Since my Wizard of Oz post garnered so many comments and questions about Judy Garland, I’ll dedicate a blog post to the essentials of Judy, who is basically the love of my life, and the reason I got into classic film in the first place.
I outlined some biographical information in my Wizard of Oz post, but here are some of the basics. Judy was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922 in Grand Rapids, MN. She made her debut at the age of 2 and a half singing “Jingle Bells” at her father’s theater in Grand Rapids, and from there she joined her sisters in their vaudeville act, known as “The Gumm Sisters,” touring the country in what Judy later called “rotten vaudeville.” She was always the standout in the act, however, and was often known as “The Little Girl With the Great Big Voice.” She and her older sisters made their first short film in 1929 when Judy was 7, called “The Big Revue.”
Judy enters at 0:34.
In 1935 she was signed to MGM Studios and began to make radio appearances, notably “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” on the Shell Chateau Hour, broadcast as her father was ill in the hospital, and it is said that her voice on the radio was the last thing he heard (he died later that night). Once signed to MGM, she began to make small, low-budget films, her first being “Every Sunday” in 1936, a short subject with Deanna Durbin. She was loaned to Fox for Pigskin Parade, which became her first full-length motion picture, and upon her return to MGM she starred in her first of 10 films with Mickey Rooney, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, in 1937. This was followed by Everybody Sing and her second film with Rooney, Love Finds Andy Hardy, in 1938.
“Swing, Mr. Mendelssohn,” from Everybody Sing, 1938.
Love Finds Andy Hardy, 1938. This scene also features a very young Lana Turner, who later became a rival of Judy’s over the clarinetist Artie Shaw.
She was cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz just after completion of Love Finds Andy Hardy, and the film was not easy for her. Being 16 years old and playing 12, she had to be fitted with a restricting corset to hide her figure and had to deal with the pressures of preparing to graduate from high school while making a high-budget film like Oz. At the Oscars that year, however, she was awarded the Best Performance by a Juvenile Oscar for her performance.
The same year, Judy became smitten with clarinetist Artie Shaw, several years her senior. They went out together on numerous occasions, and Shaw led Judy to believe that he was seriously interested in pursuing a relationship with her, so when Shaw married Lana Turner after their very first date, Judy was completely heartbroken. When she got the news of their wedding, another musician, David Rose, happened to be there with her. He consoled her and took her out for a drink, and so started the relationship that would turn into Judy’s first marriage.
In my opinion, Judy’s heartbreak over Artie Shaw cemented Judy’s future of romantic troubles. Her self-esteem was already low, and to have Shaw reject her for a more classically beautiful (or so she thought) woman just made her feel as though she was not attractive to any man, and clung on to those who liked her. She had a total of 5 marriages.
Shortly after the completion of The Wizard of Oz, MGM began Judy on a strict regimen of diet pills, pep pills, and downers to keep her “in shape” for the movies they had planned for her. As such, as early as 1941, one can see the difference in her physical appearance as a result of too many pills.
‘How About You,” from Babes on Broadway, 1941.
She married her first husband, David Rose, at the age of 19 in 1941, and in 1943 they divorced. This left her open to marry Vincente Minnelli, her director in Meet Me In St. Louis, with whom she had fallen in love. They married in 1945, and their daughter Liza was born in 1946.
By this time, Judy’s dependence on pills had become severe. By 1948, Vincente was discovering pills lined in her costumes, and by 1949 she was becoming so difficult as a result of the pills that MGM couldn’t afford to risk her anymore, and she was fired in 1950.
After her release from MGM, Judy began a highly successful concert career, touring the country and playing for a whopping record 19 weeks at the Palace Theater in New York in 1951. She had divorced Vincente by this time and had fallen in love with Sid Luft, her manager. They married in 1952, and their daughter Lorna was born later that year. In addition to her addiction to pills, Judy was also beginning to struggle severely with her weight.
In 1954, Sid Luft began to prepare her comeback to the screen, in a remake of the 1937 classic A Star is Born. Judy played Esther Blodgett, the singer who was made into a movie star by a washed up legend who had descended into alcoholism, and becomes her husband. Many scenes in this movie reflect Judy’s own inner battles, and one can see her struggle with herself as she describes, as her character, her struggles with her husband’s alcoholism:
She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role, and as she had just given birth to her third child, Joe, she was laid up in the hospital as the awards were announced. The Hollywood community was so sure that she would win, they sent cameras to televise her acceptance speech.
The loss was an immense shock, and prompted letters of condolence from many people in Hollywood. Groucho Marx called it “The greatest robbery since Brink’s.”
Judy did, however, return to her concert career, but in 1958 began to rapidly gain weight, getting as heavy as 180 pounds (she was 4’11” tall). In 1959 she was diagnosed with hepatitis, and 20 quarts of fluid were drained from her body. She was told by doctors that her career was over, she would never sing again. But in 1961, in another triumphant comeback, she played Carnegie Hall for one glorious night on April 23. She garnered multiple awards for the concert and the ensuing album, including a Grammy, and the album spent 13 weeks as Billboard’s number one album.
In 1963, Judy embarked on a television series that, while short-lived, made a lasting impression. Some of the performances from The Judy Garland Show are considered to be the very best ever filmed.
It was cancelled after 26 episodes, due to problems with scheduling.
Judy’s final years were difficult. Her dependence on pills had made her often very “out of it,” and she began to experience withdrawal seizures. In 1965 she married Mark Herron, a marriage which lasted only 6 months. She married Mickey Deans, her last husband on March 22, 1969 and she gave her final concert on March 25, before her death on June 22, at her home in London, at the age of 47. The cause of death was an accidental overdose of Seconal.
Judy never wanted to be considered a tragedy. Many people, when learning that I’m a Judy fan, say “She had such a tragic life!” She never wanted to be thought of that way. She had a very keen sense of humor about herself, and would often make fun of the plights she experienced with pills, money, weight, and men. I think the most lasting thing we can give to her would be to not think of her as a tragedy, but rather as an immense actress and singer, and a wonderful personality.
Here are some of the essential movies:
For Me and My Gal, 1942
Girl Crazy, 1943
Meet Me In St. Louis, 1944
The Harvey Girls, 1946
The Pirate, 1947
A Star is Born, 1954
Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961
I Could Go On Singing, 1963.