Girl Crazy, The Harvey Girls

Film Events at the Walter Reade Theatre
Judy Garland: All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy!
August 1 & August 2, 2011 [festival runs July 26-August 9, 2011]
165 West 65th Street
event web site

Garland spends some time in the mythic American West in her early 20s in two distinct vehicles. One 1943 cinematic adventure is sometimes referred to as one of her “put on a show” musicals, yet for my money fits this mold primarily because of her costar Mickey Rooney. While the plot of a show-within-a-show is familiar,  there are many thematic differences in Girl Crazy that accrue to Garland’s character’s benefit and distinguish this film from the “barnyard musicals.” A second Western cinematic adventure is crafted a few years later, out of a piece real history (the railroad station-based restaurants founded by a man named Harvey and the Harvey Girls who staffed them) and a whole lot of hokum that we drink in, drenched in Technicolor. Garland, the Wild West, and many fabulous songs. Let us muse.

Tuesday August 2: Girl Crazy (1943)

Ginger Gray and Danny Churchill, Jr. discussing their future.

Pieces of plot (a “girl crazy” rich kid is sent off to yet another college to focus on his studies) and a number of musical numbers (six by the Gershwins) are retained from the 1930 original Broadway musical in Girl Crazy (1943). M-G-M creates out of these raw materials something unique, while paying homage in plot and even character names (the 1930 original production features Ginger Rogers as Molly Gray, and Garland’s Ginger Gray is a blended honorific). What also enchants movie viewers in 1943 and today are the glimpses of the beautiful and funny young woman Garland has become since sobbing and yearning and supporting as Betsy Booth and her fictional sisters. Here (just look at that face) Garland just is — approachable glamour. As John Fricke often repeats during the Walter Reade and Paley Center introductions — to see Garland on screen go to the Walter Reade, and to observe Garland as one of the rare movie stars who is even more interesting as herself than as a character wander over to the Paley. I contend that the laugh, the humor, the gentle assertiveness into a song and a situation, the balancing of boys while staying true to her own convictions — all this is present for perhaps the first time in the script and Garland’s performance as Ginger Gray in Girl Crazy, on view for a few special screenings at the Walter Reade.

Perhaps the dramatic arc of this story is intended to be the journey of Danny Churchill Jr.  (Mickey Rooney) from “precocious, over-confident, spoiled young man” to a young man committed to the survival of a small college and the people there. Finding a sense of community is the journey for Danny from Manhattan. Laughter, hard work, and looking for love is the journey for our Ginger Gray from Colby College, daughter of the college president, who “carries the mail” and is adored by all the young men at the College.

The story that I attend to in this film is the power of our young woman Ginger who knows herself and who is looking for love and not putting up with potential partners who don’t meet her vision of practicality with a heavy dose of romance. And my mind whirls, my heart leaps, my spirit sings every time I watch Ginger with her boys (all the boys of the college) at a birthday party in her honor, at which she sings to them and to us “Embraceable You.” Also the foot stomping body swaying wonder of a big band jazzy “Fascinating Rhythm” entrances me. During the Busby Berkeley hyper rodeo finale I tune out a bit, but the power of all that has come before remains precious. Music and romance and stalwart characters in the American West.

Favorite dialogue lines:

  • “You’re  living in a world of weekend whimsy.”
  • “The strange things you see when you haven’t got a gun.”
  • “Money is just like candy and popcorn.  The more you eat the more you want.”
  • “Did anyone ever tell you you had a face like a two-week vacation — with pay?  Did anyone ever tell you that you have a nose cute enough to write a song about? Did anyone ever tell you that whenever a girl like you starts talking to a fellow like me it means only one thing – that you’re falling madly in love with him?  Did anyone ever tell you that a fellow in my state of mind is apt to kiss a girl in your state of mind?”

Monday August 1: The Harvey Girls (1946)

Ned Trent’s head and Susan Bradley’s luminous face.

The wardrobe is bizarre (mutton chop shoulders on the sleeves of women’s dresses) and the dramatic stakes are corny, but we root for our gal’s sense of adventure, and the other women forging lives in the wide open spaces in The Harvey Girls. It is the men in this tale who fade into the woodwork. What resonates are the first 20 minutes of women singing and talking about their hopes and dreams of a new life (from solo Susan from small town Ohio traveling to meet a mail order groom to the group rousing production number upon alighting from the train),  a song between three Harvey Girls mid-movie about their sense of adventure and fear in the “Great Big World,” and dialogue between Garland’s Susan Bradley and Angela Lansbury‘s Em (the dance hall hostess). The women rule on the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe.

Favorite dialogue lines:

  • “It was so smug and sure of itself and so settled.” [Susan about her hometown back in Ohio]
  • “I don’t know whether we’re the Three Musketeers or the Three Blind Mice.”
  • “After all, it’s only a matter of style, isn’t it?” [Susan to Em on the preponderance of similarities between them.]

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 8, 2011)

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