Fred Harvey And The Harvey Girls

With Memorial Day upon us, and people thinking about vacation travel this summer, I can’t think of a better time to put in a plug for Stephen Fried’s wonderful book Appetite for America, which has just been released in paperback by Bantam. This amazing saga of an English-born entrepreneur who changed the face of the American West is one of those stories that’s larger than life, in some ways better than fiction.

At one time the Fred Harvey name dominated American travel, through its ubiquitous presence in train depots, in railroad dining cars, hotels and gift shops. Harvey almost singlehandedly turned Grand Canyon into a major tourist destination—with a little help from the federal government.

But if his name is known at all to younger people it may be because of the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland. After reading Appetite for America I struck up an e-mail acquaintance with—

—its author, who has allowed me to reprint a portion of his book regarding the production of that film. I hope this piques your appetite to read the entire volume. The illustrations that accompany this copyrighted excerpt are courtesy of the Michael McMillan collection. Enjoy!

MGM decided the time had finally come to make THE Harvey Girls. While cultural historians would later speculate that the studio wanted to distract Americans from their troubles with a tale of frontier life gone by, or portray a world of working women that was a frilly counterpoint to “Rosie the Riveter,” the truth was that the decision was prompted by the runaway success on Broadway of Oklahoma!—which opened in the spring of 1943 and was playing to packed houses. The first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Oklahoma! was a huge stylistic step forward for musical theater— the first “integrated” musical, in which the songs were sung more operatically and used to propel the story forward. It was also a pitch- perfect popularization of the all- American compositions of Aaron Copland, echoing the sound and vernacular vibe of his ballet music for Billy the Kid.

MGM believed that if its Harvey Girls Western could be retrofitted as a perky movie musical, it could be the next Oklahoma!—but, this time, with big stars, since the Broadway show had used unknowns. Judy Garland was hired to be the solo lead, and she was reunited with her Wizard of Oz producer Arthur Freed and co- star Ray Bolger—along with a very young Angela Lansbury in just her fourth movie and dancer Cyd Charisse in her first credited film role.

Johnny Mercer, the lyricist and singer, was hired to write the score with songwriter Harry Warren. Together and separately, they were responsible for a large array of hit songs, from “Jeepers Creepers,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and “I’m an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande),” to “Skylark,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” When they sat down to start writing, Mercer told Warren he remembered seeing the entire name of the Santa Fe railroad on a boxcar and thinking that the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe had “a nice, lyrical quality to it.” It reminded him of a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét that begins, “I have fallen in love with American names” (but is much better known for the way it ends: “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”).

They started writing lyrics against a simple train-like stride-piano line:

Do you hear that whistle down the line?

I figure that it’s engine number forty-nine

She’s the only one that’ll sound that way

On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.

The entire song took them less than an hour to write:

And they’ll all want lifts to Brown’s Hotel

’Cause lots of them been travelin’ for quite a spell

All the way from Phila- del-phi-ayy

On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.

It was extremely catchy, if a bit factually challenged. Mercer had added an extra syllable, a beat, to the already long name of the railroad: “the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” He also added about 820 miles of track, extending the Santa Fe to Philadelphia. A real nitpicker— and train people are sticklers for detail—would also note that while the Santa Fe once had an engine 49 (a number Mercer likely chose only because it rhymed with “line”), that 0-4-0 locomotive, built in 1876 and nicknamed “the Vulcan,” was long out of service and scrapped by the year the film was set; also, steam engine whistles were all pretty much the same, so one couldn’t “sound” any particular way.

But none of that mattered: it was pure pop poetry. Even the woo-woos of the train whistle— which echoed the way Mercer’s mother used to imitate the trains from nearby Savannah station as she rocked her babies— seemed inspired.

A new screenplay was written, and then producer Arthur Freed had to convince Byron to let them make a musical about Fred Harvey, instead of a drama. It didn’t hurt that Freed had just produced the blockbuster Meet Me in St. Louis, which was set at the 1904 St. Louis world’s fair and featured the Garland hits “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Still, Byron was wary. He and other Fred Harvey executives felt the Adams book was under-researched and overwritten. They hadn’t paid much attention to the novel until it was already out, and they weren’t going to make the same mistake with the film. They planned to oversee the film the Fred Harvey way— by “concentrating on it” until the picture was properly polished.

MGM began by sending Byron a list of all the films the studio had made that had moments of strong religious faith. Then associate producer Roger Edens, one of the studio’s top musicians, was dispatched to the Fred Harvey offices in Chicago to actually perform the score for Byron, his son, and their Hollywood liaison Harold Belt, as well as walk them all through the new script.

Before granting the company’s approval, Byron had several demands. He didn’t want Fred Harvey himself to appear as a character in the picture— it’s unclear why— and he said that even though the Harvey House was fictional, it should still display a sign that the Interstate Commerce Commission would have mandated back then, to keep the government happy. He wanted a prominent credit at the beginning of the film, acknowledging their cooperation and the crucial role Fred Harvey played in the development of America.

Byron also insisted that the lyrics to the theme song be factchecked and corrected. He asked for numerous changes, including the deletion of the reference to passengers going to “Brown’s Hotel” since Fred Harvey had its own hotels. However, he succeeded only in getting one fix. The train that had been coming “all the way from Phila-delphi-ayy” would instead be going “all the way to Cal-i-for-ni-ayy.”

Still, while Byron had his concerns, he was pleased with how seriously the filmmakers had taken the Harvey traditions. One of the highlights of the score was “The Train Must Be Fed,” which took what “Mr. Fred has said” about the Harvey Girl mission and turned it into an Americanized version of a Gilbert and Sullivan number. Written by Harry Warren with Roger Edens, it was sung by the eating house manager, the head waitress, a chorus of Harvey Girls, and the newbie waitress Susan Bradley, played by Judy Garland.

The Harvey system, I must say, primarily pertains

To the absolute perfection in the way we feed the trains

Perfection in the dining room, perfection in the dorm

We even want perfection in the Harvey uniform

Then the chorus chimed in: “The apron must be spotless and must have the proper swirl, that’s the first requirement of a Harvey Girl!” And from there, much rhyming, primping, and synchronized table setting ensued.

In the fall of 1944, the imaginary town of Sandrock was built on an MGM lot in Chatsworth, California, using the Castañeda and other settings in Las Vegas, New Mexico, as a model. Judy Garland arrived for her first day of production on December 29, 1944. The twenty-two-year-old actress was still wondering if she had chosen the right film since Arthur Freed and her fiancé, Vincente Minnelli, were making a musical at the same time with Fred Astaire called Yolanda and the Thief, which she had reluctantly turned down. But for the most part, Garland gave the Harvey Girls film her all and put aside any concerns she had that the script had been run through so many typewriters over ten years that the story no longer made a whole lot of sense. (At a private screening years later with her London fan club, she would ask, “Does anybody understand what this picture is about? Did you see all the writers? Seven writers . . . and they couldn’t come up with one plot. We had seven plots . . . one plot per person.”)

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May 2024