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Garland, Judy (1922-1969)

Garland, Judy (1922-1969)

At the end of the twentieth century, 30 years after her tragically premature death, Judy Garland is still a legend to legions of fans the world over, who recognize in her one of the twentieth century's all-time great American talents. As Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1938), she symbolized the innocence and hope that would both desert her in her own life, which came to represent an unhappy paradigm of the fate that befell so many child stars who were victims of the old Hollywood studio system. As an MGM "triple threat" from 1938 to 1950, she acted, danced, and sang her way through more than two dozen feature films, many of which are now considered classics of the Hollywood musical genre. She possessed a powerful and expressive voice, unique in tone, and full of pain and vulnerability—she once said, "I have a voice that hurts people when they think they want to be hurt." She recorded nearly 100 singles and more than two dozen albums with that voice. Diminutive, but vibrating with nervous energy and charisma, she became a gay icon among show business devotees, much as Maria Callas did among opera buffs. Her life was turbulent and terrible, her legacy a joyous inspiration. She was an underused and brilliant actress as well as one of the greatest-ever popular singers. Above all, she had that indefinable quality that makes a star.

Garland was born Frances Gumm on June 10, 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to vaudevillian parents Frank and Ethel Gumm. From the time she was a toddler, "Baby Gumm" performed with her two older sisters in a stage act called "The Gumm Sisters Kiddie Act." Her rendition as a two-year-old of "Jingle Bells," performed on stage at the New Grand Theater (her father's cinema), brought the house down. The act later became the "Garland Sisters," with Judy billed as "the little girl with the great big voice." Her own name was changed when she was 12—comedian George Jessel gave Judy and her sisters the moniker Garland when he introduced them at the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago, and she herself chose Judy, after the title of a Hoagy Carmichael song.

In 1935, at the age of 13, Garland signed a contract with MGM. In November of that year, she did several radio broadcasts, singing "Broadway Melody" and what would later become one of her several signature songs, "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart." A few days later, her father died of spinal meningitis; Judy's reaction was a day-long crying binge, indicative of the raw emotionalism that would dog her always. Initially, studio chief Louis B. Mayer was unsure how to use Garland. Her vocal quality was so adult, it was feared that audiences would not believe it came from the child, but they put her into a two-reel short called Every Sunday (1936) with another youthful newcomer named Deanna Durbin. Durbin was dropped and Garland kept on, but her first feature, Pigskin Parade (1936) was made on loan-out to Fox. Then, in 1938, she virtually stole the show from a starry cast in MGM's Broadway Melody of 1938, tremulously singing "Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You" to a photograph of the macho star.

In 1937 Judy appeared in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. The film was neither here nor there, but marked a significant first pairing with the other multi-talented performing child genius of the age, Mickey Rooney, with whom she would co-star nine times in all. With the young Lana Turner, she appeared with Rooney again in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), an entry in America's most famous ever "family entertainment" screen series. But the film that elevated her to superstardom was The Wizard of Oz (1939), in which the studio cast her with some reluctance when Mayer failed to get his chosen Dorothy, Shirley Temple.

The role of Dorothy, who yearns for a place where "the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true," only to discover after a series of fantastic adventures, that "home is best," unleashed and defined Garland's extraordinary talent, and revealed the heartbreaking vulnerability that uniquely characterized her persona. Garland's portrayal of Dorothy was the defining role of her life, while "Some-where Over the Rainbow" pursued her for the rest of her life. It became an anthem of hope in England during World War II, and later, she would sing the last eight bars over the phone to President John F. Kennedy whenever he needed cheering up. No concert audience would have permitted her to leave the stage without performing the number, which she generally used as her finale; it had profound personal significance for her and for the concert fans, who often shed a tear when listening.

