Susan Bradley (Judy Garland) is heading out West after an exchange of letters that secured her a fiancé in a small town that she is unaware is somewhat rough, especially for a delicate flower like her. As it happens, she is sharing her train compartment with a group of women also headed for the same town: they are Harvey Girls, so called after Fred Harvey, the entrepreneur who set up a chain of restaurants designed to appeal to a higher class of customer than those who would be entertained at the local saloon. Will they find a place for Susan?
You bet they will, in this reteaming of Judy Garland with the famed MGM musicals producer Arthur Freed after their massive success with Meet Me in St Louis. The Harvey Girls was almost as huge a hit, mainly thanks to the popularity of its showstopping number The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, which went on to be even more appreciated than the film it hailed from. It graces the splashy production when the train draws into the town's station, and is by far the highlight of the film as not only is the song never get it out of your head catchy, but the lavishness of the imagery contribute to making a movie memory that the rest of the presentation finds it hard to live up to.
Perhaps it wasn't such a great idea to place their best tune near the start, but it does mean you keep watching to see if they can top it. This was ostensibly a Western, but wound up too sweet for its own good, and there's a treacly quality to the tone that belies the more important theme that is set out from the beginning. Which is that women are a great force for civilisation as the girls of the title provide an improving note of peace amidst the Wild West that they have landed themselves in, although not everyone is happy to see them. Particularly the denizens of the saloon across the street, a den of gamblers, drinkers and showgirls (read: prostitutes, although they couldn't be depicted as such in 1946 Hollywood).
Chief among the showgirls is a reminder that Angela Lansbury was young once, as it is she who fills the role of Em who becomes the love rival to Susan at the age of 20. She is hardbitten but glamorous, decked out in extravagant gowns which reach to the knee, and can sing too: how can the object of her desire, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), resist her? She has reckoned without the wholesome appeal of Susan, who proves she is not going to take any unnecessary grief from the bruisers of her new home (she has already turned down her fiancé for being far too old for her, much to his relief). It's plain that Susan knows her own mind when she takes back the restaurant's stolen steaks at gunpoint, impressing Trent in the process.
Also noteworthy in the cast was Cyd Charisse, here with her first lines of dialogue as one of Susan's friends once she joins up to be a waitress, and getting her own dance number, as does the markedly different in style Ray Bolger, reunited with Garland after his turn as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, although actually having more scenes with the other actors, such as Virginia O'Brien, playing another friend of Susan who takes over Bolger's blacksmith's when he doesn't seem up to the job. This all doesn't quite reach the top rank thanks to a score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer that is overpowered by one great song and a plot that strays away too often from Garland when she's the most interesting character, illustrating that this may have been inspired by the stage success of Oklahoma!, but we would have to wait for Calamity Jane for the truly classic Western musical.