Star of the Month: Judy Garland

May 12, 2022
Star Of The Month: Judy Garland

Friday June 3 to Friday June 24, 2022 – 31 Movies

This month TCM celebrates the 100th birthday of Judy Garland (June 10, 1922-June 22, 1969) an  international star on screen, stage, and in sound. She appeared or starred in over 35 films, hosted her own television show, The Judy Garland Show, recorded countless songs, and performed in concert over 1,100 times. To say she was versatile is an understatement.  She received an Academy Juvenile Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Special Tony Award. Moreover, Garland was the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her 1961 live recording, Judy at Carnegie Hall. She is not only remembered for her success as a performer, but as a child turned adult star who burned hot and fast. She suffered through a series of personal and professional challenges and obstacles, yet always remained gracious to her loyal fans.

Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Garland is perhaps best known for playing the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the most seen film in movie history. Yet, her career began nearly a decade earlier. She and her sisters, Mary Jane “Suzy/Suzanne” Gumm and Dorothy Virginia “Jimmie” Gumm were a vaudeville troupe known as the Gumm Sisters but changed their name to the Garland sisters in 1934. Frances changed her name to “Judy” soon after, inspired by the popular Hoagy Carmichael song. The troupe broke up in 1935 and Judy went solo, signing with MGM that year.

TCM starts the celebration of Garland’s cinematic work where she debuted: in Pigskin Parade (1936), which tells the story of husband-and-wife college football coaches who convince a backwoods player named Amos Dodd (Stuart Erwin) to play for their team so they can go to the big game. Amos is discovered tossing melons with his kid sister, Sairy, performed by a fourteen-year-old Garland. Despite the role, Garland’s career at MGM was precarious. She was in an open competition with a young singer named Deanna Durbin, a blond beauty with a voice for opera. However, when Garland sang “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)”, a tribute to Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), she outshined Durbin and became an overnight sensation.

MGM found a winning cinematic formula when it paired Garland with Micky Rooney in a string of “backyard musicals.” Garland and Rooney first appeared together as a duo in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937). Garland was then put in the cast of the Hardy family movies, playing the literal girl-next-door to Rooney’s character, Andy Hardy, in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), and Life Begins for Andy Hardy. The two teamed as leads in Babes in Arms (1939),  Babes on Broadway (1940), and Strike Up the Band (1940).

Despite her early promise and overnight popularity, Garland was berated and criticized by MGM studio executives for her physical appearance. She was just under 5 ft tall, and her cute, brunette, girl-next-door looks did not reflect the glamourous aesthetic associated with the more successful and sought-after leading female actresses at the time. As a result, Garland was pigeonholed into more childish, saccharine, and painfully innocent roles – some quite embarrassing as the studio had her in blackface like in Everybody Sing (1938) and even in Babes in Arms. (These blackface performances are striking and confusing in hindsight, particularly given Garland’s progressive views on race in her adult life; she took part in The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and held a press conference to protest the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963).

Charles Walters who directed Garland in a number of films during that era, described her as the “ugly duckling” on set and claimed that co-founder of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, referred to her as his “little hunchback.” This brutal body shaming continued throughout her career. To meet the demands of Hollywood, Garland reports she was prescribed substances to deal with the long hours on set and was encouraged to maintain restrictive eating regimen to stay slim. While filming The Wizard of Oz, she often only ate a bowl of soup and a plate of lettuce for her meals. Her diet was accompanied by swimming, hiking, tennis, and badminton. The blue gingham dress synonymous with Dorothy was chosen for Garland for its blurring effect on her figure. As if to reward her sacrifices, The Wizard of Oz was a critical success. In 1939, Garland received her only Oscar for her performance in it as well as Babes in Arms, the Juvenile Award. She was the fourth person to receive the award as well as the only one of twelve in history to be presented with one.

After The Wizard of Oz, Garland was one of the most bankable actresses in Hollywood and she graduated from backyard musicals and parted ways with Rooney. She stepped into an adult role, playing both daughter and mother, in Little Nellie Kell (1940). The role was challenging; she had to use an accent and have her first adult kiss. Her co-star George Murphy, who was 20 years her senior, said he felt like “a hillbilly with a child bride.” She performed, as an adult, with Gene Kelly in his first screen appearance in the war film, For Me and My Gal (1942). And the next year, she was given the glamor treatment MGM said she would never have in Presenting Lily Mars (1943), a film about a small-town girl with big-city ambitions, hoping to make it on Broadway.

