Today is a big day for the Judy Garland community. Judy Garland was born on June 10, 1922, and would be turning 90 years old today. I have often expressed my love for Judy here, she has given me some of the best moments of my life, and I have my discovery and subsequent obsession with her to thank for my love of classic film in general.
I made a video tribute for her birthday last night, featuring some photos of her as a child, along with a segment from Judy’s 1960 interview with Fred Finklehoffe in which she discusses her childhood. This interview was privately conducted, in Judy’s own home, in preparation for her memoirs which she planned to title Ho-Hum. Finklehoffe was a screenwriter and a trusted friend, who had written the screenplay for Meet Me In St. Louis, For Me and My Gal, and a number of other great MGM productions, and Judy chose him to assist her with her memoirs.
Ho-Hum never came to fruition, but we are left with a beautiful group of tapes in which Judy reflects upon her life events with clarity and articulateness, and for the duration of this interview Judy seems magically free of the demons that haunted her throughout her life.
One of the things that strikes me most about the Finklehoffe interviews is the serene calm that Judy exudes as she talks about her life. To those of us who know Judy well, it is her loud, often zany sense of humor that defines her, and what made her the darling of so many parties and A-list events in Hollywood. I think that this calm she displays in the Finklehoffe interviews is a vision of what she would be like had she stayed little Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids, MN, and the sweetness of these private tapes is something that was never really replicated in any public interview. On the many appearances that she made over the years, Judy always stole the show with outlandish stories and self-deprecating humor that kept the audience in stitches. Here, I will explore that legendary wit, and the potential reasons behind this need for the public Judy Garland to always make people laugh.
There is a quote from songwriter Leonard Gershe that gives us a good idea of Judy’s humor:
“Judy had a great sense of fun. Everybody has a sense of humor, to some degree or another, some have more, some have less…not everybody has a sense of silliness. Judy could be silly. Judy had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. And that’s what got her through so many trials and tribulations.”
Lucille Ball, who was with Judy at MGM in the 1940’s, summed up Judy’s humor like this:
“People always expect me to be funny. I was never funny; the writers were funny! Do you know who was really funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was naturally funny … the funniest lady in Hollywood. She made me look like a mortician.”
The trials and tribulations of Judy’s life are well-known. Her struggles with pills, illnesses, psychological problems and multiple suicide attempts are the stuff of Hollywood legend. It is often said that the most creative people are subject to the worst problems in life, and by all accounts Judy was as close to a genius as an artist can get. Her IQ was estimated to be in the 160’s or higher, and she possessed an unmatched imagination that influenced her career as an entertainer as well as her reputation in Hollywood for being one of the best storytellers in the business. I believe she often used her gift for storytelling and humor as a shield against a world that was often unkind to her, and she employed it readily and often in an effort to entertain, but also to protect herself from the painful realities of her life.
I must say here that it is, however, very important not to write Judy off as a tragic figure. She made it very clear that that is not how she wanted to be remembered, and though much of her life was indeed very painful, she was lucky to have the gift of humor to get her through things and allow her to always come back stronger than ever. Despite her problems, she was always able to pull herself back up and her audiences with her, and we have her ability to laugh at herself and others to thank for that.
Judy on Jack Paar, 1962
Her stories were often fanciful and probably untrue, but they were so entertaining that nobody took any notice. Her keen memory allowed her to repeat these outlandish stories nearly verbatim every time she told them, and come up with new zingers depending on the situation in which she was telling them.
Judy with Phil Silvers in 1963.
Never was Judy’s wit more noticeable than when she began to make regular appearances on television in the early 1960’s. With the advent of her television series in 1963, Judy finally had a format in which to express her talents on film in a way that suited her. The show was a hit, and Judy was in top form.
Here, she shows off her remarkable ability to mimic by imitating the popular Broadway stars of the day.
A major blow came to Judy in 1964 when CBS abruptly canceled her series, causing her severe distress. This was a real turning point in Judy’s life, and I believe it to be the initial cause of her final decline. She never recovered from the trauma of having her series canceled, and it sent her further down the path of drugs and self-medication, which eventually led to her demise.
However, on the last episode of her show, Judy gave the audience a dose of her incredible sense of fun, with a hilarious flubbing of her famous Born In a Trunk number. Regardless of how she was feeling personally at the time, Judy Garland always delivered.
I will end this post with one of my favorite Judy moments, laughing at herself for a flubbed take of “Swanee” in a recording studio in 1954. Happy birthday, Judy, this is how I will always remember you.