Judy Garland

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs
  • Career Highlights

Judy Garland’s story is one of the most tragic in the history of American popular song. Perhaps the greatest singer of the twentieth century, Garland was a victim in the truest sense — a victim of Hollywood and of her own insecurities, dependencies, and personal reverses. In spite of it all, she remained a versatile performer, with an incredibly flexible instrument matched to a peerless instinctual talent and a touch of genius when it came to interpreting a song. Though she lived only forty-seven years, she spent forty-five of them in show business – and in that almost half-century of performing, she did it all — beginning with hundreds of vaudeville and radio appearances as a member of the Gumm Sisters. From there, it was on to short films; more than thirty feature films; more than one thousand live performances in concert halls, nightclubs, and theaters (including three appearances on Broadway); a special Oscar, a special Tony Award, and five Grammy Awards; dozens of bestselling record albums; and more than one hundred singles.

In spite of it all, she remained a versatile performer, with an incredibly flexible instrument matched to a peerless instinctual talent and a touch of genius when it came to interpreting a song.

Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, on June 10, 1922. At her parents’ urging, she got her feet wet in the family act, and by 1930 she’d won a contest and a screen test at Paramount Pictures. She soon tested at Twentieth-Century-Fox and Columbia as well, but, although the studios were drawn to her precocity and her remarkably mature singing voice, none of them knew quite what to do with her.

She was finally discovered by someone at MGM, though exactly who that visionary was is lost in the fog of the past. Composer Burton Lane claimed to have spotted her talents and brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer. Joseph Mankiewicz heard her sing at a party given by Marcus Rabwin and recommended the young girl to Mayer’s executive assistant, Ida Koverman. However it happened, Louis B. Mayer himself attended her audition, at which Garland sang “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart.” A few days later came a screen test, and within a few weeks, she’d signed a contract with the studio.

With the exception of a few pictures, Garland spent her Hollywood years at MGM. When she arrived, she was immediately given lessons in how to be a star. The brilliant Roger Edens, who had accompanied her at her fateful MGM audition, helped her capitalize on her natural vocal talents; Kay Thompson worked with her on carriage and deportment; she was made up by the finest cosmeticians and dressed by brilliant designers. And of course, when she suffered from inevitable exhaustion or experienced inconvenient weight gain, there was always someone standing by with a miraculous chemical concoction to keep her going.

Garland was no fragile flower. Her pluck, sense of humor, and inner strength pulled her through her share of troubles, and she was a consummate pro: on film, she never showed a sign of inner turmoil or insecurity. Vulnerability, yes—but that only served to deepen her performances. Even at the very end of her career with MGM, in the few scenes she filmed for Annie Get Your Gun, she showed us the brave and open Judy Garland she is known for being.

Garland’s earliest recordings are marked by her natural voice, sense of humor, and willingness to try anything. As her career progressed, she learned to swing in a contemporary jazz sense, and to let her emotions emerge through song. Perhaps because of her remarkable vocal maturity, she started right out with a large repertoire of older songs such as “You Made Me Love You,” I Cried for You,” “I’m Nobody’s Baby,” “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and “For Me and My Gal.” Her signature song, Arlen and Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” came early and ripened right along with her throughout her life. It was written for the film that made her a star (and continues to introduce her to new generations), The Wizard of Oz. If “Over the Rainbow” provided one book end to Garland’s film career, perhaps the other was “The Man That Got Away,” written for her by Arlen and Ira Gershwin at the end of her Hollywood period. She continued to sing both those songs until the end.

Garland’s emotional interpretations are viewed by detractors as over-acting, but it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by her technique. She is so committed to each performance that we rarely get a glimpse of the singer behind the song. It’s Garland who perfected the ability to build a ballad inexorably toward a no-holds-barred finale. Tony Bennett learned this lesson well. Barbra Streisand, though a powerful interpreter in her own right, seems to lack the patience for it, often starting a song at a level of intensity where others end. But it was Garland who set the pace for all who came after, with her carefully calibrated and mesmerizing performances, both on screen and onstage.

When the cameras were on, Garland was every inch a star, but away from the spotlight, her insecurities reigned. MGM had kept her so busy as a teenager (and well into her twenties) that she had little time to develop a full-blown off-screen identity. Having had virtually no childhood in the traditional sense, she was never savvy when it came to relationships, plunging headlong into affairs and marriages as if desperate to escape the roles she played on screen. Ironically, she didn’t really know how to be herself, so she always seemed to be “on”— which is understandable, given that all of the love she’d ever felt had come when she sang or told stories. Since the studio publicity machine played fast and loose with the facts of her life, why should she be any different? According to her mood, she either loved being in pictures or despised every minute. She constantly cast herself as a victim until this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The line between the Judy Garland story and the real Judy Garland melted away.

But perhaps the real Judy Garland was right here all the time, right in our own back yard. She was here in her films, her radio and television broadcasts, her recordings, and in her electrifying stage appearances. Out of the spotlight, she was done in by a combination of external forces and internal demons; but behind a microphone, sitting on the edge of a stage, as if inviting an entire audience into her home and heart, her own best qualities came through every time: her vulnerability, her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her consummate artistry. Onstage, Garland was at home, and for all of the pain she may have experienced in her life, there was no mistaking the pure joy she brought to her work.

