50 years on: Judy Garland self-destructive genius or the girl never allowed to grow up?
- Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB
Judy Garland remains one of the legends of Hollywood. Fifty years after her death, her star continues to shine, but, she was also self-destructive and was the architect of her own downfall. But, did she need to surrender to her demons to produce her best work?
Think of Judy Garland and you immediately conjure up images of Dorothy waltzing up that yellow brick road on her way to visit The Wizard of Oz, or singing the Trolley Song in Meet Me In St Louis but Judy Garland's role in the movies is much richer, much more tragic than her timeless Technicolor hits would suggest.
Judy really was a child of the theatre - first going on stage with her sisters (The Gumm Sisters Judy's real name was Frances Gumm) and the trio made their first appearance on film in 1929 in a short called The Big Revue in which they performed a song and dance number: "That's the good old sunny south".
But, it was when she joined super-studio MGM as a teenager in 1935 that her star really began to rise. Studio chief Louis B Mayer had a paternalistic love for Garland and groomed her for stardom. He could see that she could act, she had a wonderful fresh, clean screen presence but above everything else she could sing.
Mayer wanted someone who could counter the popularity of teenage singing star Deanna Durbin at Universal and cast Garland opposite child star Mickey Rooney in a series of amazingly popular Andy Hardy movies. The pairing became so popular that Rooney and Garland would also appear in a series of 'backyard' musicals outside the Andy Hardy series.
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The films are cheap and cheerful but the pair are wonderfully engaging and the songs signal that Garland, in particular, had a great future in front of her.
Although, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade and Meet Me In St Louis remain her most popular movies, her best work was often in more dramatic movies and in films in which she wasn't the lead star. She quietly appeared opposite Gene Kelly in two films (For Me and My Gal and The Pirate) and turned in thoughtful and convincing performances.
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She was also allowed to play grown-up adult roles in these movies. Directors like Vincente Minnelli, who would go on marry Garland and father singing sensation Liza, convinced 'Papa' Louis B Mayer to let Garland play her age and not keep her forever 15.
Unfortunately, Garland did not respond well to this new bout of artistic freedom. She was offered a prestigious co-starring role opposite Fred Astaire in the The Barkleys of Broadway which coincided with her first dalliance with morphine and alcohol and resulted in her being fired for chronic lateness. Her role was then offered to Ginger Rogers, allowing her to reteam with Fred for the first time in more than five years.
After mending her ways In the Good Old Summertime (1949), Garland was then offered the best job in Hollywood, playing the lead in the film version of the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. However, she did not get on with legendary director Busby Berkeley. Her habit of very late arrivals re-surfaced and when Berkley complained of Garland's lack of effort and enthusiasm in the musical number, she tried to have him fired. The ploy back-fired. Busby Berkeley was the star of Busby Berkeley pictures, Garland was gone, replaced by Betty Hutton.
Garland was thrown another life-line and was cast opposite Fred Astaire again in Royal Wedding but it wasn't long before chronic lateness once again led to her dismissal, being replaced this time by Jane Powell.
However, just when you would have thought that this once great musical star had squandered her talent, she chased away her demons for just long enough to deliver two of the greatest performances of her career: A Star Is Born opposite James Mason in 1954 and the dramatic Judgement at Nuremburg in 1961. She was nominated for an Oscar for both of these incredible films. Her performance in both confound our expectations. They are engaging, emotionally truthful, complex, nuanced and deeply moving character parts which exist to serve the movie not the star.
This then is Garland's tragedy. At the end of her career, plagued by drink and drug addictions, she managed, somehow to deliver two absolutely timeless performances which, for me, eclipse even her best work from her largely sober days in the early 40s.
Perhaps, she needed the travails of her professional and personal life to make these parts come alive. If so, it was a terrible sacrifice which we should feel guilty for enjoying on screen. Garland's A Star Is Born remains a classic and is undiminished by the different but equally moving modern-day update with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga while in Judgement at Nuremburg she more than held her own against heavyweight co-stars Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich.
Sadly, this was her last hurrah. She retreated to cheap TV work and stage appearances with her prodigally talented daughter Liza but those last two films offer a sad glimpse of what could have (and should have) been.