One of Hollywood's best western musicals at last comes to Blu-ray boasting an eye-popping 4K restoration that brings it to life like never before. The Harvey Girls salutes a courageous corps of winsome waitresses who helped tame and civilize the Old West, and contains one of Judy Garland's most appealing performances. Fueled by robust action, plenty of humor, and a top-notch Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren score that includes the Oscar-winning "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," The Harvey Girls remains highly entertaining, and Warner Archive's stunning transfer, excellent audio, and array of rare supplemental material make this long-awaited Blu-ray release a total joy. Highly Recommended.
The name Fred Harvey may no longer ring a bell, but without this trailblazing restauranteur and his army of intrepid waitresses, the Wild West might still be wild today. Harvey House restaurants - and later hotels - began popping up along western railroad routes in the late 1870s, and if you believe MGM's splashy musical The Harvey Girls, they almost single-handedly tamed the frontier. Adventurous "nice girls" signed up in droves to forge a new life out west, and under the Harvey banner brought civility and order to lawless towns. Who knew a beefsteak and cup of coffee served by a charming young lass could wield such power?
By the mid-1940s, Harvey's enterprises were as ubiquitous as the West's mesas and canyons, so it's no surprise MGM chose to capitalize on the company's success. The Harvey Girls, adapted from a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, puts the winsome waitresses on a pedestal, sprinkles several catchy tunes across its romantic plot, and packs plenty of action and spectacle into its framework. The result is an immensely entertaining movie that made millions during its initial run and remains a priceless musical specimen today.
Judy Garland, MGM's singing sweetheart, carries this infectious film that wonderfully showcases her comic timing, spunky personality, transcendent warmth, and - of course - legendary voice. Her powerhouse pipes belt out the picture's signature song, the Oscar-winning "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe," as well as a few other spritely tunes by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren. Though the top-notch ensemble cast includes such big names as John Hodiak, Angela Lansbury, Ray Bolger, Virginia O'Brien, Preston Foster, Marjorie Main, and - in her first speaking part - a young Cyd Charisse, it's Garland who looms the largest, wins our hearts, and reminds us why she later would be dubbed the World's Greatest Entertainer.
Her mellifluous tones caress the beautiful opening song, "In the Valley (Where the Evenin' Sun Goes Down)" (pictured above), which introduces us to Susan Bradley (Garland), a naive yet spirited young woman who's on her way to Sandrock, New Mexico to marry a man she's never met. Wooed by the poetic letters she received after answering a matrimonial ad, Susan can't wait to meet H.H. Hartsey, Esq., but when the elegant man of her dreams turns out to be a rough-hewn, disheveled, much older cowboy (perfectly played by Chill Wills), she almost recoils in horror.
Lucky for her, Hartsey is as intimidated by Susan as she is by him, and the two quickly agree they're not suited to each other. Susan, though, becomes enraged when she learns saloon owner Ned Trent (Hodiak) wrote the letters that won her heart and brutally deceived her. She confronts and berates Ned, who of course becomes smitten with the fresh-faced, feisty Susan, much to the chagrin of his sullen, sexy girlfriend Em (Lansbury), who headlines the sultry floor shows at Nick's bar and gambling joint, The Alhambra.
Husbandless and alone, Susan signs on as a waitress at the brand new Harvey House, which directly competes with The Alhambra and threatens to steal its clientele. Sandrock's corrupt Judge Purvis (Foster) hopes to sabotage the classy establishment and stem the puritanical tide sweeping his rowdy town. Will he succeed, or will the "good" Harvey girls steal the cowboys' hearts, transform Sandrock, and put the "bad" Alhambra girls and the man with whom Susan has now fallen in love out of business?
Originally planned as a straight dramatic vehicle for Lana Turner, The Harvey Girls - following the blockbuster success of Broadway's Oklahoma! - was wisely retooled as a musical and fashioned by no less than six screenwriters to fit the triple-threat Garland like a glove. According to director George Sidney, returning war vet Clark Gable was briefly considered as Garland's co-star (eight years earlier, a 15-year-old Judy famously sang "(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You" to a portrait of the iconic star in Broadway Melody of 1938), but when MGM abandoned that idea, producer Freed cast mustachioed Gable wannabe John Hodiak instead. Though the somewhat bland Hodiak lacks Gable's sexual magnetism and wry wit, he makes a fine partner for Garland and files a sturdy performance.
