In the 1890s, a group of "Harvey Girls" – new waitresses for Fred Harvey's pioneering chain of Harvey House restaurants – travels on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) to the western town of Sandrock, Arizona. On the trip they meet Susan Bradley (Judy Garland), who travels to the same town to marry the man whose beautiful letters she received when she answered a "lonely-hearts" ad. Unfortunately, when she arrives, the man turns out to be an "old coot" who does not at all meet her expectations – and he also wants not to get married as much as she wants not to marry him, so they agree to call it off. When she learns that someone else, the owner of the local saloon, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), wrote the letters as a joke, she confronts him and tells him off, in the process endearing herself to him.
Then Susan joins the Harvey Girls, and she soon becomes their leader in fighting against the attempts by Trent's business associate, Judge Sam Purvis (Preston Foster), to scare them off – and against the animosity of the dance-hall girls and, apparently, prostitutes, led by Em (Angela Lansbury), who is in love with Trent, and who sees Susan as a rival. Trent visits to see the value of the Harvey House and other trappings of civilization, then he tells Purvis to leave them alone, but Purvis continues with his campaign of intimidation, finally burning down the restaurant. Trent offers his saloon as a replacement, and Em and the dance-hall girls leave town. Susan, thinking that Trent too is leaving, gets on the train, but Em, seeing that Susan loves Trent so much that she is willing to give up everything for him, stops the train and points out Trent, riding toward them on his horse. Ultimately, they are wedded in the desert, surrounded by the Harvey Girls.
Cast notes:The role of "Em" was originally intended to be played by Ann Sothern, but because of her personal problems, it went instead to Angela Lansbury, her fourth film role. Despite Lansbury having a good voice – she later became the star of the Broadway musicals Mame and Sweeney Todd – her voice was dubbed by Virginia Rees.
This was the first speaking role on film for Cyd Charisse.
Byron Harvey Jr., the grandson of Fred Harvey of the Fred Harvey Company, had an uncredited role as a train conductor.
The Harvey Girls was the first reunion on film for Ray Bolger and Judy Garland since 1939's The Wizard of Oz.
The Harvey Girls was conceived by MGM as a dramatic vehicle for Lana Turner, but Roger Edens, of the Arthur Freed unit, decided after seeing the musical Oklahoma! that the story should be reworked as MGM's western musical with Judy Garland as its star. Unfortunately, Garland wanted to work with Fred Astaire on Yolanda and the Thief, which was directed by fiance Vincente Minnelli. Edens convinced her that the part in Yolanda was not large enough for her, and he promised that The Harvey Girls would be specifically created to showcase her talents. Ann Sothern and Lucille Ball were slated to have roles in the film, and Edward Arnold was scheduled to play the role of Judge Purvis.
The Harvey Girls filmed from January 12 through June 4, 1945, a long production period. Studio filming was at MGM's Culver City studios, and location shooting took place in Victorville, California; at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth (near Los Angeles); and in Monument Valley.
Although Angela Lansbury was a fine singer, her voice was considered unsuitable for her character, a low-class saloon singer. Virginia Rees provided Lansbury's singing voice. Cyd Charisse, who had her first speaking role in the film, also had her singing dubbed by Marion Doenges.
Virginia O'Brien, a comic actress known for her deadpan style of singing, was pregnant while The Harvey Girls was filmed. Several scenes with Ray Bolger were never filmed due to the difficulty in hiding her pregnancy. This accounts for O'Brien's character disappearing after O'Brien sings "Wild Wild West". Bolger also sustained a burn injury by steam during the filming of "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe".
The Harvey Girls was released in the U.S. on January 18, 1946.
The songs in The Harvey Girls were all written by Harry Warren (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics):"In the Valley (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down)" – Judy Garland
"Wait and See" – Angela Lansbury (voice: Virginia Rees)
"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" – Ben Carter, Marjorie Main, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland and chorus
"The Train Must Be Fed" – Edward Earle, Selena Royle, Marjorie Main, Judy Garland and chorus
"Oh, You Kid" – Angela Lansbury (voice: Virginia Rees)
"Wait and See (reprise) – Kenny Baker
"It's a Great Big World" – Judy Garland, Virginia O'Brien, Cyd Charisse (voice: Marion Doenges)
"The Wild, Wild West" – Virginia O'Brien
"Wait and See (second reprise) – Kenny Baker, Cyd Charisse (voice: Marion Doenges)
"Swing Your Partner Round and Round" – Ray Bolger, Judy Garland, Marjorie Main, Cyd Charisse and chorus
"In the Valley (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down) (reprise)" – Kenny Baker, Judy Garland
By far the biggest hit from the score of The Harvey Girls was "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe". MGM released the song to record companies even before shooting was finished on the film, and it became an instant hit dominating the airwaves through the summer and fall of 1945, with versions by Bing Crosby with Six Hits and a Miss, Judy Garland and The Merry Macs, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with the Sentimentalists, and, the most popular, Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers. Mercer's version entered the Billboard charts on July 5, 1945, and stayed on it for 16 weeks, including seven straight weeks as #1 between July 28 and September 8. Crosby's entered the charts on July 19 and stayed ten weeks, going as high as #4, while Dorsey's entered on August 2 and stayed for six weeks, peaking at #6. Garland's hit the Billboard #10 position on September 20. The song was also number 1 on Your Hit Parade for eight weeks running.
In shooting the number for the film, Garland reportedly did the entire song up to the tempo change in one take, twice, after watching her stand-in do one run-through.
Cut from the film were three other songs written for it by Warren and Mercer: "March of the Doagies," "Hayride" and "My Intuition." "Doagies" was a production number featuring Garland; this video outtake was included in That's Entertainment! III (1994). "My Intuition" was a duet for Garland and John Hodiak; this was also filmed and still survives in video format. "Hayride", sung by Garland, was prerecorded but not filmed.
Howard Barnes wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that the film was "A great big animated picture postcard. Judy Garland is the film's bright ... star. Miss Garland is effectively glamorized in get-ups of the (18)90's and sings her songs pleasantly. The Harvey Girls is a perfect demonstration of what Hollywood can do with its vast resources when it wants to be really showy ... pretty girls – period sets and costumes – lilting tunes – super-speedy dance shuffles."
The New York Daily News said it was "A nostalgic whiff of the old west. Judy sings several sentimental ballads, as well as On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe number. Her chief support in the way of real entertainment comes from Ray Bolger." Time wrote "A technicolored musical celebrating the coming of chastity, clean silverware, and crumbless tablecloths to the pioneer Southwest. The bearers of this culture, according to evidence presented here, were waitresses. The Harvey Girls is good fun in spots. Miss Garland doesn't seem as recklessly happy as she was in St. Louis but she still appears to be having a pretty fine time."
According to MGM records the film earned $4,112,000 in the US and Canada and $1,063,000.
"On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. In addition, Lennie Hayton's score was nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, but did not win.
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" – Nominated
2006: AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: