oscar), a playbook of other fine tunes certainly deserve celebration, and comprise “In the Valley (Where the Evenin’ Sun Goes Down),” “Wait and See,” “The Train Must Be Fed,” “Oh, You Kid,” “It’s a Great Big World,” “The Wild, Wild West,” and “Swing Your Partner Round and Round”.

Speaking of the “Atchison” number, for me, it’s a nearly unbearable tense and lip-biting experience.  Not because I don’t like it; I do.  But because of the logistic precision that went into the production.  Garland, leading an army of extras, dancers, horses, plus character actors in a full-scale locomotive (that had to puff smoke effects on cue) freaks me out.  One tiny mistake, and the whole thing would have to be done over.  Reportedly, the day of the shoot was blessed, and the entire shebang was done in two perfect takes.  As far as I’m personally concerned, Hitchcock couldn’t have created more suspense.

The plethora of extras rounding out the package are mind-blowing, and include three deleted musical numbers (“My Intuition,” and two versions of “March of the Doagies”), “Atchison” remixed in stereo, vintage audio commentary by director George Sidney, original scoring sessions and the theatrical trailer.

Yeah, like wow!

One of the great MGM musicals, THE HARVEY GIRLS is sure to brighten any Blu-Ray fan’s classic collection.

THE HARVEY GIRLS. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc./Turner Entertainment Co. SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection: or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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