Lansbury, in only her fourth film, makes a huge impression. Just 19 at the time (and four years younger than Garland), she seems much more mature than her tender age, and plays her worldly, jaded character with aplomb. Her bitchy exchanges with Garland enliven the story (and prompted boos in theaters during the movie's original release), but Lansbury never overplays her hand. Though years later she would become a multi-Tony Award-winning musical star, MGM never recognized her vocal talent and chose to dub her two songs here, perhaps because Freed and Sidney desired a smokier, sexier tone.
Frozen-faced Virginia O'Brien perks up every scene in which she appears, but after her stellar rendition of "The Wild, Wild West" she strangely disappears from the film, most likely due to her difficult-to-conceal pregnancy. The wiry Bolger, who reunites with Garland for the first time since The Wizard of Oz six years earlier, supplies some comic relief, performs an acrobatic tap dance, and clowns with the irrepressible Main, who plays the loudmouth Harvey House cook with customary verve.
The Harvey Girls has everything - top-notch songs, tender romance, clever comedy, plenty of western atmosphere, a climactic fire, and a no-holds-barred catfight between the prim Harvey girls and their feline Alhambra rivals - but the film's undisputed high point is the large-scale, outdoor production number built around "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." A mammoth undertaking at the time - and still mightily impressive today - the nine-minute number isn't the finale; in an intriguing twist, it comes early in the movie and cleverly acts as an introduction for all the characters. It's a stunning showpiece - energetic, colorful, imaginatively choreographed, and flawlessly executed - that typifies the MGM musical and stands as another example of Garland's peerless performing prowess. Below is just a taste of this classic number - much of it filmed in one long take.
One of the top box office hits of 1946, The Harvey Girls is just as entertaining today as it was 75 years ago. You can have Oklahoma! When I crave a western-musical fix, The Harvey Girls is my go-to movie...and thanks to the spectacular restoration by Warner Archive (more on that below), it will continue to dazzle classic movie fans for generations to come.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Harvey Girls arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Harvey Girls debuted on DVD way back in 2002, making it one of the first Golden Age musicals to enjoy a digital release. Call me naive, but when Blu-ray came along a decade ago, I naturally assumed The Harvey Girls would be one of the first Golden Age musicals to make the leap to that format, too. I was wrong, of course, and as the years passed and other, lesser known and less worthy titles received the high-def treatment, I kept wondering, "Where is The Harvey Girls?" Well, it took a while, but Warner Archive has finally come through, and once again, the studio has hit the proverbial ball out of the park! This brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives has yielded a gloriously rich, dazzlingly film-like 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that makes every day of waiting for this Blu-ray release well worth it.
Excellent clarity brings the image to life like never before. Faint yet noticeable grain supplies a lovely texture and augments the story's nostalgic feel, while enhanced depth and detail levels heighten the impact of the period interiors and western landscape. The deep blacks and crisp whites of the Harvey waitress uniforms provide a striking contrast, sequins exude lots of sparkle, and costume fabrics, feathers, and frills are well rendered. Daytime exterior scenes never look overexposed and the natural nocturnal photography, distinguished by top-notch shadow delineation, is quite impressive. Flesh tones are spot-on and close-ups are often breathtaking. Garland's peaches-and-cream complexion and Lansbury's sultry stares make equally strong impressions, but the rugged features of the cowboys are distinct, too.
Of course, the biggest star of this superior transfer is the eye-popping three-strip Technicolor. Perfectly balanced, yet bursting with lushness and vitality, the array of colors assaults the senses and keeps us transfixed throughout. The bright red lipstick, crystal blue skies, and emerald greens, brassy golds, and sassy magentas of Angela Lansbury's sexy costumes (see photos below) beautifully offset the dusty Western scenery, while delicate yet still vivid pastels supply welcome softness. Tiny yellow and lavender wildflowers dotting the barren landscape grab attention, as do the bold scarves accenting the cowboy's earth-toned attire and the blazing orange flames that engulf the screen during the film's exciting climax.
