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Judy Garland's 90th Birthday
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Judy Garland Profile

Along with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Judy Garland has emerged an iconic figure in show business. A child performer with no formal education, she led a life of great highs and deep lows; through it all though, her inestimable talent shown. While she proved herself onscreen as a capable musical star and occasional serious actress, Garland thrived in live performance where her dramatic abilities were tested with each song she sang. Even in later life as she struggled with various illnesses and addictions, she delivered, in the words of The New York Times critic Stephen Holden, "pure feeling....Like no other American singer, Garland erased the line between laughter and tears, suggesting a barely suppressed hysteria with each grasp and choked-up cry." Those who saw her perform live spoke of the experience in almost mystical terms. Those not lucky to have that experience can see vestiges of that electricity in her films and videos of her television appearances.

The youngest of three daughters born to a movie theater manager in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Frances Ethel Gumm (named after both parents) made her stage debut as a two-year-old singing chorus after chorus of "Jingle Bells" from the stage of her father's movie palace. Eventually, 'Baby' (as she was nicknamed) joined her older sisters in a vaudeville act billed as the Gumm Sisters, emerging as the undisputed star with reviewers frequently singling her out for mention. Nevertheless, the Gumm Sisters never really achieved great success, settling instead for tours of the lesser circuits. Even after the family had settled in California and the sisters had made their first film appearance in "Starlet Revue/The Big Revue" in 1929 and in subsequent Vitaphone shorts, they never quite reached the top echelon. While appearing at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1934, George Jessel reportedly suggested they change their surname from Gumm to Garland. As her sisters never used their given names, Frances Ethel adopted the new first name of Judy after Hoagy Carmichael's popular contemporary song. When the oldest sibling got married, the act was disbanded. It also allowed Judy Garland to move from vaudeville to the big screen.

Summoned to MGM for an audition, Garland landed a contract in 1935. She then made her network radio debut which in turn led to a contract with Decca Records and her first single "Stompin' at the Savoy" (with the Bing Crosby Orchestra). As frequently happened with contract players, she was loaned out to Twentieth Century Fox for her first full-length feature "Pigskin Parade" (1936). Back at Metro, Garland had her breakthrough with her deceptively simple, plaintive rendition of "You Made Me Love You" sung to a photograph of MGM's leading man Clark Gable in "The Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937). Using her tremulous vibrato and imbuing the song with that paradoxical fragility and resilience that would become her hallmark, she emerged as a star-in-the-making. The studio put her in her first leading role opposite frequent co-star Mickey Rooney in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (also 1937). She was an emerging teen starlet when MGM awarded her the coveted role of Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Now a classic from its almost yearly airings on television from the 1950s, the film was a modest success in its day. A fable with a simple moral ("There's no place like home"), "The Wizard of Oz" afforded the youngster the opportunity to cavort with seasoned vaudevillians--Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr--and more than hold her own. Her now famous rendition of the movie's best-known song, the Oscar®-winning "Over the Rainbow" later became her signature theme, accumulating more meaning as the tragedies in her life unfolded.

While "The Wizard of Oz" remains one of her best-known films, 1939's "Babes in Arms" (again with Mickey Rooney) solidified her standing with the studio. An adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart stage musical, it gave rise to the cliche of the "let's put on a show" movie musical. What is often lost, however, is Garland's spirited performance and her superlative singing. She and Rooney went on to be paired for a string of films, several in the Andy Hardy series. She enlivened run-of-the-mill projects like "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941) with her sterling rendition of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and proved a fine partner for Gene Kelly in the Busby Berkeley-directed "For Me and My Girl" (1942). Girl Crazy (1943) also offered her a fine opportunity to perform another Rodgers and Hart score and remains the best of the three films made from that source material.

As her professional life was on the ascendant, Garland began the spiral of self-destruction off-screen that would eventually destroy her. Issues of weight would plague the diminutive star; she allegedly became addicted to diet pills during her stint at Metro. Garland also embarked on a messy personal life that included five husbands and numerous "affairs". Nevertheless, she had been trained that the show must go on and she persevered as much as possible until she was physically unable.

