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(For Day 22 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to employ metonymy and represent a time period with a symbol of it. Thus, I use the once-famous Harvey Girls as the symbol of civilizing the West.)

When the West was won,
It was not by the train,
Not by the cowboy traversing the plain,
Not by the outlaws and not by the slain,
Not by the farmers with acres of grain,
Not by the rushes for land, gold, and gain.

No, ‘twere the girls
That made civil the West,
The Harvey House ladies so formally dressed,
Who treated the pioneer more like a guest:
By breakfast and coffee and steak on request,
America’s destiny made manifest.

MPA rating:  Not Rated (easily a G)

If you’re anything like me, you may have never heard of the Harvey Houses that sprouted up along the railroads in the late 1800s as the first American restaurant chain. Lately, I’ve been in a mood of gleeful discovery as I stumble upon bits of history I had never learned before, and this is one of them. My only knowledge of this film about the Harvey girls, who were hired and shipped west to work in these restaurants, was the famous Oscar-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” which was highlighted in the compilation film That’s Entertainment. All this to say that I was glad to finally see how this movie about forgotten history compared with other classics of the time.

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The presence of Judy Garland in the lead role alone makes it a classic. She plays Susan Bradley, a would-be mail-order bride who becomes a Harvey waitress in the newly established location at Sandrock, Arizona, where the established saloon owner (John Hodiak) and his goons are less than pleased to have civilization threatening business. From the first moment where Garland and Hodiak verbally tussle, it’s obvious they will eventually fall for each other. The rest of the film is likewise predictable, albeit with a nuanced turn from Angela Lansbury as the jealous “other woman,” and the songs and choreography are rather uninspired, except for the one famous song that snagged an Oscar.

There is fun to be had, such as an all-woman bar brawl or the reunion of Garland and Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz), but The Harvey Girls is a lesser classic, to be sure. Still, I love that it spotlighted a slice of history when it was still part of the public’s common knowledge, and I wouldn’t mind perhaps a modern take on the Harvey Girls story one day. (If you like random history too, you might look up Bass Reeves, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, and the Goiania incident, all of which deserve their own movie as well.)

Best line: (Alma, one of the girls) “I sent my picture into one of those Lonely Hearts Clubs, and they sent it back, saying ‘We’re not that lonely!’”

Ranking:  Honorable Mention

© 2021 S.G. Liput
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