Despite the top billing of mega-star Judy Garland and some pricey-looking location shooting and hundreds of extras, The Harvey Girls feels like a lesser MGM musical. Maybe it’s the Wild West setting, maybe it’s the lackluster story, or possibly it’s the poor fit of the unappealing leading man, John Hodiak, but for whatever reason the film just never really clicks, leaving a bunch of mostly appealing songs by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren searching for a compelling reason to exist. That’s not to say the film is bad, it’s probably just best viewed as a musical revue rather than a narrative feature.
Garland plays an innocent young city lass setting out on a train for the Wild West in the hopes of being a mail-order bride to a wealthy cowboy. She meets a group of other young ladies on the train who are travelling out to work at a chain restaurant location, hence the title of the film. When her marriage proposal falls through, she gets a job with the Harvey Girls and runs afoul of the devious but charming owner of the competing town saloon (Hodiak).
The story mostly peters out about halfway through the film, leaving the back half for one musical number after another. While the lack of plot development is unfortunate, the extra space for songs ensures that the other talent gets more opportunity to shine. Specifically, it’s especially rewarding to see Garland and Ray Bolger performing together, years after their legendary casting in The Wizard of Oz, and it’s almost as much fun to see a young Angela Lansbury as a saloon showgirl playing opposite Garland and showing off her singing and dancing chops on stage. Cyd Charisse is also briefly on board, but only while singing a conventional romantic ballad with a man, not revealing any of her electrifying dance moves that would thrill theater goers in the years to follow.
The best bonus features are three fully produced but deleted musical numbers, and while it’s easy to see why they were dropped from the final film, it’s a real treat to have them preserved here. Other than that, the bonus features are filled with audio-only scoring stage sessions of most of the musical tracks in the film, including alternate takes. There’s also a legacy commentary track for the film recorded by director George Sidney, as well as a trailer.
The new Blu-ray features a new 1080p HD restoration from a 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives, making for incredibly clean and vibrant image quality with no hint of flaws or degradation. The colors are slightly muted as expected for the era, but maintain rock-solid consistency throughout each scene. Film grain is evident but wholly unobjectionable. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, a fine soundstage for the film’s many musical numbers. This is almost certainly the best the film has ever been presented, including its original theatrical release, making it an essential purchase for Garland completionists and MGM musical fans. While the film may not represent the best of the classic MGM musicals, there’s enough entertainment included to make it worth a viewing for even the most casual musical fans.