The Harvey Girls (Blu-ray Review)

As railroads started bringing scores of passengers⁠—most importantly, businessmen and families with money, natch⁠—into the southwestern United States, it quickly became apparent to enterprising sorts that catering to those weary commuters would be good business. Fred Harvey did just that with his Harvey House Restaurants in the late 19th century, promising good food, a clean place to relax, and efficient yet polite and attractive servers, which sounded like heaven to anyone stuck on a train for lengthy periods. So named The Harvey Girls, these young women tweaked the adage of “Go west, young man” before taking it to heart. They were able to make an honest living on their own and stay in a safe, chaperoned home with other women, which was no small thing for unmarried ladies during the transition away from the “wild” part of the Wild West.

With their matching aprons, pioneering spirit, and near-religious attention to customer service, The Harvey Girls became a pert part of America’s modern mythology. Author Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote about them in 1942, renewing their popularity, and Hollywood soon came calling. Transformed into a lush, Technicolor musical in 1946 from director George Sidney, MGM’s classic The Harvey Girls is once again ripe for rediscovery thanks to Warner Archive’s new release.


Our film opens on a train, with Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) singing wistfully. She’s meeting the mystery man who wrote her beautiful love letters in reply to her answering a newspaper matrimonial ad, which lured her away from Ohio to start a new life in Arizona. In the same car, a bevy of beauties studies the Fred Harvey way, preparing to join up with the famed company for reasons ranging from opportunity to adventure.

Once arrived, Susan learns she’s an early victim of catfishing, orchestrated by the rogueish proprietor of the town’s saloon, Ned Trent (John Hodiak.) With her future now up in the air, Susan joins up with the friendly gals who shared their sandwiches with her on the train. After what very well may be cinema’s peppiest training montage, Susan soon finds out that being a Harvey Girl involves a little bit of gun-slinging, barroom brawling, arson, a witty war of attrition with the crown jewel dancing girl Em (Angela Lansbury), and, just maybe, romance.

A musical centered around famously sunny waitresses sounds like just the kind of slight concept that could faintly work as some forgettable 1940s studio-era filler, but considering that The Harvey Girls was originally intended to be a Clark Gable-starring western that eventually ended up with five(!) credited screenwriters to it (Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon and Samson Raphaelson) plus another for additional dialogue work (Kay Van Riper) all working off a story (by Oscar-winning screenwriter Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin) that was based on the book by Samuel Hopkins Adams, it’s a wonder this picture works at all.

Luckily for us, all hands attracted (or contracted) to the project had a work ethic that was surpassed only by their talent, and over 70 years later, The Harvey Girls still sparkles with a timeless charm that belies its sanitized, Technicolor look at the American Southwest in the late 19th century. Everyone is clean⁠—nay, sparkling⁠—charming, and in possession of all of their teeth. It has every luxury of the most addictive musicals: sumptuous set design, top-shelf songs that weave effortlessly around the snappy dialogue, costumes that, while accurate to the time period, are also nearly cartoonishly bright (do you think the male settlers discuss ahead of time who wears which color scarf so none of them copy each other at a weekly meeting?) and expertly tailored within an inch of their lives.

Truly, you know right away that only love, hijinks, and maybe some low-stake intrigue can happen in such a candyland, and this little-musical-that-could is indeed a safe haven of sweetness for classic movie fans.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: We got a glimpse of how The Harvey Girls would look on Warner Archive’s recent release of the That’s Entertainment! Collection, and as great as that looked, that was only a hint of what was to come. Originally set to release last year with a new restoration from the interpositive previously used for the laserdisc and DVD, Warner Archive noticed damage that wasn’t apparent before seeing it on high definition. Starting from scratch from the original negative, which was in excellent condition, we now have what has to be one of the best Technicolor presentations currently on Blu-ray.

Depth: If you had a mind to, you could count the grains of sand outdoors or the thread count on the impeccable costumes and drapes indoors.

Black Levels: With there’s not much darkness in this in celebration of color, the blacks are deep, inky, and perfect with no crushing.

Color Reproduction: Just stunning. This is a candy-colored movie, and every hue pops without a hint of bleeding. Nearly every woman wears a crimson lip, and every one of them practically glows.

Flesh Tones: Eschewing the mild glowing orange skin tones some three-strip Technicolor films of this era displayed on DVD, here, both the skin tones and makeup applications are about as true to life as they’ll ever be.

Noise/Artifacts: In my multiple viewings of this disc, I couldn’t catch a thing. The new restoration really is a marvel.


Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The Harvey Girls’ hyperactive soundtrack is well served here, and the songs ring as clearly as the gunshots. From Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s Oscar-winning song (“On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe”) to dialogue in a crowded saloon, the sound maintains a lovely, clear balance.

Height: N/A

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation:  N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Clear as a bell whether a character is singin’ or sassin’.


Audio Commentary

  • by Director George Sidney – George Sidney’s commentary has long been one of my favorites, and not just because it’s full of fascinating tidbits, including Garland’s reaction to hearing about FDR’s death during filming and the story of two criminals wanted by the FBI hanging out on set. Sidney was a good-natured and deeply charismatic man, and despite his advanced age when the commentary was originally recorded for laserdisc, his recall of the filming is as clear as if it had happened yesterday. Thankfully, his winsome stories make up for a lack of a featurette or documentary here.

Three Deleted Musical sequences

  • March of the Doagies (SD, 3:26)
  • March of the Doagies (reprise) (SD, 1:58)
  • My Intuition (SD, 3:47)

Scoring stage sessions (audio only) featuring pre-recordings made for the film including the unused “Hayride.” – 27 pieces total.

“On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” in Stere0 (HD, 9:00)

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:51)


The Harvey Girls remains a sweet and deeply fun romp, and fans will be thrilled to see how gorgeous it looks here. While the extras are nothing new, nothing can really put a damper on the exemplary audio and video work done here.

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Stephanie Crawford is a freelance writer and full on Blu-ray collecting enthusiast and expert. Formerly a co-host on The Screamcast and a regular guest on the Just The Discs podcast, her work has been featured in Fangoria, Blood Disgusting, Dread Central and Daily Grindhouse. You can find her collected works on her blog, A House Of A Reasonable Amount Of Horrors.

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