One of Garland’s most successful films for MGM was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a series of seasonal vignettes revolving around the World’s Fair. Garland debuted the standards, “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” all of which became hits after the film was released.  The Clock (1945) was Garland’s first straight romantic drama; though it was praised and earned a profit, most movie fans expected her to sing. As a result, she did not act again in a non-singing dramatic role for many years. Garland’s other films during that time included The Harvey Girls (1946) and Till Clouds Roll By (1946).

Toward the end of the decade, in 1948, during filming for The Pirate (1948), Garland had a nervous breakdown. Though she was able to complete filming, she attempted to commit suicide and had to complete a two-week treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Between the increased expense of shooting delays while Garland was ill and the public’s unwillingness to accept her in such a sophisticated film, The Pirate did not garner a profit. Garland was nevertheless cast with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948,) which became her top-grossing film at MGM. However, she never fully recovered from her psychological distress. She was taking prescription drugs along with illicitly obtained morphine pills. Around this time, she also developed an alcohol dependence. MGM temporarily suspended her from acting so she could be treated until they summoned her back for her last appearance with Micky Rooney in Words and Music (1948) and to replace a pregnant June Allyson in the musical film, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), which was an enormous success. Behind the scenes, though, Garland was still depressed, and undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for her condition. So severe was her anxiety that she was cast but immediately replaced by Betty Hutton for the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun (1950). In the wake of that loss, she underwent an extensive hospital stay and was weaned off the drugs. When Garland return to Los Angeles to continue to work, she was healthier, but heavier. She was again cast opposite Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950) but had to lose weight for the role. She went back on the pills and relapsed). Summer Stock was her final film with MGM.

During the 1940s, Garland had a series of failed relationships and affairs. Earlier in the decade, when she was still a teenager, she experienced her first serious romance with bandleader, Artie Shaw – and was devastated when he eloped with Lana Turner. She also had a relationship with musician David Rose who proposed to her when she turned eighteen. The studio intervened, because at the time he was still married to actress and singer, Martha Raye. Once his divorce cleared, Garland and Rose were wed on July 27, 1941, but were divorced by 1944. In 1941, Garland had an abortion while pregnant with Rose’s child. She had another one in 1943 when she became pregnant from her affair with Tyrone Power. She went on to have a brief affair with film director, Orson Welles, who at that time was married to Rita Hayworth. During the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland and the director Vincente Minnelli initially had some conflict, but entered into a romantic relationship and married in 1945. They were divorced in 1951. He was 20 years older than her.

Garland made her Hollywood comeback in the Warner Bros. film, A Star is Born (1954), the first remake of the 1937 film, this time directed by George Cukor. She starred as Esther Maine and produced the film through Transcona Enterprise, the production company she shared with her then husband, Sidney Luft. Initially she was fully dedicated to the project, but soon began to complain of the same illnesses she experienced while at MGM.  The film suffered from project timeline setbacks, creative disagreements, and severe edits. Though it was met with critical and popular acclaim, it was a financial failure. Nevertheless, Garland was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical. 

Garland’s subsequent films after A Star is Born included Judgement at Nuremburg (1961), for which she was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress), the delightful animated musical Gay Purr-ee (1962), and A Child Is Waiting (1963). Her final film was the aptly titled, I Could Go on Singing (1963).

Garland’s birthday falls during LGBT Pride Month and, since the 1960s, she has been a quintessential gay icon. Being a “friend of Judy” was a popular euphemism for being gay during a time when homosexuality was illegal and actively policed by authorities. White male gay audiences, in particular, have attached queer meaning to her oeuvre. The song with which Garland is now constantly identified, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz, reflects a longing for another place, one that is kinder and more colorful. Some queer fans say that the song was an inspiration for the LGBT Rainbow Flag.  The song, “Come Out, Come Out” also from the soundtrack has long been heard as a call to abandon the closet. Garland’s campy performance in the  “Trolley Song” from Meet me in St. Louis remains a staple of queer sing-alongs. In general, the storylines in most of her films appeal to gay audiences as they involve her characters being overlooked or abandoned by men, longing for love that goes unrequited. Gay fans also sympathize with her offscreen hardships, as she juggled Hollywood’s impossible demands and the pains of her love life.  Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli is likewise a gay icon, coming into queer popularity with her performance in Cabaret (1972). Minnelli recently made a rare public appearance at the 94th Academy Awards alongside Lady Gaga, who played Allie Maine in the fourth iteration of a Star is Born (2018). 

Garland enjoyed popularity on television and in concerts, sometimes performing with her daughter, for most of the 1960s. During this time, she was also embroiled in a heated divorce suit with Luft who she accused of mental and physical abuse. Moreover, she suffered from severe financial instability, due to mismanagement of her affairs by her representatives and staff.  She died of a substance overdose in 1969. She was only 47 years old.