"Always please the cranks: Anything which suits a finicky customer is bound to be more than satisfactory to the great run of folks who take what is handed them without complaint." This is one of the 12 points listed in an employee directive for the famed Harvey House restaurants which dotted the mid-west and western landscapes of late 19th and early 20th century America. Developed by entrepreneur Fred Harvey, the chain of restaurants and lunch counters became the subject of a 1946 hit musical starring Judy Garland and sported a lively soundtrack which included the Oscar winning tune, On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
The Harvey Girls centers on Susan Bradley (Garland), a young Ohio lass who is traveling via the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe rail line to Sandrock, Arizona to marry H. H. Hartsey, with whom she has a shared correspondence for "lonelyhearts." She finds his letters of the utmost in romance and poetry. En route on the train she meets the "Harvey Girls," a group of fresh-faced young women from the east who are headed west to wait table in the Harvey House restaurant.
When Susan arrives in Sandrock (to much musical fanfare....it IS MGM you know), she finds Mr. Hartsey (Chill Wills) is far from the romantic figure she imagined by way of their poetic epistles. In fact, she discovers that he didn't even write them and their original author was none other than Ned Trent, handsome owner of the local saloon and love interest of Sandrock's head "bad girl" Em (Angela Lansbury, gorgeous in full Technicolor). She breaks her "engagement" (in a mutual understanding), tells off Ned Trent and joins up with the Harvey girls. The rest is colorful, glorious musical hokem.
Based on a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Harvey Girls was originally meant to be a straight dramatic picture starring studio blondie Lana Turner (be interesting to see how that would have turned out). Roger Edens, an associate producer at MGM and a mentor of Judy Garland, wanted to change the venue after viewing a performance of the then popular stage show Oklahoma! The angle was turned into a western themed musical comedy and Garland, after her success the previous year in Meet Me in St. Louis, was the natural choice to star.
She didn't want to do it, preferring to work with Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief, which her soon to be husband, Vincent Minnelli, was directing. She was persuaded to take on the Harvey project and in turn created one of the biggest hits of the year (Yolanda on the other hand lost money). But it wasn't without problems on the set. Judy was late almost 40 times and was absent 11 total days during production. Deadpan comedienne Virginia O'Brien, who played Harvey girl Alma, was pregnant and the sense of urgency to get her scenes completed was eroded by Garland's absences, causing O'Brien to virtually vanish from the film's second half.
John Hodiak played Ned Trent, a role that was originally considered for Clark Gable, who had just returned from military service in World War II. Aside from O'Brien, who did a splendid job as the man-hungry Alma, the top notch supporting cast included Ray Bolger, Cyd Charisse, in her first speaking role (though she did plenty of her signature dancing as well), the always entertaining Marjorie Main and the lovely young Lansbury as the tough talkin', hard livin' Em. (A press release from December 1944 proclaimed Garland, Hodiak and Ann Sothern as the film's stars, the latter in the role of Em. Lucille Ball was also discussed for this role.)
But The Harvey Girls was first and foremost a musical and the musical numbers were a lively grouping of rousing ditties by Harry Warren and the great Johnny Mercer. Rising to the top of the heap was the afore-mentioned On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, an energetic extravaganza of muslin, lipstick and tobacco juice. Several versions of the hit tune were recorded, including one by Garland. The one to become the biggest hit however, featured the song's lyricist Johnny Mercer along with the Pied Pipers. Just as full of pep are the numbers The Train Must Be Fed, and The Wild, Wild West featuring O'Brien's career defining deadpan.
Critic Bosley Crowther wrote in January 1946: "Miss Garland, of course, is at the center of most of the activity and handles herself in pleasing fashion, up to and including the high notes. John Hodiak acts rather surly as the saloon proprietor and Angela Lansbury, pouty and pomaded, looks dazzling as the queen of the den. Everyone else enters lightly into this beefsteak and hors d'oeuvre opera. It may be a rather lofty tribute to Fred Harvey's girls, but it's a show." And a show indeed it was.