Had Judy Garland lived she would have been 100 years old on Friday, June 10, 2022. Tragically, she passed away in 1969 at the age of forty-seven. Judy is a show business legend and while delving into that legend I found some disturbing things. About Judy? Yes. But more about how we in the 21st Century treat our legends. When I Googled Judy here is what came up as to what people wanted to know.
What Illness Did Judy Garland Have?
Why did Judy Garland have no money?
What was Judy Garland’s net worth at death?
What was Judy Garland’s cause of death?
This is what Google thought most people wanted to know about. I have read more than one biography of Judy Garland. She has fascinated me since I was a teenager. I know about most of the struggles in her life and yet when I read some of the articles online they reported other tragedies which her biographers did not report and I am sure Judy herself would have preferred they remain private.
What is it about us as a society now that we have to take our legends and our heroes and tear them down? Why do we need to lay bare every sin of every person? To quote Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey, “We all have chapters in our lives that we would rather not have published.” And yet as soon as anyone in our current media culture gets an ugly fact they can’t wait to publish it. This is what I will not do today. Yes, Judy Garland had problems. Big Problems. The ones we all know about are enough. A battle with drugs, several broken marriages, people who embezzled her money, and much more. It is out of those problems that there emerged a performer who has been hailed as the greatest talent of the 20th century. This talent, this woman, this gift is what I will write about today.
Judy was born Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922. She was the daughter of a vaudevillian couple Frank and Ethel Gumm who had given up life on the road to manage a movie house in Grand Rapids Minnesota. In addition to showing movies the Gumms featured Vaudeville acts between shows frequently using their daughters, Francis had two older sisters, Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia, as part of the entertainment. Francis joined her sisters at the ripe old age of two singing “Jingle Bells’ with her sisters. The Gumm Sisters were born.
In 1926 the family moved from Grand Rapids to Lancaster California. Reportedly this move was precipitated because Francis’ or Judy’s father had homosexual inclinations and he had been found out. In Lancaster, The Gumm sisters began to work the vaudeville circuit. Because their name, Gumm, seemed to attract laughter from audiences, and at one time they were billed as The Glum Sisters they were encouraged to change their last name. The name Garland was chosen and Francis chose to change her first name to Judy. This was late in 1934. Francis now Judy was 12 years old.
In August of 1935, The Gumm Sisters disbanded when one of the sisters left to get married in Nevada.
Also in August of 1935, Louis B Mayer the head of MGM sent Burton Lane to the Orpheum Theater in LA to hear the remaining two sisters ‘ act. Judy was brought to the MGM studio along with her father for an audition. Judy sang “Zing Went The Strings of My Heart and an old Yiddish song called Eli Eli. The studio immediately signed her to a contract with MGM and the magic began.
Unfortunately for Judy success wouldn’t come overnight. She was 13 when she was signed to MGM and basically too old to play a child and too young to play an adult. And though she wasn’t by any means unattractive she did not and never would have the glamour girl look of the 1930s. MGM signed her but wasn’t sure what to do with her.
Judy’s big opportunity came when she sang You Made Me Love You to Clark Gable at his birthday party. The studio was so impressed by her performance that they recreated it in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938. In the film Garland sang to a photograph of Gable. Here is the YouTube link: https://youtu.be/5OrCar5qFsQ
After the success of You Made Me Love You MGM made the historic decision to team Judy with Mickey Rooney. The pair would make many films together including Love Find Andy Hardy, Babes on Broadway, Strike Uo The Band, Girl Crazy, and Babes in Arms. Many of these films were dubbed Backyard musicals as in the story a bunch of kids always getting together to put on a show. Judy would star and also be featured in two other films Everybody Sing where she shared the bill with Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) and Billie Burke who would join Judy later in the film that would make her a star. She starred in the very Irish film Little Nelle Kelly with songs written by George M Cohan.
Judy’s first triumph came in 1939 when MGM starred her in The Wizard Of Oz. Judy would play Dorothy Gale a Kansas farm girl who gets knocked on the head during a tornado and dreams of an adventure in the Land of Oz. In her dream, she must face her very real nemesis Elvira Gultch who, in the dream becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Judy was not MGM’s first choice for the role of Dorothy. MGM wanted Shirley Temple for the part but 20th Century Fox would not release her to MGM. The studio reluctantly went with Graland but they struck gold.
