By Alan Hurst
June 22, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Judy Garland. She was only 47, but seemed to have packed multiple lifetimes into that short span of years. She had achieved significant success in films, records, on stage, and on television, but the well-known struggles were equally part of her story. Those struggles tended to dominate the later years, but they still didn’t prepare people for the ultimate shock when her death in London was announced. In the days that followed thousands visited the funeral home in New York where she lay in rest, to pay their respects. And thousands more lined the streets the day of her funeral.
It was almost immediately that the Garland legend took hold through multiple books, endless theorizing, interviews with co-stars, and continual showings of her films on television and in rep cinema houses.
My own interest in Garland started when I was eight with a viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) on television, which then became an annual event in our house. It was further ignited in 1972 with what I see now was an exploitative book by her fifth husband, “Weep No More My Lady”. The pictures in that paperback fascinated me as a kid – how could this frail, birdlike creature be the same person who played Dorothy? Then I started watching the Mickey and Judy films on the weekend on the local TV station and there she was again – fresh faced, full of talent, and completely engaging.
Garland’s later years are getting the big screen treatment in a new film with Renee Zellweger in the lead – Judy (2019). The trailer looks interesting and visually Zellweger seems to evoke Garland, but capturing the manic intensity, humour and vulnerability of Judy in those later years is a whole other mountain. We’ll see.
Judy Garland is considered – justifiably – to be the preeminent musical film star of the last century. Despite a brief flurry of film activity in the early 1960’s and the landmark A Star Is Born (1954), her film career only lasted from 1936 to 1950 and she didn’t hit the top tier until 1939. But her impact is unquestioned. When the AFI listed their top female stars, there she was firmly in the top 10 at number eight. Her films are revived constantly and they are a major staple of the Turner Classic Move schedule. Most people under 30 actually know who she is – and her impact as a concert performer is evident in entertainers as disparate as Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Lady Gaga, Rufus Wainwright and, of course, Liza Minnelli in her prime.
There are two distinct phases to Garland’s career and both feed into the legend that grew following her death: Garland the movie star and Garland the concert performer. Unless you were there to see her live, all we have are the reports of what it was like, the impact she had, and the all-consuming passion she put into her live performances. Outside of the landmark recording “Judy at Carnegie Hall” in 1961 (the actual performance was described at the time as the greatest evening in show business history) and the concert segments of The Judy Garland Show on her CBS series in 1963-64, the concert Garland is the stuff of memory and hearsay. Thankfully Garland the movie star is more accessible – virtually all of her films are available today on DVD or Blu Ray. Although the quality of her films ran the gamut, it can safely be said that she never gave a bad performance. These are my favourite Garland performances:
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
This is the film that everyone knows her for and its reputation as an all-time great is deserved. It’s a visually spectacular production with the best musical score of the late thirties and one of the most perfect casts ever assembled. Each performance is iconic, but it’s Garland who is the sane centre amidst all the eccentrics. Her performance as Dorothy Gale is sweet without being cloying, feisty without being precocious and ultimately very moving. She won one of the special “Juvenile” Oscars given at the time, but this performance deserved to be in the running for Best Actress with other classic performances that year, including Bette Davis in Dark Victory, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942)
Set just before and during WWI, this is one of the many films of the era the served as morale boosters for North American and British audiences during World War Two. It’s also a pretty good movie in the all-American, apple pie mode. It pulls together a bunch of songs from the early part of the century to tell the story of vaudevillians, show business and the impact of the war. It marked the film debut of Gene Kelly and he’s very good as the initially self-centred male lead. But again, this is Judy’s show and she shines. She’s sensational in the vintage musical numbers and she shows her development as an actress in the dramatic sequences.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)
Next to The Wizard of Oz, this is probably the best film of Judy’s career. It’s one of the all-time great musicals with a terrific score, a simple but perfect screenplay and dazzling sets and costume. It’s a romanticized but ultimately quite moving look at a family in turn of the century America. Garland is the second oldest daughter who has a crush on the boy next door. She’s the film’s anchor and it’s ultimately her story line that we care about. Her key musical numbers here include “The Trolley Song”, “The Boy Next Door” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, all original to the film. She’s very nearly upstaged here by Margaret O’Brien as the youngest sibling but not quite. Thanks to director Vincente Minnelli, Garland never looked better on film – she’s a luminous presence.
