Back when I was a Hollywood musicals-obsessed kid, Judy Garland was understandably one of my favorite performers. By the time I was 15, I could count the number of her films I HADN’T seen on one hand. As a youngster with lots of time and parents who encouraged my classic film obsession, I made many attempts to form marathons to watch favorite stars’ films on their birthdays, but the Judy Garland one is the only one I stuck with for years in a row – even today, when I see June 10th looming on a calendar, her name immediately springs to my lips, as if an old childhood friend’s birthday was once again right around the corner.
As I grew older, my appreciation for her bigger-than-life talent and her courage in the face of personal hardship only grew as well, along with an unshakeable sense that not only was she a great singer (undeniable by anyone who’s ever heard her sing), but she was also an underrated actress, as evidenced not only by her perfect control of emotion while singing, but also in her few purely dramatic roles like The Clock and Judgement at Nuremberg, and a gifted comedienne, as evidenced by her comic timing in most every film, and her satirical performance in numbers like “A Great Lady Has an Interview” in Ziegfeld Follies (watch). In short, Judy was the consummate performer, managing to be relatable and awe-inspiring at the same time, and we haven’t seen anyone to match her since.
In fact, if she has any faults as an actress, it’s that she comes across as a bit too excited, too eager to do whatever the current film role calls for – put on a show, win the man that probably doesn’t deserve her, civilize the old west with the Harvey company, go to the World’s Fair. Her eagerness belies the tragedy of her real life, yet that shone through as well, in flashes of very real melancholy – just watch the Christmas sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis and listen to the way her throat catches when singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (see below). From her fresh-faced youth in the string of “let’s put on a show” movies with Mickey Rooney through her banner years as one of MGM’s top leading ladies and into her later years as a concert star, Judy never failed to entertain and move her audience, and never failed to show inspiring courage no matter how difficult her personal circumstances might be.
The culmination of her career is undoubtably 1954’s A Star is Born, not only her finest performance ever, but also being something of a comeback, a triumphant return after four years off-screen following Summer Stock and MGM’s termination of her long-term contract (she’d been with them since 1936). In a way, the film parallels her own life, with its story of a young singer “born in a trunk” and in show business from an early age, then discovered (undergoing a name change from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester; Judy’s real name was Frances Gumm) and put in movies, hitting success almost immediately but also finding great tragedy in her personal life. Of course, in the film, that tragedy is the decline of her husband, has-been actor Norman Maine (James Mason), and in real life it was her own struggle with addiction and self-image. Thus the film also contains an ironic edge as it actually marks Judy’s last great film musical, whereas in the film, Vicki Lester’s career is only beginning.
Though Judy has several lifetimes worth of great performances during her 47 years, her rendition of “The Man that Got Away” in A Star is Born is possibly her best, going from an impromptu casual performance to a full-on, all-out performance by the end. It’s heartbreaking and breathtaking, and never fails to remind me why I will always be a big fan of Judy Garland, and why I will always want to celebrate her birthday every June 10th. She is and always will be a legend, and today she would be 90 years old. Happy birthday, Judy.
And here’s a few bonus tracks, largely from a simply fantastic 2-disc set called “Judy Garland: Collector’s Gems from the MGM Films,” which has a ton of content from her tenure at MGM (1936-1949), including a bunch of alternate versions and outtakes, INCLUDING most of the soundtrack she recorded for Annie Get Your Gun before her health forced her off the project. One of those songs, “Let’s Go West Again,” was never included in the final film with Betty Hutton.
from Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
from Presenting Lily Mars (1943)
from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
from Annie Get Your Gun (1949)
from Annie Get Your Gun (1949)
And then a couple from the essential “Judy at Carnegie Hall” 2-disc set. I don’t usually like live albums that much, but this one is absolutely incredible. I particularly like her take on “San Francisco” because not only is it a great vocal performance, but it shows, even in just the audio, Judy’s indomitable sense of humor as she gently digs at Jeanette MacDonald (who I also like very much, but whose light operetta voice is pretty much the opposite of Judy’s, and was totally wrong for the song “San Francisco,” even though it did become an inexplicable trademark for her).