Patterns remain rock-solid throughout (Garland's red and white frock pictured above is eerily reminiscent of her iconic blue gingham dress in The Wizard of Oz), crush is absent, and only a couple of errant specks dot the pristine print. With its outdoorsy settings, period decor, and lavish costumes, The Harvey Girls is a Technicolor natural, and Warner honors it to a fare-thee-well with this exceptional presentation that will delight the eyes, warm the soul, and feed the habit of every classic movie junkie.
The Harvey Girls isn't just a musical; it's also a western, so there's plenty of sonic action throughout the film. Thankfully, the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track handles it all with ease, pumping out clear, well-modulated sound that immerses us in the rowdy Old West. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the variances in Lennie Hayton's Oscar-nominated orchestrations and Kay Thompson's vocal arrangements while keeping distortion at bay, and exceptional fidelity and tonal depth, along with a slight volume boost, enhance the musical numbers. Garland's mellifluous vocals sound rich and full, and all the dialogue and song lyrics are well prioritized and easy to comprehend.
Sonic accents like gunfire, fisticuffs, crackling flames, gongs, shattering glass, and train whistles are crisp and distinct, while more subtle effects like horse hooves and Ray Bolger's taps during his dance solo blend seamlessly into the soundscape. Any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased, leaving a clean, satisfying mix that makes this rootin'-tootin' musical sing.
All the bountiful extras from the 2002 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. It's a treasure trove of rare material sure to delight fans of Garland, film classics, and Hollywood musicals.
Audio Commentary - Director George Sidney sat down in the mid-1990s to record this lively commentary for The Harvey Girls laserdisc, and it contains plenty of anecdotes and insights into Golden Age moviemaking. (Sidney died in 2002 at age 85.) Though some of his assertions aren't 100% correct, it's a treat to hear first-hand recollections from one of MGM's top directors of the period. Sidney talks about Garland's incomparable talent, laser focus, and fear of horses, outlines how he staged the massive "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" number, recalls how the death of FDR impacted shooting, and chuckles about the delays that resulted when Hodiak contracted measles during production. He also fondly remembers the studio system, chronicles how he rose through the MGM ranks, and explains his filmmaking philosophy and attitude toward remakes.
Deleted Musical Numbers (SD, 9 minutes) - It's not often excised material from a 75-year-old movie survives, but two complete musical numbers and a brief reprise were discovered in the MGM vaults almost 30 years ago. "March of the Doagies," a rousing, large-scale salute to the spirit of the West, debuted in That's Entertainment III. It's included here, along with its reprise and "My Intuition," a charming duet between Garland and Hodiak that further develops their burgeoning relationship.
Scoring Stage Sessions (90 minutes) - A whopping 27 audio selections comprise this comprehensive and fascinating compendium of the movie's songs. In addition to the numbers that made the final cut, all the deleted songs are also included, as well as alternate takes and a rare rehearsal track that pairs Garland with vocal arranger Kay Thompson. A duet between Garland and Bolger that was recorded but never filmed is one of the many gems in this audio archive.
"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" Remixed in Stereo (HD, 9 minutes) - The movie's signature production number packs even more punch in stereo. Because MGM used multiple microphones when recording musical numbers, a stereo track could be created without altering or artificially enhancing the original material, and that's just what the technicians at Warner have done here.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview is presented in high-def and contains a few alternate takes.
It may be 75 years old, but The Harvey Girls remains one of MGM's most entertaining musicals. Judy Garland leads a fine cast in this tuneful salute to an army of intrepid women who helped tame and civilize the Old West. Plenty of muscular action, colorful pageantry, and a witty script complement the sparkling score and top-notch performances of this endlessly appealing film. A brand new 4K restoration from the original nitrate Technicolor negative, robust audio, and a slew of rare supplements distinguish Warner Archive's long-awaited Blu-ray presentation, which comes very highly recommended.