The Academy Award-nominated film lost out to Gone with the Wind, but 16-year-old Judy Garland, an instant legend, received a special miniature Oscar in recognition of her performance. Meanwhile, off-screen, her personal life was already subject to the patterns that would destroy her. Controlled by an archetypal stage mother on the one hand and the ruthless rules of the studio on the other, she was put on a strict diet to contain a tendency to over-weight. A doctor recommended appetite suppressants. Simultaneously, the pressures of work were taking their toll and soon she was living on pills—diet pills, pills to sleep, pills to keep awake. At 19 she married orchestra leader David Rose, the first of her five husbands. Two years later they were separated and officially divorced in 1945, by which time she had made several in the cycle of juvenile, "lets-put-on-a-show" musicals with Mickey Rooney that remain classics of their kind—exuberant, and bursting with the combined powerhouse of dancing, singing, and acting talent provided by their young stars. The cycle began with Strike Up the Band in 1940, and included Babes on Broadway (1942) and Thousands Cheer (1943) along the way.

In 1944 Judy starred in one of the American cinema's landmark musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by the great colorist of the musical screen, Vincente Minnelli. The film yielded another of Garland's signature tunes with "The Trolley Song" and led to her second marriage. Minnelli became her husband in 1946, and the father of her daughter Liza. The marriage was over by 1949 but, under her husband's direction, Garland made The Clock (1945). Co-starring Robert Walker, the small-scale, black-and-white film concerned the meeting of a girl and a soldier under the clock at Grand Central, and their brief idyll and marriage during his 24-hour leave. Charming and poignant, it marked a departure for Garland, who revealed her considerable talents as a straight actress.

While the systematic disintegration of her health and psyche continued, rendering her subject to professional unreliability, the star continued to make millions for MGM. She starred in The Harvey Girls and Ziegfeld Follies in 1946 and In the Good Old Summertime (1949); her guest appearance in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), in which, as Broadway star Marilyn Miller, she memorably rode bare-back in a circus, sang "Who (stole my heart away)," and, smudge-nosed and aproned, rendered "Look for the Silver Lining" while up to her ears in a pile of dirty dishes, were among the highlights of a film packed with them. The most enduring musical of the period saw her paired with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), the film in which, dressed in tattered top hats and tails, the pair famously sang "A Couple of Swells."

By 1950, however, Garland's increasing failure to appear on set and her emotional setbacks, which caused monumental difficulties for Summer Stock with Gene Kelly, had become intolerable, and MGM fired her. She published a somewhat disingenuous open letter (doubtless concocted by her publicist or some such person) to her fans in Modern Screen, saying she had suffered from depression and a "mild inferiority complex," and needed a vacation. Garland thanked her fans for their stalwart support and said, "A lot of fanciful stories have depicted me as the victim of stark tragedy, high drama, and all sorts of mysterious Hollywood meanderings. All that is bunk. Basically, I am still Judy Garland, a plain American girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who's had a lot of good breaks, a few tough breaks, and who loves you with all her heart for your kindness in understanding that I am nothing more, nothing less."

In 1951, Garland and her third husband, Sid Luft, staged her first big "comeback"—a concert appearance at the Palace Theater on Broadway. The record-breaking show ran for 21 weeks. She continued to appear on the international concert circuit through the 1950s and 1960s—when, that is, her shaky emotional stability allowed her the strength to keep her engagements, but her film career shuddered to an almost total halt, but for perhaps her greatest screen achievement, as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester in Warner's 1954 remake of A Star is Born (1954). Co-starring James Mason and directed by George Cukor, the film showcased an amalgam of all the Garland gifts, both musical and dramatic, highlighting her vulnerability, her intensity, her energy and her sense of humor. It is a spectacular performance in a spectacularly good film (musical highlights include "The Man That Got Away" and "Born in a Trunk") and she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. In a decision that remains an eternal blot on the Academy's integrity, the coveted statuette went to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, rendering Garland a body blow.

