‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘The Harvey Girls’ Have Unmistakable Disney Connections

There are Disney movie, and then there are movies that have the look, feel and sound of a Disney movie … but aren’t.

Young Virginia Davis played the role of Alice in Disney’s original Alice Comedies series in the 1920s. [The Walt Disney Company]
Through the years, classic Disney films – be they animated, live-action or a combination of the two – have followed a familiar script: An intriguing story, likeable characters [with a villain thrown in for good measure], great songs, lavish production numbers … and in the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

That tried-and-true formula not only resulted in many, many box office hits for Disney, but also became the envy of rival studios.

It’s no wonder that many competitors tried to emulate the Disney playbook, with varying degrees of success.

Indeed, there are a host of movie releases over the years that many folks incorrectly thought were made by Disney, as well as some films that had strong connections to Disney.

Dick Van Dyke, left, and Sally Anne Howes starred in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” released in 1968. The movie featured songs written by the Sherman Brothers. [United Artists]
One such Disney-like film is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was released in 1968.

The musical fantasy film starred Dick Van Dyke, four years removed from his starring role as Bert in Disney’s Academy Award-winning Mary Poppins. Sally Ann Howes was Van Dyke’s co-star … but only after Mary Poppins star Julie Andrews turned down the role.

The music for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by long-time Disney composers Robert and Richard Sherman, who won an Oscar for their work on Mary Poppins. Their song, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” was nominated for an Academy Award.

And one could argue that the car used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which possessed magical powers, served as the inspiration for Disney’s Herbie The Love Bug series.

No wonder many moviegoers got a bit confused.

We recently came across another film that is so chock full of Disney connections and tie-ins, it’s almost mind-boggling.

A poster for the movie “The Harvey Girls,” starring Judy Garland.

The Harvey Girls was released in 1946, during the heyday of the fabled Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM] movie musicals. These films followed a similar script, all wrapped around lavish song-and-dance production numbers: Girl meets boy, girl at first dislikes boy, conflict ensues, girl eventually falls in love with boy, cut to happy ending.

The movie is based on the story of real-life entrepreneur Fred Harvey. Back in the 1870s, Harvey hit upon the idea of opening a chain of restaurants at stops along westward-bound train routes. Central to the movie was the fabled Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

The Harvey Girls movie tells the story of the waitresses who worked at one such restaurant in the Southwest town of Sandrock.

The Disneyland Railroad pulls into the Main Street Station at Disneyland. [The Walt Disney Company]
And those are our first two Disney connections: MGM and the Santa Fe.

In the mid-1980s, when then-CEO Michael Eisner decided to build a movie and TV studio theme park at Walt Disney World, it was decided that Disney didn’t have enough classic movies in its catalogue, so Disney worked out a deal with MGM Studios to use many of their films in the park.

In exchange, this new entertainment venture would be called the Disney/MGM Studios Theme Park. That name was changed in 2008 to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

The Disney/Santa Fe Railroad connection goes back to Walt Disney’s love of trains. In planning for Disneyland, Walt deemed it critical that a railroad should encircle the park … the proverbial “Grand Circle Tour.”

He worked out a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad [the name was usually shortened to just Santa Fe] to help sponsor such a venture.

When Disneyland debuted in 1955, the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad was an important part of the park’s opening day festivities. It remains a park staple to this day.

A scene from “The Wizard of Oz” shown during The Great Movie Ride. [The Walt Disney Company
The Harvey Girls reunited two stars of the classic 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz – Judy Garland [Dorothy Gale] and Ray Bolger [The Scarecrow].

Ms. Garland played the lead role of Susan Bradley in The Harvey Girls. Among the highlights of the film was her rendition of the Academy Award-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”

Bolger, a veteran song-and-dance man, performed a wonderful dance routine in his role as wannabe blacksmith Chris Maule.

For his part, Bolger would go on to star in the 1961 Disney remake of Babes in Toyland, playing the role of the villainous Mr. Barnaby.

In 1954, the Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the last 13 books in the Oz collection written by L. Frank Baum, fully intending to expand on the original film. It took several years, but the Disney Studios did produce two Oz-inspired films – Return to Oz in 1985 and Oz the Great and Powerful in 2015.

And, of course, the featured attraction at the Disney/MGM Studios was The Great Movie Ride, which included two unforgettable scenes from The Wizard of Oz: The elaborate stopover in Munchkinland, as well as the scene with Dorothy, Tim Man, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow – and Toto, too – looking at Emerald City off in the distance.

Several other cast members in The Harvey Girls made names for themselves on future Disney projects.

Angela Lansbury starred in “The Harvey Girls.” She enjoyed a prolific career on Broadway and was named a Disney Legend in 1995.

The most notable was Angela Lansbury, who played the role of saloon singer Em. Interestingly, although Ms. Lansbury was accomplished singer, her voice was dubbed by a voice actress in The Harvey Girls, presumably because of Ms. Lansbury’s thick British accent.

Angela Lansbury was named a Disney Legend in 1995 thanks to her roles in Bedknobs and Broomsticks [1971] and Beauty and the Beast [1991]. She also appeared in Mary Poppins Returns in 2018.

Virginia O’Brien [credited as Alma from Ohio] went on to play the role of a reporter in the 1976 Disney film Gus, which starred Don Knotts and Tim Conway.

Mary Moder [listed as a Specialty Performer in the credits] worked as a voice actress, her most notable role being Fiddler Pig in the Disney animated series The Three Little Pigs.

Also mentioned in the credits as one of the Harvey Girls was Dorothy Virginia Gumm, Judy Garland’s real-life sister.

By far the most interesting name in The Harvey Girls cast is Virginia Davis.

Like Ms. Lansbury, Virginia Davis was named a Disney Legend, Class of 1998.

Fans of Disney history will remember Ms. Davis as a key player in the early development of the Walt Disney Company.

She, in fact, starred as Alice for the first 13 silent short films in the Alice Comedies series. [There were a total of 56 Alice Comedies, released from 1924 to 1927. Margie Gay and Lois Hardwick later starred as Alice in the short film series.]

Those shorts, which innovatively combined live-action with animation, were filmed at Walt Disney’s struggling Laugh-O-Gram Studios, first in Kansas City, Mo., then in Los Angeles after Walt and his brother Roy moved there.

Ms. Davis, just 4 years old at the time, starred in the pilot, Alice’s Wonderland, and after the Disneys moved to California and found a buyer for the series, Walt persuaded the Davis family to move to California, allowing young Virginia – who had distinctive blonde ringlets and a charming smile – to continue in the role of Alice.

A poster for the Alice Comedies series, starring “Little Virginia Davis.” [The Walt Disney Company]
“It was a great time – full of fun, adventure, and ‘let’s pretend,’” Ms. Davis recalled years later. “I adored and idolized Walt, as any child would. He would direct me in a large manner with great sweeping gestures.

“One of my favorite pictures was Alice’s Wild West Show. I was always the kid with the curls, but I was really a tomboy, and that picture allowed me to act tough. I took great joy in that.”

The Alice Comedies followed a very similar format, thrusting the live Alice character into the cartoon world, albeit black-and-white and devoid of sound.

“It was always a little story where I would get into the cartoon through a dream or I was hit on the head with a baseball and suddenly I’d find myself in a world of cartoon characters,” Ms. Davis said.

After her stint as Alice, Ms. Davis continued performing in the theater, including a West Coast tour of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, and as an extra in films for MGM, RKO, Paramount and Fox studios.

The Harvey Girls was her final motion picture performance, although she did appear in such early television shows as Your Hit Parade and One Man’s Family.

Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his latest, The Beat Goes On, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.

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Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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