Judy Garland made everything look easy.
She could sing and dance and make you believe she flew to an emerald city in a tornado. Combined with her dramatic talents, it’s easy to forget how funny she was.
We marvelled at her comedic gifts when we screened The Harvey Girls (1946), a delightful musical-comedy Western.
Garland plays a young woman travelling from Ohio to the Wild West to marry a man with whom she’s corresponded, but has never met. On the train, she meets a group of spunky-but-respectable gals who are training to be waitresses at a Harvey House restaurant in Arizona. (These railroad-stop restaurants, established in the 1870s, are regarded as the first restaurant chain in the U.S.)
Garland is utterly charming. In an early scene, she sits on the westbound train, glancing enviously at the fried chicken the Harvey girls are eating, while she pokes at a single leftover crust in her lunch basket. Nevertheless, she spreads her napkin with a flourish over her lap and peers into her basket as though she can’t decide which imaginary delicacy to eat first.
When she arrives in town and sees her rough, unglamorous betrothed (Chill Wills), she is horrified. This man is the opposite of his letters, which are romantic and full of curlicues. She realizes she can’t hide forever from her husband-to-be, and she’s too stubborn to get back on the train, so she swallows her alarm and disappointment. But Wills ain’t no dummy; he gracefully asks Garland not to marry him.
Garland promptly joins the Harvey Girls and dons the employee uniform:
The Harvey House is not welcome in town because it represents Manners and Keeping Elbows Off The Table. The saloon across the street, the feather-boa Alhambra, hates the starched-white Harvey House because townsfolk might turn into Respectable People. (You see, the Harvey House is to Civilization what the Alhambra could be to Vegas.)
The Alhambra is owned by Ned Trent (John Hodiak), a smirky fellow whose greatest pleasure is sabotaging the Harvey House generally, and Judy Garland in particular.
It was Hodiak who wrote those letters for Wills, the same letters that made Garland fall in love and board a train to the middle of nowhere to marry someone she’d never met.
Oh boy, we’ve gotten off topic. We were talking about Garland’s comedic talents. We’ve only time to describe one more scene, the one where John Hodiak steals all the Harvey House steaks!
When Garland discovers the famous Harvey House steaks are missing, she decides to get ‘em back. She snatches two pistols and grimly marches across the street to the Alhambra, guns drawn. She’s All Business, yet she shrieks when she accidentally drops her weapons.
Garland reaches the Alhambra as someone is being forcibly removed. She squats under the saloon-style doors, surveying the territory, pistols cocked in the air à la Yosemite Sam. She finally musters the courage to stand and enter the bar. “Stick ‘em up,” she announces, and is almost knocked flat by bouncers trying to eject another patron. “Come on,” she pleads, “stick ‘em up now.” But everyone is having too much fun to notice.
If you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, we urge you to do so. It is a wonderful film that showcases the very amusing and charming Judy Garland.
The Harvey Girls: starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Chills Wills. Directed by George Sidney. Written by Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, Colour, 105 mins.