We’re lucky to live in an age when we can call up the entire breadth of a brilliant career with the touch of a button; Judy Garland will be with us forever, continuing to set the standard for all who aspire to follow her. (KB)

Other way ‘round

Harry Warren: "I didn’t know where to put that title in the melody. I was trying all ways of starting off with the line. Then I finally got it the other way, with the title at the end, which worked out better."On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe

Personal favorite

Arlen considered this song one of his top two compositions.Last Night When We Were Young

You don't have any place to go

Hugh Martin on working on 1954’s A Star Is Born: “I wanted her to sing it moodily, quietly, and so did Harold Arlen, I found out later. When I went back to New York, he called me and said, ‘What happened?’ I told him that she had belted it. He said, 'Oh no! It shouldn’t be belted. It’s an introspective song.’ Both Harold and George Cukor thought I was right. The day of the recording, George said, ‘Can you do anything to stop her from yelling that song and making it such a tour de force? If she does that, I don’t have a movie.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, 'Well, if you know she’s a star in the first fifteen minutes, you don’t have any place to go.’”The Man That Got Away


This was the first smash hit derived from a classical theme, in this case Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu in C-sharp minor.I'm Always Chasing Rainbows

Better than anyone else

 “She can do everything better than anybody else.”Hugh Martin


"She was the most sympathetic, the funniest, the sharpest, and the most stimulating woman I ever knew."James Mason

Nobody knew anything about it

"The studio doctor gave her Dexedrine, I believe it was, to keep her weight down. Nobody thought it was bad. My mother didn’t think it was bad—if she had, she wouldn’t have let Judy take it. But nobody knew anything about it then."Virginia Gumm to biographer Christopher Finch

The greatest talent

"She was a tremendous musician, Judy. I guess that’s the greatest talent I’ve ever encountered in my life."Hugh Martin

Born Frances Ethel Gumm.
Appears with two sisters in her father's cinema.
Family moves to Lancaster, California, where father buys theater.
 Film debut in shorts: Big Revue (later retitled Starlit Revue), Holiday in Storyland, The Wedding of Jack and Jill and Bubbles.
Appears in vaudeville as Gumm Sisters Kiddie Act;  in Chicago, George Jessel introduces them as the Garland Sisters at Oriental Theater; has first screen test for MGM.
Debuts with sisters as the Garland Sisters in MGM three-strip Technicolor short, La Fiesta de Santa Barbara signs solo contract with MGM on October 1; has network radio debut on Shell Chateau on October 26; father dies on November 17.
Makes one-reeler with Deanna Durban (not signed), Every Sunday; is loaned to Fox for feature debut, Pigskin Parade; makes first recordings for Decca on June 12
Signs with Decca Records for full record contract; has cameo in The Broadway Melody of 1936 singing “You Made Me Love You” to photo of Clark Gable; Broadway Melody of 1938—Garland’s first featured role; appears in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, the first of ten movies she will make with Mickey Rooney.
Paired with Mickey Rooney again in Love Finds Andy Hardy; Judy prerecords “Over the Rainbow” on October 7.
 Star performance as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
Elopes with David Rose and marries on July 28.
Becomes the first Hollywood star to entertain GIs; radio broadcast of A Star Is Born is aired.
Films Girl Crazy.
Divorces David Rose on June 7; starts filiming Meet Me in St. Louis, where she meets Vincente Minnelli.
Stars in film The Clock, her first non-musical role.; marries Minnelli on June 15.
Daughter Liza Minnelli is  born.
Completes film The Pirate; Decca Records solo contract ends; begins releasing her soundtracks on MGM Records.
Films Easter Parade; later suspended from MGM July 16, and fired from her next film, The Barkeleys of Broadway.
Replaces June Allyson on In the Good Old Summertime; begins filming Annie Get Your Gun after prerecording score, but is soon fired from film.
Returns to MGM for Summer Stock but health becomes erratic; replaces June Allyson (again) for Royal Wedding, but is fired again; ends contract with MGM on September 29.
Concentrates on radio; divorces Minnelli; meets Sid Luft; triumphs in engagement at the London Palladium; tours Great Britain; performs at the RKO Palace Theater on Broadway with Hugh Martin at piano beginning October 16 and continues for 19 sold-out weeks.
 Signs a nine picture deal with Warner Brothers; marries Sid Luft on June 8; daughter Lorna is born on November 21.
Mother, Ethel, dies.
A Star Is Born  triumphantly opens on September 29; later. The studio cuts thirty minutes from three-hour film.
 Joey Luft born on March 29; signs with Capital Records; TV debut on “Ford Star Jubilee”; Miss Show Business album released next day.
Appears on G.E. Theatre; album Judy (with Nelson Riddle) is released; has record-breaking engagement in Las Vegas.
Album Alone (with Gordon Jenkins) released.
Becomes the first pop star to perform at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House
Tours U.S. for the first six months of the year; appears at London Palladium, August 28; album Judy! That’s Entertainment (with Jack Marshall) released; records studio album, Judy in London, which will not be released until after her death.
Lends her voice to the animated cartoon Gay Pur-ee with songs by Arlen and Harburg; wins rave reviews for performance in film Judgment at Nuremberg; Judy at Carnegie Hall engagement begins April 23 and the recording by Capitol Records soon hits number one on Billboard charts
CBS special, The Judy Garland Show, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin airs; makes films I Could Go on Singing (The Lonely Stage) and A Child Is Waiting in London.
CBS special Judy and Her Guests Phil Silvers and Robert Goulet, airs in March; performs in Sydney and Melbourne, but is unable to finish concert in the latter; appears at the London Palladium on November 8 with daughter Liza; stars in The Judy Garland Show, twenty-six weekly variety shows, from September to March 1964, on CBS.
Divorces Sid Luft; Marries Mark Herron on November 14; Herron files for divorce six months later; cast in Valley of the Dolls, but is soon fired; becomes engaged to Tom Green.
Sid Luft produces Judy at Home at the Palace with Lorna and Joey; tours United States.
Finally divorces Mark Herron.
Marries Mickey Deans; goes on last European tour; in Copenhagen,the documentary, A Day in the Life of Judy G filmed but not released to the public.
Dies in London.
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Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
Music by Gershwin, 4/30/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
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