She remained an Academy Award nominee only again in 1961, deservedly acknowledged for her heart-rending straight dramatic performance in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. Another dramatic performance, opposite Burt Lancaster in Kramer's A Child is Waiting (1963), was even more heart-rending, as was the film itself, set in a home for autistic children. On CBS television, The Judy Garland Show during the early 1960s was short-lived, but her Carnegie Hall appearance, in 1962, the recording of which received an unprecedented five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, was a now legendary success. At this concert, and those at the Palace and the London Palladium (where she appeared in an emotional shared concert with Liza), the hysterical screaming and crying was comparable only to that found at rock concerts. There was a real chance that "The World's Greatest Entertainer" would collapse or fail on stage, but audiences were rooting for her; they loved not only Garland's voice and talent, they loved her. Legend has it that once, when she called for requests, one audience member yelled, "Just stand there!"

In 1963, Judy Garland made the last, and least, of her films. Indeed, I Could Go on Singing, opposite Dirk Bogarde, was a travesty and a humiliation as the once great star played herself—a dumpy, frowsty, unhappy washed-up singing star attempting to make a comeback amid the ruins of her private life. That, fortunately, is not how she is remembered.

Her marriage to Sid Luft (the father of her children Lorna and Joey) was over in the early 1960s, and their divorce in 1965 followed an exhausting battle over custody of the children. In the wake of Luft, she married an unsuccessful actor named Mark Herron, seven years her junior, but they were separated after only six months. Worn out from long years of concert tours, lawsuits, depression, substance abuse, nervous breakdowns, failed marriages and suicide attempts, Garland went to London in early 1968, married her fifth husband—35-year-old disco manager Mickey Deans—and appeared for a three-week season at The Talk of the Town.

She was clearly in a bad way, and drew unsympathetic audiences who were vocal in their hostility. The run was a humiliating fiasco, but she planned yet another comeback at the same venue the following year. Garland once said she'd had so many comebacks that every time she came back from the bathroom it was regarded as a comeback. It was an ironic comment: On June 22, 1969, she never came back from the bathroom of her London hotel suite where Deans found her, dead of a drug overdose. Alas, although millions grieved, few were surprised. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, "The greatest shock about her death was that there was no shock." She was 47 years old and died four million dollars in debt.

While Garland attracted a wide cross-section of the population, both at home and abroad, she held a particular appeal for gay men, and her status as a gay icon remains probably unmatched. She collected a gay following quite early on in her career and by the 1970s the phrase "a friend of Dorothy" was understood as describing someone as gay. She was adored by drag queens, an idolatry that led to a line in the play, (and film) The Boys in the Band where one character rhetorically asks, "What's more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?" Even the gay pride rainbow symbol connects to her most famous iconic image. Garland's frequent suicide attempts became a bizarre element of her legend, and with each new attempt reported in the tabloids, gay fans wore Band-Aids on their wrists in solidarity. Some say Garland's New York City funeral contributed to the power of the pivotal Stonewall rebellion. With emotions running high in the aftermath of the funeral, gay and lesbian patrons at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village fought gay-bashing police and sparked a series of riots in New York that heralded the beginning of the gay liberation movement.

A powerful, and sad, echo of Judy Garland has lived on in the voice, persona, and tortured personal life of her gifted daughter, Liza Minnelli, while Lorna Luft, too, pursued a show business career and wrote a tell-all book about her mother, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (1998). Her great legacy, though, rests in the films and recordings by which she lives on and, as Frank Sinatra so aptly put it after her death, "the rest of us will be forgotten—never Judy."

—Jessy Randall

Further Reading:

Fricke, John. Judy Garland: World's Greatest Entertainer. New York, Holt, 1992.

Goldman, William. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. New York, Harcourt Brace, and World, 1969.

Kaiser, Charles. The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996. San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Rainbow: A Star-Studded Tribute to Judy Garland. Edited by Ethlie Ann Vare. New York, Boulevard Books, 1998.

Shipman, David. Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend. New York, Hyperion, 1993.

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