Comedy · Musical · Western

Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

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Judy Garland wears her Sunday Best to impress her new fiancé. Image: denverlibrary.org

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:

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Judy sings and serves steak in the Old West. Image: Sweethearts of the West

However.

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.)

And yet.

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.

But.

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!

Don't mess with Judy. Image: lskdjf a
Don’t mess with Judy. Image: YouTube

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.

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28 thoughts on “Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

  1. So agree with your comments about Judy’s comedic talents! And if her work in the charming Harvey Girls doesn’t convince, watch the opening of In the Good Old Summertime, where Garland and Van Johnson’s characters meet on the street. The physical humour is excellent, cracks me up every time I watch it.

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  2. Judy Garland certainly did have a gift for comedy. And she was funny. If you’ve ever seen clips of her guesting on the old Tonight Show (Jack Paar), you know that she didn’t need a script or a comedy writer to be clever and entertaining.

    To the point, though, Ruth – this is a superb piece on Judy’s comedic gift and “The Harvey Girls,” a movie I love. So wonderfully written and with such wit. LOVE it!

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      1. He was so agile, well put! Unfortunately, his film career did not do his talents as a song-and-dance man justice. Between ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Harvey Girls’, you’ve seen the best of it. There’s also ‘Look for the Silver Lining’. His greatest success was on the vaudeville and Broadway stages. He was one of the first performers to win a Tony.

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  3. Ruth, Judy Garland was always bewitchingly charming, and I’ve always especially enjoyed her flair for comedy (Jack Paar notwithstanding). I like John Hodiak, too, here and in other films as well; wish they’d both lived longer. In any case, your post about THE HARVEY GIRLS is a delight! By the way, when I was fresh out of college, my earliest job was at the NYC branch of MGM, where I wrote blurbs for movies at the time. The blurbs that I was most proud of were for YELLOW SUBMARINE and *drumroll* THE HARVEY GIRLS! Small world, no? 🙂 Your HARVEY GIRLS post is a delight, including Angela Lansbury (who’s not a bad gal after all, if I recall correctly; it’s been a while!)!

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    1. Get out! You wrote blurbs for MGM – AND “The Harvey Girls”? Nice going, Dor! How long did you do that?

      Yes, John Hodiak is a good blend of outward smirky-ness and inner poet, no? He’s utterly convincing in this role.

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      1. Ruth, I worked at MGM (we playfully called it Hollywood on the Hudson) for almost a year, and it was one of my favorite workplaces, especially since we lived in NYC at the time. Alas, they eventually moved to California, but I still have fond memories, and the following year, I worked with author David Hajdu when he wrote best-selling nonfiction books POSITIVELY 4TH STREET and THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE. Ah, memories! (This reminds me: one of these days I’ll have to blog about Hodiak in SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT. I need a to-do list! 🙂 Warmest wishes to you and yours, my friend!

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  4. You know who I really love? That tall cowboy who helps Judy walk through The Alhambra, looking for those steaks. He is having such a good time, and finds the situation so amusing. His facial expressions absolutely kill me. That is the best scene of the film, and one I could watch any time!

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  5. Loved this post!
    I always found Judy funny, especially in the clips I’ve seen of her in later years when she did the late night talk show rounds on the reg. She has a self deprecating sense of humor and I appreciate her honesty when goaded by the occasional talk show host. Of course those were candid moments and what I remember most when discussing her comedic talent.

    As everyone knows, I’m not a big fan of musicals so I’ve missed a lot of Judy’s performances where she might have been given the opportunity to show her comedic chops.
    Enjoyable read!
    Page

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Page. I’m not a big musical person either and I tend to fast-forward through a lot of musical numbers in general. (I FWD-ed through a couple in this movie, too!) I’ve started watching some of Judy’s talk show appearances on YouTube, and I love her even more.

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  6. For me, Judy was just the greatest all around movie star ever. She could do it all, including comedy.; She was a natural wit, but she held her own with all of the greats in all genres. I love her in this film (she really makes the film). Loved your post, too!

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  7. I have to admit, I have a very low tolerance for Judy Garland. I also have a low tolerance for comedy, so combining the 2, it’s easy to see why this film has never crossed my path. I HAVE heard of Harvey Girls, though.

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  8. yes, agree! I love that scene with the guns, the way everyone vamooses and dives under furniture is hysterical. Never get tired of this and Meet Me in St.Louis, total comfort food. There’s something about Hodiak (Joel McCrea is great at this too) in these comedic moments, where they just look totally bewildered by such women, that I find hilarious.

    and also for some more Judy comedy Presenting Lily Mars is pretty great

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  9. This is, indeed, a great film and does showcase Judy’s many talents. The scene you described with our heroine going into the saloon is just too funny.
    Our stars of today cannot hold a candle to many of those from the 40’s and 50’s. Those actors could act, sing, dance, and make us laugh. In short, they were well-rounded performers, something severely lacking today.

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    1. Very true, John. I watched part of a modern made-for-TV drama the other day (why, I do not know) and the acting was SO POOR. And don’t get me started on the script! For all it’s flaws – and there were many – the studio system produced unsurpassed talent.

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  10. I appreciate your recommendation for “The Harvey Girls”. It sounds like a lot of fun. I like Judy Garland a lot, but always feel a little sad during her movies because of her early death that was so unnecessary and tragic. It seems a lot of actors and actresses that started out acting as children come to the same end. I do enjoy her movies, though, and look forward to seeing this one. Thanks for a great review that really piqued my interest, Ruth!

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    1. Judy Garland is a tragic figure, to be sure, which is why I can only watch bits of “A Star is Born”, and never the whole movie in its entirety. However, Garland makes “The Harvey Girls” so much fun that you forget about her personal life and you embrace the plucky character on screen. This really is worth seeing. I can’t watch it enough.

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