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 trainlike 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 song took them less than an hour to write, ending with:
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 they used in one verse—echoing 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 picture the Fred Harvey way—by “concentrating on it.”
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 fact-checked 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-del-phi-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
And 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. 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.”)
It was a physical shoot, and a number of actors were injured. At the end of the first day of rehearsal, many of the Harvey Girls reportedly passed out while their costumes were being removed; they had been wearing very tight, heavy corsets that, when unlaced, sent blood rushing to their heads (at least that was the diagnosis in the film’s production notes). Ray Bolger was burned by the steam from an antique engine used for the big production number; the male lead, John Hodiak, got hurt doing a fight scene; and Garland fled one day when a spooked horse spooked her.
Johnny Mercer visited the set in early 1945 to watch them shoot “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” It didn’t go well. In order to create one of the most ambitious and complex numbers in film history, director George Sidney devised an extended montage that cut back and forth between the townspeople of Sandrock anxiously awaiting the new Harvey Girls and the girls themselves getting to know each other on the train. Without consulting Mercer, the director had hired Hollywood songwriters to add several new verses to “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” clumsily establishing certain plot points and characters.
Mercer went ballistic when he heard what they did to his song. “They’re going to make me look like an idiot,” he yelled. “Everybody’s going to think I wrote that junk!”
Besides his offended artistic temperament, there was a practical concern. Mercer was also a well-known singer and producer—he had recently started the first major West Coast record label, Capitol Records—and he had already recorded the original version of the tune himself. Bing Crosby had recorded it for Decca, too. Both recordings were kept on hold so they could be released several months before the premiere to pump up interest in the film. But now there would be two different versions of the tune they hoped would be as big as Garland belting out, “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”
For the Harvey family, the highlight of the filming was Byron Harvey Jr.’s cameo. It served two roles—to keep the family happy, and to fulfill his childhood dream of being an actor, a dream he had put aside to work with his father. Byron was cast as a Santa Fe brakeman, and he and his father spent a day on the set, getting their pictures taken with the cast.
THE FILMING OF The Harvey Girls took the better part of six months, and they happened to be six months that changed the world. While the cast and crew spent their days on a soundstage or the outdoor set, President Franklin Roosevelt—who had just been elected to an unprecedented fourth term—met in February with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta to discuss the possible end of the European war. Then, on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died of a stroke at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. When she heard the news, Judy Garland broke down sobbing.
As a grieving nation mourned its extraordinary leader—and the more than 200,000 Americans who had died in the war—Harry Truman was sworn in as president. He was sixty years old and had been vice president for only eleven weeks; most Americans knew little about him, except that he had been a U.S. senator from Missouri for a decade and had recently chaired a high-profile commission ferreting out waste and fraud in the military. As people became quickly familiar with their new president, they realized he was the ultimate Middle American. And his idea of America had been imprinted from early on by the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.
Truman’s early life was like one of those countless plots from The Harvey Girls. As a teenager at the turn of the century, he had worked for the Santa Fe as a construction timekeeper when the railroad was building tracks between Kansas City and Chicago. His family lived in Independence—the next major city east of Kansas City—and each morning he would get on a handcar and pump his way out to the construction site between Sheffield and Courtney, to keep tabs on a crew of four hundred. On Saturdays he was responsible for paying the Santa Fe crew, which he was instructed to do in a local bar, all but guaranteeing the workers would drink most of their wages and therefore need to show up for work again on Monday.
When Truman got into politics as an adult in Kansas City, with the help of the Pendergast political machine, he always sought his comfort food at the Fred Harvey restaurants in Kansas City Union Station. He and his family had eaten there often; he was known to be especially fond of the cream of Wisconsin cheddar cheese soup. Ironically, just after Fred Harvey headquarters had left town, the nation would rediscover some of the company’s Kansas City ethos through Truman.
Filming of The Harvey Girls continued through May, when Allied forces finally declared victory in Europe even as the war with Japan and China escalated. The film wrapped in early June, and Judy Garland, who celebrated her twenty-third birthday on the set, proceeded to marry forty-two-year-old director Vincente Minnelli in Hollywood, at a ceremony where Louis B. Mayer gave her away. After the wedding, they boarded the eastbound Super Chief, where they were given special accommodations in private car 181, including their own compartment and drawing room.
Both Byron Harvey and the top brass at the Santa Fe deluged the Super Chief staff with memos about how absolutely crucial it was that the celebrated couple’s journey go perfectly. All meals and cocktails for the couple, and any of their guests, were comped—some by the railroad and the others by Byron. But no matter who was paying, Byron swore that “there will be no slip-up” in any of the service.
When the train pulled in to Dearborn Station in Chicago, and the celebrity newlyweds and their bags were transferred to the New York Central train “Century” for their trip to New York, there was a collective sigh of relief from the Super Chief staff.
AS MIDNIGHT APPROACHED on Friday the 13th in July 1945, a small convoy of slow-moving military trucks from Los Alamos neared the city limits of Santa Fe. When they reached town, the trucks turned their sirens on—to warn away any motorists who might dare drive near them. Some hotel guests at La Fonda were awakened by the sirens and wondered what was happening, but the convoy moved on without incident and cut the sirens once they were out of town. The guests went back to sleep.
The trucks continued south until they reached Trinity Site, where Oppenheimer and his colleagues were going to test the first functional atomic bomb. Over the next two days, they were joined by other Manhattan Project staff, including physicist Joseph Hirschfelder, who had to stop at La Fonda on his way down to the test site to pick up the Geiger counters from a Manhattan Project detective.
At 5:29 on Monday morning, the first atomic bomb was detonated, transforming one of the most beautiful sights in America—the predawn sky over White Sands, New Mexico—into the most terrifying image yet conceived by man. When some of the scientists gathered at La Fonda that night to toast their labors and drown their fears, they were changed men. Oppenheimer thought Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge had summed it up best. After congratulating him, Bainbridge said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
About three weeks later, on August 6, physicist Otto Frisch was working in the laboratory at Los Alamos when he heard the sound of running footsteps and people yelling. Someone opened his door and shouted, “Hiroshima has been destroyed!” He never forgot the nausea he felt as he watched his friends rush to the telephones to book tables at La Fonda to celebrate.
The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, and when Japan still did not capitulate, plans were discussed for dropping a third on Tokyo. Finally, on Tuesday, August 14, the emperor surrendered. World War II, the second war to end all wars, was finally over.
There was jubilation in every city and town throughout the country. Yet the radio soundtrack to that celebration was not songs about war and peace, or patriotic anthems. The #1 record in America on V-J day was a song about the Santa Fe railroad and the heyday of Fred Harvey and his girls. Not only was Johnny Mercer’s rendition of the tune the nation’s top seller, for the third week in a row, but it was joined at the top of the Billboard charts by Bing Crosby’s version, Tommy Dorsey’s version, and Judy Garland’s version. The sheet music alone sold over three-quarters of a million copies.
“On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” was America’s audio comfort food—the nostalgic sound of the most powerful nation in the world finally at peace.