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.
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)
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
Arlen considered this song one of his top two compositions.Last Night When We Were Young
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
“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
"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
"She was a tremendous musician, Judy. I guess that’s the greatest talent I’ve ever encountered in my life."Hugh Martin