DIVA # 3
When you “google” Judy Garland … you get 5,480,000 hits.
Entertainer Judy Garland was both one of the greatest and one of the most tragic figures in American show business. Miss Garland’s personal life often seemed a fruitless search for the happiness promised in “Over the Rainbow,” the song she made famous in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.
Judy Garland’s career was marked by a compulsive quality that displayed itself even during her first performance at the age of 30 months at the New Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, Minn. Here, the story is told, Frances Gumm–both her parents were vaudeville players–sang “Jingle Bells” on a Christmas program. She responded so favorably to the footlights that her father was forced to remove her after she had repeated the song seven times. The daughter of a pushy stage mother, Garland and her sisters were forced into a vaudeville act called the Gumm Sisters (her real name), which appeared in movie shorts and at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. It was clear from the outset that Judy was the star of the act, and, as such, was signed by MGM as a solo performer in 1936. The studio adored Garland’s adult-sounding singing but was concerned about her puffy facial features and her curvature of the spine. MGM decided to test both Garland and another teenage starlet, Deanna Durbin, in a musical “swing vs. the classics” short subject entitled Every Sunday (1936). The studio had planned to keep Durbin and drop Garland, but, through a corporate error, the opposite took place. Nevertheless, MGM decided to allow Garland her feature film debut in another studio’s production, just in case the positive audience response to Every Sunday was a fluke.
When MGM planned to star 20th Century Fox’s Shirley Temple in The Wizard of Oz, Garland almost didn’t get her most celebrated role, but the deal fell through and she was cast as Dorothy. But even after this, the actress nearly lost her definitive screen moment when the studio decided to cut the song “Over the Rainbow,” although finally kept the number after it tested well in previews. The Wizard of Oz made Garland a star. The rest is history. Miss Garland’s early success was firmly rooted in an extraordinary talent. She was an instinctive actress and comedienne with a sweet singing voice that had a kind of brassy edge to it, which made her something of an anachronism: a music hall performer in an era in which music halls were obsolete.
Garland made more than 35 films, once set a New York vaudeville record with an engagement of 19 weeks and 184 performances, cut numerous records and in recent years made frequent television appearances .Once very popular on the movie set due to her infectious high spirits, in the mid-’40s Garland became moody and irritable, not dependable and unprepared forwork. The problem stemmed from the increasing dependency upon barbiturates, an addiction allegedly inaugurated in the 1930s when the studio had Garland “pepped up” with prescription pills so that she could work longer hours. Garland also began drinking heavily, and her marriage was deteriorating. In 1945, she married director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she had a daughter, Liza, in 1946. By 1948, Garland’s mood swings and suicidal tendencies were getting the better of her, and, in 1950, she had to quit the musical Annie Get Your Gun. That same year, she barely got through Summer Stock, her health problems painfully evident upon viewing the film. Before 1950 was half over, Garland attempted suicide, and, after recovering, was fired by MGM. Garland and Vincente Minnelli divorced in 1951, whereupon she married producer Sid Luft, who took over management of his wife’s career and choreographed Garland’s triumphant comeback at the London Palladium, a success surpassed by her 1951 appearance at New York’s Palace Theatre. Luft strong-armed Warner Bros. to bankroll A Star Is Born (1954), providing Garland with her first film role in four years. It was Garland’s best film to date, earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and allowed her a wealth of songs to sing and a full range of emotions to play.
Riding high once more, Garland was later reduced to the depths of depression when she lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly. Her subsequent live appearances were wildly inconsistent, and her film performances ranged from excellent (Judgment at Nuremberg ) to appallingly undisciplined (A Child Is Waiting ). Her third marriage on the rocks, Garland nonetheless pulled herself together for an unforgettable 1961 appearance at Carnegie Hall, which led indirectly to her 1963 weekly CBS series, The Judy Garland Show.
It was this Carnegie Hall appearances, I chose to select Judy’s song for Divas. This concert appearance, on the night of April 23, 1961, has been called “the greatest night in show business history” The double album was a huge best seller—charting for 73 weeks on the Billboard chart, including 13 weeks at number one, and being certified gold. It won Five Grammy Awards, for Album of the Year (The first live album and the first album by a female performer to win the award.), Best Female Vocal Performance, Best Engineered Album, and Best Album Cover.
The album has never been out of print.
On June 22, 1969, Judy Garland was found dead in her London apartment, the victim of an ostensibly accidental overdose of barbiturates. Despite (or perhaps because of) the deprivations of her private life, Garland has remained a show business legend. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the career of Judy Garland was that she was able to continue as long as she did–long after her voice had failed and long after her physical reserves had been spent in various illnesses that might have left a less tenacious woman an invalid. The other side of the compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances that were her stage hallmark was a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection. And often they did, screaming, “We love you, Judy–we love you.”
Words are like weapons; they wound sometimes”