Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are You a Harvey Girl?

It's Judy Garland month at the newly renovated Lincoln Center and thanks to the efforts of the radiant Anne Rodemann we were there for a big screen viewing of the Garland classic The Harvey Girls.  What is a Harvey Girl you may ask?  Well Fred Harvey was an entrepreneur who recognized the need for eating houses at railroad stops across the newly forming United States. He struck up a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company and created the countries first chain restaurant.
Harvey and his company also became leaders in promoting tourism in the American Southwest in the late 19th century. The company and its employees, including the famous waitresses who came to be known as "Harvey Girls", successfully brought new higher standards of both civility and dining to a region widely regarded in the era as "the Wild West". 
They are Totally Harvey Girls
In 1883, unhappy with his predominantly black service staff (who often carried firearms to intimidate customers), and the employees' deplorable behavior toward his customers and the business it cost him, Harvey implemented a policy of employing a female white only serving staff. He sought out single, well-mannered, and educated American ladies, and placed ads in newspapers throughout the east coast and midwest for "white, young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent". The girls were paid $17.50 a month plus room, board, and tips to start, a generous income by the standards of the time.
The Dance Hall Ladies (totally not Harvey Girls)
The women were subjected to a strict 10:00 p.m. curfew, administered by a senior Harvey Girl who assumed the role and responsibilities of house mother. The official starched black and white uniform (which was designed to diminish the female physique) consisted of a skirt that hung no more than eight inches off the floor, "Elsie" collars, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. The hair was restrained in a net and tied with a regulation white ribbon. Makeup of any sort was absolutely prohibited, as was chewing gum while on duty. Harvey Girls (as they soon came to be known) were required into a one-year employment contract, and forfeit half their base pay should they fail to complete the term of service. Marriage was the most common reason for a girl to terminate her employment.
Now that I have covered the history of the Harvey Girl lets talk about the movie.  It was our first time to the newly renovated Lincoln Center and after watching the PBS special Treasures of New York: Lincoln Center hosted by Patti LuPone (a total Harvey Girl) we couldn't wait to see what a billion dollar renovation looked like.  It was also our first time going to the Walter Reade Theater.  The audience was almost exclusively in their late 80's or gay and biographer John Fricke gave an insightful introduction ala' what you might see on TCM.  He forewarned us that the movie didn't make a lot of sense partially because there had been 7 writers on the film.  But no one was there to watch a good story, we were all there for Garland.

Such a simple melody, such a quiet song to open a movie, but Judy casts her spell over the music and you can't help but be lulled and sucked into what ever she is singing about.  That's what Judy did to any song.  The most popular number from the film is the Academy Award winning Johnny Mercer Number The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe.  A song which was originally only 2 and a half minutes long.  But Music arranger Kay Thompson got ahold of it and changed it into what it was in the film, a glorious 8 minute MGM style musical number.  If you are familiar with Thompson's work this song reeks of her talent.

Notice Garland's entrance like Dolly Levi coming back to the Harmonia Gardens. She was truly a star.  My favorite number from the film is easily the trio sung by Judy, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O'Brien.  It's a ridiculous song with some of the silliest choreography I have ever seen but I loved every effing second.  Are they serious??  Are they in the joke??  It's hard to tell.  This is It's a Great Big World.

BRILLIANT! There are so many classic performers in this film including character actress extraordinaire Marjorie Main. Garland's Wizard of OZ co-star Ray Bolger makes an apperance in an almost silent role playing the towns new blacksmith and a 21 year old Angela Lansbury in a fabulous role Em the Dance Hall Hostess (though her singing is dubbed BAH!).

Watching the film you can almost see where one writer took over and the last one left off. There are scraps of things that were obviously major plot points left in the final film but because subsiquent scenes/plots lines had been cut they make little sense.  Obviously we are supposed to belive the three girls from the song above have formed a deep friendship, however you never see any kind of development in the movie.  They are just suddenly singing and song together and are obviously best friends.  It's easy to forgive though cause who can take this seriously??  It's a Judy Garland western!

I love the end of this number with Judy perched in front of a huge fire like Joan of Arc belting her guts out! After we saw the movie I was sure I remembered the album cover and low and behold there it was already tucked away in out collection. Sadly missing Marjorie Main's big number (which i also can't find on youtube) The Train Must be Fed.

Here are some clips with Director George Sidney's comentary.

Even if you live no where near Lincoln Center and the Judy Garland film series don't let that stop you from exploring some of her lesser known work.  On tuesday we are heading back for 2 of Judy's biggest films Meet me in St. Louis and A Star is Born which I can't wait to see on the big screen.  So check out this film you'll have a great time and you might even discover the Harvey Girl inside of you.


  1. I saw A STAR IS BORN on the 31st at the Walter Reade it was magnificent. Seeing it on the big screen, with that glorious stereophonic soundtrack will take your breath away. You're in for a treat.

  2. Hushpuppy212 I am so excited for tomorrow night!

  3. We have a tribute to the Harvey Girls and a working Harvey House restraunt at Union Station, KC. Like a page from Personstory.

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