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« 10th Anniversary Redheads: Tilda & Nicole | Main | Overheard: Children Will Listen »
Monday
Aug082011

Judy Fest: "The Harvey Girls"

Silly me. I had the greatest time at the Judy Garland festival at Lincoln Center this week and the movie I didn't write about Presenting Lily Mars was probably my favorite viewing experience. Rent it! Judy was just so funny in it, it was really charming and I liked her chemistry with Van Heflin (I confess I had to look him up since Shane had slipped my mind and I'd never seen his Best Supporting Actor Oscar performance for Johnny Eager (1941). Have any of you seen that one? Is it worth checking out?

But enough about Lily Mars... on to Judy in another incarnation. The Lincoln Center portion of the festival ends tomorrow though the celebration continues at the Paley Center for Television (since Judy did a lot of variety work on TV in the 50s). The last two films I caught were period musicals and here's the first of them.

 

The Harvey Girls (1946)
I always forget that Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury were contemporaries. They were just three years apart in age (Angela is younger) though in this western musical, Lansbury is clearly meant to be the older woman. Or at least the more experienced one, if you know what I'm saying. Angela is a hardened showgirl (i.e. prostitute) at a rowdy saloon (i.e. casino/brothel) and she's just about the only person in the frontier town who isn't thrilled when Judy Garland arrives "On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe".

In fact, that first big ensemble musical number hilarious stops halfway through just so everyone can gawk at Judy as she steps off the train, like she's the most famous beloved celebrity in the world. The showstopping entrance makes no narrative sense whatsoever -- Judy's "Susan Bradley" being a nobody who is about to start work at Harvey's restaurant -- but it makes perfect movie-movie sense because Judy Garland IS famous and beloved. And if there's a musical number already in progress when Garland arrives at the scene it's basically the Red Sea to her Moses.

The town is divided too, right down the middle, between the wild saloon and the proper restaurant. It's basically a battle for both the soul of the town and the town's most powerful man (John Hodiak) with Lansbury and Garland representing for either side. Guess who wins: The good girl or the bad one? The headliner or the newbie (this was only Lansbury's fourth picture)? I'll give you one guess.

The Harvey Girls hasn't aged as well as some of Garland's output. It's pretty creaky and I don't think it's only due to the print we saw that badly needed some restoration and color correction. Part of the problem is that the film grinds to a halt whenever the typically able Garland isn't front and center. Plus, the songs aren't as memorable as those from her other films. Though the young Cyd Charisse is all porcelain loveliness and Angela Lansbury's perma-scowl is amusing the plot points connecting their numbers and several other characters feel insufficiently developed to hold interest in The Harvey Girls as an ensemble piece. It's always "Can we please get back to Garland?" Still, you can't beat that rare opportunity to see Dorothy dance with her Scarecrow again (Ray Bolger). I think she had missed him most of all. B-

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Reader Comments (5)

Ah Judy in The Harvey Girls! I've seen this at least a couple of times. What stands out to me is how miscast John Hodiak seems. Who would fight over THAT guy? But I guess it was the war years, or almost and Judy had to co-star with some minor guys (like Tom Drake from Meet Me In St. Louis, who is at least yummy).

Judy and her sad little sandwich on the train, being a mail order bride, the starched white costumes, Virginia O'Brien's great deadpan lovelorn maneater, Cyd trying not to look too tall next to Judy, Marjorie Main attempting to sing!

The songs are pretty much lesser ones too except the Oscar winning Atchison Topeka & The Santa Fe. After they wrote that, they forgot to write the rest of the score. Still, Judy looks fantastic and it is very, very easy to watch without thinking too much. Try it next time you're sick at home in bed. Nothing better than old Judy musicals for what ails you.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Johnny Eager is actually a surprisingly terrific movie, and I love Van Heflin in it (and it's my favorite Robert Taylor movie that isn't Waterloo Bridge, but there are few films I love more than Waterloo Bridge).

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Oh, Nathaniel, I was SO disappointed in the Harvey Girls when I finally saw it! Atcheson Topeka is so great (I was in fact finally pushed over the edge into renting it when you featured the number on the blog), but it's like the filmmakers shot their wad at the very beginning and had nothing left. The premise is so fun: good girls vs. bad, Judy coming in to 'civilise' the menfolk in the wild, wild west -- plus I love that it claims to have some historical veracity (i.e. the Harvey Houses were a real chain).

But frankly Angela (who looks great!) is given so little to do. Where is a big number for her? When do her scenes with Judy really take off? Nowhere. And to me John Hodiak totally lacked charisma. I also remember that his motivations for switching back and forth from being into Judy and not being into her seemed about as random as a second season episode of Gossip Girl.

This is a film that could have been a classic with better writing and a better score. As it is, it's got one great number but the rest is a hodge-podge.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian M

Brian -- i agree with you on every point which means that my grade is probably too generous. But I loved the Waltz sequence (Bolger & Garland reunited), loved Judy's physical comedy with the guns, and that opening number. So I'm glad I saw it despite its mediocrities.

August 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

John -- i think i might queue up WATERLOO BRIDGE. I have seen it. but i remember nothing. so perhaps i saw it too early (high school) in life.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR
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