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Judy Garland got one of her biggest song hits by accepting a film she didn't really want to do and had started out as another star's project in the first place. The Harvey Girls (1946) came about through the kind of happy accidents that only could happen in Hollywood.
The story started as a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams based on the real-life restaurant chain that had helped civilize the West. With waitresses of certified good character, the Harvey houses provided a reliable source of family dining for travelers in the Southwest during the latter part of the 19th century.
MGM originally bought rights to the novel in hopes that it would inspire a dramatic film for rising star Lana Turner. Then associate producer Roger Edens saw a tryout performance of Oklahoma! in New Haven. He knew a hit when he saw it and realized that the trailblazing musical probably wouldn't be available to the screen for years (it wasn't filmed until 1955). So he came up with the idea of turning The Harvey Girls into a western musical at MGM, with Judy Garland as a high-spirited waitress.
Only Garland wasn't interested. She had wanted to work with Fred Astaire for years and thought a project Arthur Freed was developing for him, Yolanda and the Thief (1945), would finally give her the chance. In addition, her husband, Vincente Minnelli was directing it, and the two were trying to work together whenever possible. Edens convinced her that the female lead in Yolanda and the Thief wouldn't be a big enough role for her, and promised that The Harvey Girls would be built around her talents.
It took eight writers to turn The Harvey Girls into a movie, with Samson Raphaelson, who had written some of Ernst Lubitsch's best films, tying them all together. The result was a showcase for Garland's comic, dramatic and musical skills, while also offering juicy supporting roles to deadpan comedienne Virginia O'Brien, sultry Angela Lansbury and a young dancer named Cyd Charisse, who had her first speaking part in the picture.
Best of all was the score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, which included a tribute to the railroad that helped win the West, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." The number was inspired by Garland's hit from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), "The Trolley Song," and like it was almost an instant hit. Garland recorded it on her own, but the top-selling version featured lyricist Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers. It held the number one spot on the hit parade for eight weeks. As was the custom then, MGM released the song to recording companies before the film was even finished. In fact, Bing Crosby's version of it was playing on the radio as director George Sidney drove to MGM to film the number.
"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" picked up the Oscar® for Best Song, the first of four awards Mercer would receive in that category. But even on Oscar® night there was a crisis. Garland had been scheduled to perform the song, but came down with stage fright at the last minute. Bing Crosby would have been the logical choice to replace her, and he had been scheduled to sing another song, but then he got stage fright. Finally, Dinah Shore, who also was scheduled to perform, agreed to do the number.
Director: George Sidney
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenwriter: Edmund Beloin, Harry Crane, Nathaniel Curtis, James O'Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson
Cinematographer: George Folsey
Composer: Lennie Hayton, Harry Warren
Editor: Albert Akst
Art Director: William Ferrari, Cedric Gibbons
Songwriter: Roger Edens, Johnny Mercer, Kay Thompson
Costume Designer: Helen Rose, Irene Valles
Cast: Judy Garland (Susan Bradley), John Hodiak (Ned Trent), Ray Bolger (Chris Maule), Angela Lansbury (Em), Marjorie Main (Sonora Cassidy), Cyd Charisse (Deborah), Ben Carter (John Henry).
C-102m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Frank Miller