The Judy Garland Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, the world-shaking Judy Garland (Frances Gumm, 1922-1969). Poor Judy never even made it halfway to 100; she was famously killed by the very business that elevated her. When I was a kid, the age at which Garland left us, 47, seemed plenty advanced. Now that her daughter Liza Minnelli is in her mid-70s, you realize what it might have been like to have basked in her presence for a longer period of time. For example, Garland would have been 80, an age to which people commonly live nowadays, in 2002. What a different world it would have been with her in it for another three decades.

Garland is one of those stage and screen stars of such a stature that I have ended up writing piecemeal about her through numerous posts. My original post, dealing mostly with her vaudeville days with the Gumm Sisters, is here. My post on The Wizard of Oz deals much more personally with my own fandom for the star (she was my first crush!) I have also written about Pigskin Parade (1936), Meet Me in St. Louis (my second favorite Garland film, 1944), the various Ziegfeld movies, Til the Clouds Roll By (1946, in which she played Marilyn Miller), Easter Parade (1948), Words and Music (1948, she has a cameo), A Star is Born (1954). She was briefly in Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and its a shame that didn’t work out, because I envision that as potentially one of her top movies! If I ever write about some of her others, they’d likely be Little Nellie Kelly (1940, penned by George M. Cohan), For Me and My Gal (1942, on account of its vaudeville setting), The Harvey Girls (1946), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949, chiefly interesting to me for the presence of late career Buster Keaton). I’ll likely never touch the movies with Mickey Rooney, because, blecch. We also mentioned her in the context of her many vaudeville revival shows at the Palace from 1952, through 1967, which included special guests like Alan King, Jackie Vernon, Buck and Bubbles, etc.

I am currently working on a book about television variety, so a particular interest at the moment is Garland’s work in that field. Her TV work is a amazing. Her 1962 special is especially enlightening — her guest stars are Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and I’ve always been intrigued by the palpable sense you get from their interactions that those two major entertainers treat her with deference as a peer, if anything a bigger talent than they are. (Recall that they’re famous womanizers, from a generation of womanizers. I’ve not sure I’ve seen them treat any other female colleague as they treat Garland).

Judy’s own short-lived variety series (1963-64) provided an interesting mix of song, intimate conversation, and occasional silliness, with top flight guests like Donald O’Connor, Ethel Merman, Lena Horne, George Jessel, Mel Torme, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, Ken Murray, Martha Raye, Peter Lawford, Jack Carter, Louis Jourdan, Jane Powell, June Allyson, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Bobby Darin, and of course old friends like Mickey Rooney and Ray Bolger and her own children, and some then up and coming stars like Barbra Streisand, the Smothers Brothers, Diahann Carroll, and Jack Jones. She also hosted The Hollywood Palace and appeared on the shows of others like Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jr, Perry Como (Kraft Music Hall), Dick Cavett, Soupy Sales, et al.

It is interesting and instructive to note how close to the end she performed live and on television. But she was quite a wreck for months, years, decades, really before she finally passed away from an accidental overdose. There was certain momentum to her life, and her talent and training allowed her to keep going, even when she was a malnourished, jittery stick. I thought Renee Zellweger’s Oscar winning portrayal in the 2019 bio-pic Judy (based on the play End of the Rainbow) was uncanny and right on the money. This film, and Anne Edwards’ 1974 biography, which I read a couple of years ago, provide a harrowing snapshot of late Judy, as she evolved after decades of starvation and drug abuse brought on by studio pressure, originally at the hands of her Svengali Louis B. Mayer. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Judy may have been the first star literally transformed into a physical monster by show business (one immediately thinks of Michael Jackson, but Judy’s metamorphosis was just as drastic and decades earlier). Also of interest is the 2001 mini-series Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, based on her daughter Lorna Luft’s memoir, and starring Judy Davis. Liza disliked the recent bio-pic, but I think there’s no dishonor in depicting an artist’s struggles with dark forces outside her control, or, the sacrifices she makes for her public. Those like Garland, “Born in a Trunk”, never get a chance to develop the same internal gyroscope most of us do; equilibrium is rarely their portion, it’s all peaks and valleys. But for those privileged to watch it unfold, what an exhilarating, if sometimes horrifying, ride.

Appropriately there are some major celebrations of the life and art of July happening to mark the occasion. TCM is showing Judy Garland movies all day today. The Judy Room an impressive website devoted to Garland has launched this amazing remembrance. There’s one performance left (tonight!) of this all-star show at City Winery, with Rufus Wainwright, Lorna Luft, Justin Vivian Bond, Molly Ringwald, et al:

And on June 25, you can see Debbie Wileman do Judy at Carnegie Hall:

For more on vaudeville, where Judy Garland got her start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,