In 19th century America, the Harvey Restaurants were one of the first sign of encroaching civilisation, as the Old West was slowly tamed.
These were the first chain restaurants, more than a century ahead of McDonalds. There were subtle differences. The Harvey restaurants served simple, plain food, but it was real - not textured plastic. And instead of pimply Uni students behind the counters, the Harvey restaurants featured waitresses - real women who had come from all corners of the country to cook and serve food in these far-flung Western towns, and to find husbands if they could.
It seems an unlikely subject for a musical. And yet The Harvey Girls is a wild Technicolor riot of a musical, which has been given one of the best incarnations on DVD any musical has yet seen. The girls arrive by rail, travelling on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. It was a great railway. It became an even greater song!
The film was made in 1945, and one of the most amazing features of this DVD is the optional commentary by its director George Sidney, who sounds so alert and lively and witty that it defies belief that he's talking about a movie shot almost 60 years ago. This is cinema history at its best, as only DVDs can deliver. George Sidney died only a few months ago, as if to highlight the role DVDs are playing in grabbing and preserving these sound-bites of history.
Some of the songs in The Harvey Girls are pretty second-rate. The leading man, John Hodiak, is a stodgy bore. The story itself is pretty pathetic. But none of that seems to matter. In this case, the parts are greater than the whole.
The parts include the delectable (in those days) Angela Lansbury as a dance-hall entertainer who sees the Harvey girls as a threat to her delightfully immoral way of life. And Ray Bolger is there, as a loose-limbed, slightly effete friend of the Harvey girls - you may remember him as the Straw Man in The Wizard of Oz. And then - well, the film's crowning glory is the young and lissome Judy Garland, here filmed just a handful of years after stepping out as Dorothy in Oz, and now suddenly a young and beautiful woman.
The best part of the DVD is one of the special supplements. There is one truly great song from this movie, On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, and it's never sounded better than this, nor looked so good.
In the 1940s, MGM recorded their special production numbers using multiple microphones to get half-a-dozen or more separate sound-splits. These tracks would then be mixed to create a perfectly balanced master mono mix for the film soundtrack.
The separate sound-splits for On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe were found to have been preserved. And they've been remixed into two channels instead of one. So here is this classic sequence, in unintended but undeniably genuine stereophonic sound. The song runs in the movie in its genuine mono, but the stereo version is presented alone, in all its special acoustic glory.
I think the DVD is worth having for this sequence alone. The number runs for almost ten minutes. It was shot in one take only, and I think I noted only one camera-switch. George Sidney remembers being terrified before the shoot. He discussed the concept with Judy Garland, but she wouldn't rehearse; she said it would be fine.
A few minutes before the crucial shooting began of one of the most elaborate musical numbers ever staged, she walked onto the soundstage, took her place in the train - and then, as the cameras rolled, stepped down and gave a consummate performance of riveting style and beauty. I think I've viewed this a dozen times so far; my wife says the next time will be the last...
In fact, about the only bad thing I can note about this Warner presentation of this classic MGM movie is the packaging - it's in a boring Amaray case, instead of the very smart and zappy Snapper case used by Warners in the States. But that's only packaging. Get it anyway. (Editor's note: Well, somebody has to like those hideous snapper cases I guess...)
This is Technicolor at its original three-strip technology best. Bright, brash and bold.
The colour is every bit as staggeringly perfect as in the other standards-setter, Annie Get Your Gun. It lacks the absolute smooth perfection of the recent digitally processed release of Singin' in the Rain, but that would be because this edition of The Harvey Girls has been taken from a print, rather than from digitising each individual three colour strip, which was the revolutionary process used for Singin' in the Rain.
But forget the transfer process and just prepare to be amazed at how vibrant and beautiful three-strip Technicolor was. This was one of its finest achievements and the DVD gives it great justice.
This is an NTSC release for the Australian market - a system which makes sense for release of musical DVDs, where the audio pitch speed-up in a PAL transfer might otherwise obtrude.