On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, a popular song written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer was published in 1944, but the most popular recordings were made the following year. The song refers to “old engine number forty-nine” on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The song mentions several stops along the way, including Brown’s Hotel for passengers who have travelled for quite a spell from Philadelphia.
The song was written for the 1946 film, The Harvey Girls, where it was sung by Judy Garland. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company was the byname for the Santa Fe Railway, one of the largest in the United States. Chartered in Kansas as the Atchison and Topeka Railroad Company in 1859, the company later exercised great influence on the settlement of the southwestern United States. It was renamed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1863. Its founder, Topeka lawyer and business promoter, Cyrus K. Holliday, sought to build a railroad along the Santa Fe Trail, a nineteenth century trading route that ran from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The railroad’s main line to the Colorado state line was completed in 1872.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the song to record companies even before shooting was finished on the film, and the tune became an instant hit, dominating the airwaves through the summer and fall of 1945, with versions by Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Tommy Tucker and his Orchestra, and the most popular of all by the lyricist himself, Johnny Mercer. Johnny Mercer’s recording entered the Billboard charts on 5 July 1945, and stayed on the charts for sixteen weeks, including seven straight weeks as #1. Bing Crosby’s version stayed on the charts ten weeks, going as high as #4, while Tommy Dorsey’s stayed for six weeks, peaking at #6. Judy Garland’s version hit the Billboard #10 position on 20 September. The song was also # 1 on the radio program, Your Hit Parade for eight weeks running. In shooting the number for the film, Judy Garland reportedly did the entire song up to the tempo change in one take, twice. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year.
The Harvey Girls, a 1946 MGM musical film based on the 1942 novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams, featured the song and is about Fred Harvey’s famous traveling waitresses. The real-life Harvey Girls were waitresses imported to the far-flung Fred Harvey Hotels, civilizing oases along the railroad lines out west. Directed by George Sidney, the film stars Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Angela Lansbury, Virginia O’Brien, Ray Bolger, and Marjorie Main. The film was a product of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM.
The plot-line is rather straight-forward: The fictional Harvey Girls is set in Sandrock, where the traveling waitresses are joined by a sort of mail-order bride (Judy Garland) who has answered a “lonely-hearts” ad, and whose prospective husband is an “old coot,” a rough-hewn rancher played by Chill Wills. He does not want to marry her as much as she does not want to marry him, so they agree to call it off. When she learns that someone else, the owner of the local saloon, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), wrote the letters as a joke, she confronts him and tells him off, in the process endearing herself to him.
Then Susan joins the Harvey Girls, and she soon becomes their leader in fighting both against the attempts by Trent’s business associate, Judge Sam Purvis (Preston Foster) to scare them off – and against the animosity of the dance-hall girls and, apparently, prostitutes, led by Em (Angela Lansbury), who is in love with Trent, and who sees Susan as a rival. Trent visits to see the value of the Harvey House and other trappings of civilization, then he tells Purvis to leave them alone, but Purvis continues with his campaign of intimidation, finally burning down the restaurant. Trent offers his saloon as a replacement, and Em and the dance-hall girls leave town. Susan, thinking that Trent too is leaving, boards the train, but Em, seeing that Susan loves Trent so much that she is willing to give up everything for him, stops the train and points out Trent, riding toward them on his horse. The film ends with their wedding in the desert, surrounded by the Harvey Girls. And they all live happily ever after. Ah, they don’t make ‘em like that any more!
Of all the Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer songs featured in The Harvey Girls, apart from On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, the only song to make the charts was the Kenny Baker recording of the plaintive, Wait And See, a song that charted at #24, though most sources list this song incorrectly as a Judy Garland recording.
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Johnny Mercer On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe
Bing Crosby, John Scott Trotter Orchestra, Vocals: Six Hits and a Miss On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe
Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, Vocals: The Sentimentalists On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe
Judy Garland and The Merry Macs On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
Tommy Tucker Time, Vocals: Don Brown and The Three Two Timers On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
Kenny Baker Wait And See