THE CLOCK (1945)
Garland’s first non-musical film and her first true “adult” role, “The Clock” is a nicely handled WWII drama directed again by Vincent Minnelli and co-starring Robert Walker. Not a lot happens here – the two leads meet by literally bumping into each other in a crowded train station and, over the course of 48 hours, they court, fall in love and get married – with assorted mishaps along the way. What you see in this film is the confidence that working with a patient director gives Garland. It’s an excellent performance, and one that should have been recognized with a nomination at that year’s Oscars.
EASTER PARADE (1948)
One of the many films of the era to be built around the song catalogue of composer Irving Berlin, this is probably the best of the bunch primarily because of Garland and her co-star, Fred Astaire. Ann Miller is also terrific in a supporting role, but this one is all about the music and the two leads. Again, reaching back to the early years of vaudeville and Broadway, it’s another show business story about two performers and some silly quarrels before they ultimately end up together in the final reel. Garland is a funny, touching and relaxed presence in the film and it’s probably the best example to support her status as the top musical comedy performer of the decade.
SUMMER STOCK (1950)
This one isn’t a great film, but it’s fun. It was made at a particularly troublesome time for Garland, but her personal dramas don’t show on screen. Looking a little more mature, she’s again funny, relaxed and totally winning as the owner of a farm where a group of Broadway performers set up shop to rehearse a new show – it’s the quintessential “let’s put a show on in the barn” musical. She’s well matched again with Gene Kelly and there are some nice musical numbers. It’s all pleasant but ordinary until Garland’s final musical performance. Producers felt they needed one more Garland number so they called her back to MGM to film “Get Happy” and it’s one of the most sensational number of her career. She looks and sounds spectacular. This was her last MGM movie before they fired her, and it’s a very fitting finale to that part of her career.
A STAR IS BORN (1954)
Although a little too old in the films early stages (she was just 32, but looked older), this is the Garland performance that shows every facet of her talent. It’s one for the ages. The movie is a big, expensively produced production but it still holds up as one of the best examinations of the Hollywood system of that era. The story of the star on the rise and one on the way down was filmed twice before in the thirties and would be filmed again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and in 2018 with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but no other version packs the emotional punch of this one. And that’s almost entirely due to the two leads – James Mason and especially Garland. They give the best performances of their careers. For Garland, this provided her with a showcase so far beyond what she had enjoyed before that the impact is staggering. There’s not a false note in her touching and emotional work here and she’s superb in all her musical numbers. Her loss of the Best Actress Oscar that year to Grace Kelly is one of the great Oscar mysteries.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
This still powerful look at the role of individual Germans in WWII featured an all-star cast that includes Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift and Maximillian Schell (that year’s Best Actor Oscar winner). It also featured Garland in a small but pivotal role as German housewife/witness reluctant to provide testimony. Garland’s scenes on the witness stand are a skillful blending of nerves and anger, far beyond her musical comedy successes of the forties. Her work here is so raw and immediate. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year and should have won.
I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963)
The last film of her career, I Could Go on Singing is a cliché ridden British musical drama about a performer who’s estranged from her son. The character is written to parallel Garland’s own career at the time but very little rings true. The relationships with her former lover and the son from that union seem contrived at best. Still, Garland delivers, both in her dramatic scenes and, of course, in the musical numbers. The character’s performances at the London Palladium offer us the only cinematic glimpse of what it might have been like to see her in concert. Watching her rip into “Hello Bluebird” and “By Myself” is a master class in concert theatrics. And it leaves you wanting more.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.