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The story of a famous singer trying to gain custody of her illegitimate son from his surgeon father, I Could Go On Singing (1963) is a curious mixture of soap opera and autobiographical elements from Judy Garland's personal life. Officially regarded as her final film, she filmed it immediately after making A Child is Waiting (1963) though I Could Go On Singing was released first. At the time of filming, Garland was going through an ugly child custody battle of her own with her soon-to-be-divorced husband, Sid Luft. The opportunity to make a film in England with Dirk Bogarde, an actor and friend she had long admired, provided the perfect escape from her problems at home but unfortunately Garland carried her troubles with her across the Atlantic.
At first Garland seemed excited about making I Could Go On Singing (The working title was The Lonely Stage). Her character, Jenny Bowman, was an internationally renowned singer who was preparing for a performance at the London Palladium, one of her most popular concert venues in real life. But Garland didn't read the script until she was on location and her reaction was not favorable. She told Bogarde "I can't play this crap" and locked herself in the bathroom, a favorite retreat for her in times of emotional and physical distress. Luckily, Bogarde was able to convince his co-star that together they could improve the script with suggested changes and alterations that reflected their own verbal idiosyncrasies. The ploy worked for a while and Garland was treated like royalty by director Ronald Neame and his cast and crew. Co-scripter Mayo Simon said, in Gerald Clarke's biography Get Happy, "The theory was that if we all just loved and admired her enough, everything would be okay. It turned out that there wasn't that much love in the world."
Only a few hours after her first day of shooting, Garland took an overdose of pills in a suicide attempt and was rushed to a hospital. For an explanation, she told Bogarde that she felt Neame hadn't shown her the proper respect that was due a star of her caliber. Although she quickly recovered from this incident, Garland's mood swings and unstable emotional state would wreak havoc on the film's production schedule and crew. On good days she would call Neame a "pussy cat." On bad days, she would refer to him as that "goddamned British Henry Hathaway" (a jab at an American director known for his bluster and swagger) and threaten to have him fired. She would also arrive on set, announcing sarcastically, "Here's Dorothy Adorable! Watch out!" and proceed to insult the crew. But her behavior grew worse - she began using the trash can in her room as a toilet - and led to more incidents of self-abuse and attempted suicide.
Yet, there were days during the filming of I Could Go On Singing when the camera captured the famous Garland magic. One memorable scene occurs when Bogarde visits Garland in the hospital, where she is nursing a sprained ankle, and tries to convince her to return to the Palladium stage. Her impassioned response departed significantly from the script and became an improvised confessional, full of candid and self-revelatory dialogue. In the Garland biography Get Happy, Gerald Clarke wrote "A scene of such length - it lasts seven minutes....usually requires three or four setups and possibly three or four days of work as well....But as action progressed, Neame realized that what he was watching was a kind of magic. Instead of stopping the camera where he had planned - "I knew that I would never, ever, get anything like that scene again" - he nodded to his cameraman to keep rolling forward, closer and closer to his two stars. Quick to catch on, the cameraman signaled, in turn, to an electrician, who hastily put a diffuser over a light that otherwise would have been too hot for close-ups." Thanks to good instincts and fast thinking, Neame and his crew captured, off the cuff, one of the most powerful moments in the film.
I Could Go On Singing was released to mixed reviews but Garland fans weren't disappointed. Not only did she get to play a highly dramatic character like herself but she got to perform several songs which would become standards in her stage act during the last years of her life (she died in June 1969 from an overdose of sleeping pills). Among these were "By Myself," "Hello, Bluebird," and the title song, all of which she also performed in her TV special, Judy Garland and Her Guests Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet.
Producer: Saul Chaplin, Lawrence Turman
Director: Ronald Neame
Screenplay: Mayo Simon, based on a story by Robert Dozier
Production Design: Wilfred Shingleton
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Editing: John Shirley
Music: Mort Lindsey
Cast: Judy Garland (Jenny Bowman), Dirk Bogarde (David Donne), Jack Klugman (George), Aline MacMahon (Ida), Gregory Phillips (Matt), Russell Waters (Reynolds), Pauline Jameson (Miss Plimpton), Jeremy Burnham (Hospital doctor).
By Jeff Stafford