Girls' night out

Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, and Virginia O'Brien in the "It's a Great Big World" number from The Harvey Girls (1946).

“I bought a bonnet to suit my face, / I had my petticoat trimmed with lace…”  I’ll admit that I’ve been going around singing “It’s a Great Big World” (lyrics, Johnny Mercer; music, Harry Warren) ever since watching George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls (1946) the other day, even though “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” is arguably the film’s more memorable song (it went on to win the Oscar).  The Harvey Girls is an exceptionally lovely musical even by the already-exceptional standards of the Freed Unit, even if it suffers from a pretty dumb plot (a sorority of goody-goody waitresses butt heads with saloon girls and barflies in their attempt to “civilize” the American frontier).  Judy Garland’s charms go a long way in selling this material: she does an almost slapstick turn as a clumsy, accident-prone Ohio native who comes to Sandrock, Arizona as a mail-order bride and ends up defecting to the waitstaff of the local Harvey House.  And any film is automatically improved by the presence of Angela Lansbury, here playing the painted lady to Garland’s shrinking violet.  But, as with so many classic Hollywood films, the whole of The Harvey Girls is greater than the sum of its parts.  The magic of such a movie isn’t just about Garland or Lansbury, or this or that particular song; it’s also about the lushness of the orchestrations, the bit parts for character actors like Marjorie Main and Ray Bolger, the vibrancy of the Technicolor, and the well-oiled-machine quality that makes the whole thing go down so smooth.

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