The funny thing about The Wizard of Oz, the film was based on the book by L Frank Baum. In the book, the adventure is not a dream and there were a total of 15 Oz books written by Baum. MGM could have gone on and made a small fortune if they had not made the film a dream by producing sequel after sequel much as they did with The Thin Man. In the books, Dorothy, her Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry all go to Oz to live and there is a happily ever after for everyone. Toto too.
The Wizard of Oz would give us the most famous of all performances by Miss Garland, the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow. The song was written by Harold Arlan and Yip Harburg. It comes in the story at a point where Dorothy is in trouble but her family and friends are too busy to help. She’s told to go find a place where she won’t get into any trouble and walking with her dog she sings one of the most haunting songs of the movie musical.
Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of,
Once in a lullaby.
This song and the film is almost every child in the United States’ first memory of movies. Though the film was a critical success in 1939 it wouldn’t be totally appreciated by the public until the 1960s when it would air yearly on television. I was born in the early 60s and my earliest memories revolve around watching this wonderful story. When I was very young I remember hiding behind my father when The Wicked Witch of the West appeared. The Wizard of Oz was almost part of the rite of passage for being children.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow would be recorded by other artists over the years. It was in 1986 that Barbra Streisand even came close to capturing the same magic. In 1986 Barbra Streisand lovingly and with amazing grace recorded the song in a concert filmed and recorded at her home called One Voice. The concert was for 500 guests but it was a fundraiser for Streisand’s causes. After that, many artists including Mandy Potimkim and Matthew Morrison recorded the beloved song. None equaled Judy Garland.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow is haunting and hopeful. It’s a song of yearning for a better place. It speaks to the deep yearning in all of us for a world that’s different from the world we live in. A world where dreams really do come true.CS Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This is a desire that seems universal to all people. Somewhere Over The Rainbow gives words to that desire and if we are willing we each can find our way to that other world.
Garland’s movie career would explode after The Wizard of Oz. No longer the teenaged misfit she would give a wonderful performance as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis and she would give The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as gifts to the world. Her other stand-out performances came in films that include, For Me and My Gal, The Harvey Girls, In The Good Old Summertime, Summer Stock, Easter Parade, and her acclaimed performance as Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born.
In Summer Stock she co-starred with Gene Kelly and in a way, it was a return to the old days of the backyard musicals. Judy plays Jane Falbury the owner of a farm that is struggling to make ends meet. She reluctantly permits a group of Broadway performers to use her barn as a stage and Jane is drawn into the life of show business. Judy’s break out performance is in the song Get Happy. This is a revival-type song that reminds us to ‘get happy and ready for the judgment day.” For me, it frames in music the joyous return of Jesus Christ where he will lead us across the river.
Garland would only be in two non-musical roles. She starred in The Clock in 1945 with Robert Walker and as a featured character in Judgement at Nuremberg in 1961.
Judy was not idle when she was not making movies. She did radio shows, went on publicity tours with her movies, and spent many hours in the recording studio. There is a long list of musical soundtracks and albums that are to her credit. When her film career ended due to her ill health, the star began concert tours that spanned Europe and the United States. She played both The London Palladium and The Place Theater in NYC. In the mid-sixties she desperately wanted to take over the role of Mame on Broadway when Angela Lansbury left but the producers, due to her ill health and her known erratic behavior on movie sets during her last years, could not trust her with the role.
Judy had a long history of drug abuse and mental health issues. It was both of these that led to her death on June 22, 1969, just 12 days after her 47th birthday. On that day, I believe, one of the stars in heaven went out.
Judy Garland worked for 45 years in the entertainment business. She gave her heart and soul to her performances and she had a voice that was unlike any other. She could belt like Ethel Merman but she could also sing very tenderly like Doris Day. It’s been said that Judy only had to hear a song once to have it down. In that way, she was a musical genius.
Many of us love Judy Garland and her many films. We feel we know her and when we are old enough to understand how young she was when she died we feel a great sadness in ourselves over her passing. I don’t know what would have happened if Judy lived. I would have liked her to play Mame in the film version of that wonderful musical. I think she would have recorded more and become very proud of her children Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joseph Luft. In her elder days, she would have been a Great Dame of the Golden Age of Hollywood. With many of us listening to her stories. That wasn’t meant to be.
I could have said a lot more about the life of Judy Garland. She never had it easy. I believe that out of her pain came something beautiful and something that will be remembered for generations to come. Though we lost her too soon, we will have her forever.