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Snakes in Movies
 
The Harvey Girls (1946)
 
Spoiler Alert !

Some of these pictures and descriptions may give away plot details that you might not want to know before watching the film.
 
This is a western musical comedy-drama set in the desert of New Mexico in the days of the old west, based on a 1942 novel. It stars Judy Garland and the movie won a best original song Oscar for "On the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe." It's about a group of women who take the Santa Fe railroad to a small whistle-stop town in the New Mexico desert to live and work at a "Harvey House" restaurant that caters to railway travelers. Harvey House was a real chain of restaurants founded in 1876. The men in charge of the town, including Ned Trent who runs the casino and Judge Sam Purvis who runs the town, fear that the Harvey women will overly-civilize the men, stopping them from drinking, gambling, and whoring and the saloon will go out of business. They try to scare the Harvey women off by shooting into their bedroom, stealing the restaurant's meat, and putting a rattlesnake into the women's closet. Eventually they set fire to the restaurant. Some of the women leave, but most of them stay.

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There are some romantic threads to the plot, including one between the main protagonist, a young woman from Ohio named Susan (Judy Garland), and Ned Trent (John Hodiak). She goes to see him out in the desert where he likes to sit and admire the view. They argue and he decides to leave. She plans to stay there so he tries to convince her it's too dangerous for a woman alone. She asks why and he tells her she could fall off a cliff. She says they have cliffs in Ohio. When she asks what else he tells her there are coyotes and a few million snakes. She says they have snakes in Ohio, too. This conversation introduces us to the notion that there are snakes in the area which prepares us for the next sequence. Eventually the two ride back to the Harvey House. They hear a woman screaming and run upstairs and join everybody staring into a closet.

Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot
Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot
Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot Harvey Girls Screenshot

Inside the closet is a partially-clothed woman cowering and hiding from a rattlesnake with its head and rattle raised up and rattling loudly. Ned draws his pistol and shoots the snake. We see the snake slump over and the woman leaves the closet, saying she only went in there to get her slippers. When the women question how a rattlesnake could get into the closet, Susan realizes it was put there by someone trying to scare them to leave town and she questions Ned about it. He defends himself by saying he was the one who shot the snake and insisting that he is trying to make the women leave town fairly through competition with his saloon and not by unfair methods. She tells him the men who put the rattlesnake in the closet are still alive and he won't shoot them because they are his customers. Ned storms out and goes back to his saloon where he tells Sam Purvis that he killed his snake and threatens him not to do anything else to the Harvey girls. Sam doesn't listen and the scare tactics escalate along with the conflict between Ned and Sam.


The snake scene is interesting because we never see a real snake or even an artificial snake. All we see is the moving shadow of a snake on the wall of the closet. The snake shadow we see is obviously made by a puppet snake. (I don't think it's projection, but it could be that also. However they made it, it's realistic enough. Using a shadow sounds a bit cheesy but it's a good way to show us an actor and a snake in the same space, as long as you don't stop to think too long about where the snake is and where the light is that is making the shadow. It's supposed to be on the floor out of our sight, but that doesn't explain the bright light and why it's so low. Nevertheless, the shadow snakes feels more realistic than some of the fake or CGI snakes I've seen. This might be the only time I've seen an entire snake scene with a shadow snake. Cult of the Cobra has a scene where a woman changes into a cobra and all we see is a shadow on a wall, but it also shows other views of live snakes unlike this movie.

I'd never say that using a rattlesnake or any other snake as a weapon to scare someone is a good idea, but it's much more believable than all the times we see snakes used as a weapon to kill someone. It's much less likely the victim would get close enough to get bitten or that the bite would be fatal than it is that the victim would see the snake and be frightened then kill or get away from it.