In 1944, Garland starred as Esther Smith in the nostalgic Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by her future second husband Vincente Minnelli. On screen, she glowed and her lovely renditions of such now classic numbers as "The Boy Next Door", "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" elevated the material. (She and her pint-sized co-star Margaret O'Brien also performed a memorable cakewalk to "Under the Bamboo Tree"). The following year, she and Minnelli teamed for one of her rare non-singing performances in the unjustly overlooked romantic comedy The Clock. 1946's "The Harvey Girls" cast her a frontier waitress and she also proved effective impersonating stage star Marilyn Miller in that year's ersatz Jerome Kern biopic "Till the Clouds Roll By". After time off to give birth to daughter Liza Minnelli, Garland roared back in 1948 with several fine performances. She made a perfect partner for Fred Astaire in the Irving Berlin musical Easter Parade, starred opposite Gene Kelly in The Pirate with its lively Cole Porter score and made a final feature appearance with Rooney (singing "I Wish I Were in Love Again") in "Words and Music".

The signs of her fragile psyche were, however, beginning to manifest themselves. Garland was sometimes late for work or worse, ill-prepared. She was replaced by Ginger Rogers in "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949), Betty Hutton in "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950--the existing footage of Garland gives hints of what might have been had she been in stronger health) and Jane Powell in "Royal Wedding" (also 1950). MGM finally dropped her in 1950 and age 28 with a young daughter and two failed marriages, Judy Garland was washed up in Hollywood. Under the guidance of manager Sid Luft (who became husband number three), she began the second phase of her career--embarking on the first of her concert tours with now legendary appearances at London's Palladium in April 1951. Six months later, Garland opened at the Palace in NYC. With a rejuvenated career and a second child (daughter Lorna Luft, born in 1952), she set about to reconquer Tinseltown.

In 1942, Garland had appeared in a radio version of "A Star Is Born" directed by Cecil B DeMille and long held the notion of starring in a screen musical version. She had even tried to interest Louis B. Mayer in the project but he dismissed it as "too depressing". She and Luft formed their own production company and nurtured A Star is Born to fruition. With Moss Hart rewriting the original award-winning script, George Cukor directing and original songs by Harold Arlen (who composed "Over the Rainbow") and Ira Gershwin, the film came to be one of the 1954's most anticipated. Casting the male lead, though, proved a bit more difficult as few of the established names approached (i.e., Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart) wanted to play what is essentially a supporting role. James Mason had no such qualms and was effective, offering one of his best screen performances. Although Warner Bros. was unhappy with the original three-hour-plus running time and cut more than thirty minutes from the film, it still proved to be an artistic and personal triumph for Garland, who reportedly called the film "the story of my life". The finished motion picture picked up six Oscar® nominations including well-deserved ones for Mason as Best Actor and Garland as Best Actress as well as one for the song "The Man That Got Away", which became the singer's second signature number. Despite the hoopla and the accolades, it did not lead to renewed interest by the major studios.

With no film career, Garland returned to live performing debuting in Las Vegas in 1956 and returning to Manhattan's Palace Theater for an eight-week run. Three years later, she collapsed and was hospitalized. The diagnosis was hepatitis and the singer was reportedly told that she would remain a semi-invalid. As if to prove the doctors wrong, Garland resumed her grueling performance schedule (which also included a 1960 Democratic fundraiser for John F Kennedy) and landed her first screen role in seven years. Cast as a concentration camp survivor called testifying about her experiences in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), she offered a heart-breaking performance. Along with the equally troubled Montgomery Clift, Garland was a stand-out in the large cast and both she and Clift garnered Oscar nominations for their supporting roles. It was a fine cap to a year that had also seen her triumph in a concert at Carnegie Hall that was recorded and has remained a best-seller. Garland was only to make two more film appearances, though. John Cassavetes cast her as a teacher who becomes too involved with one of her mentally-challenged student in "A Child Is Waiting" (1962) while the British-made "I Could Go on Singing" (1963) was a soap operaish tale that only soared when she was putting across the musical numbers.

Turning to the relatively new medium of television, she headlined her own variety series "The Judy Garland Show" (CBS, 1963-64), which was aired opposite the popular "Bonanza" on Sunday evenings. While not a ratings winner, the show has come to be seen as a time capsule and a means of preserving this mercurial singer's talents. When the show was canceled, Garland found herself broke, in debt to the IRS for back taxes and essentially homeless (the government had repossessed her house). Trouper that she was and though battling depression and weight problems, she continued to perform live, unsuccessfully attempting to wipe out her debts, up until just before her death of an accidental overdose of prescription pills just weeks after her 47th birthday in 1969. While the term has perhaps come to be overused, "show business legend" certainly applies to the tiny woman with the voice that could move audiences to laughter or tears or both simultaneously.

* Films in Bold Type will air on TCM

Biographical data supplied by TCMdb

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