Contrary to stereotype, you don’t have to be Gay to love Judy Garland, who died at the age of only 47 on June 22, 1969. I know because she stirred my young heterosexual loins when I discovered her classic late ‘40’s early ‘50’s MGM musicals on TV. When I discovered the same films in glorious Technicolor later in life, that romance was only reinforced.
The story of Garland’s rise on the wings of an enormous talent and painful her fall in ill health from years of draconian dieting, drugs, alcohol, and hopelessly tragic love life are familiar.
She was pretty much Born in a Trunk, as she later sang. She was born as Francis Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the youngest child of a pair of vaudevillians who ran a local movie house with live acts between the shows. It was 1922 and vaudeville was on its last legs as audiences began to turn to movies and radio for entertainment. Her parents presented Baby Gumm in a song and dance act with her sisters when she was just 2½ years old.
The family moved to California in 1928 where her father operated another movie house and her archetypical stage mother Ethel managed the Gumm Sister’s vaudeville act and schemed to get her children, particularly her youngest, into the movies. She managed to get them in occasional short films beginning in 1928, including a Vidaphone release in 1930 in which young Francis had her first solo.
They had better luck on stage and became a headline act. While appearing at Chicago’s Oriental Theater in 1934 comedian George Jessel suggested that the girls use a more attractive name. They began performing as the Garland Sisters and Francis took the name Judy from a popular Hoagy Carmichael song.
The act was broken up when an older sister eloped to Reno with a musician. In 1935 her mother’s dream was fulfilled when Judy was signed to a contract at MGM, by far and away the most prestigious of all Hollywood studios. Although studio executives recognized her talent, they were hard pressed to figure out what to do with the 13 year old prone to baby fat who was too old for cute kid roles and two young for a leading lady.
Studio boss, the crusty Louis B. Mayer was notoriously contemptuous, referring to Garland as “The hunchback.” The studio set up a short with another teenage prospect, the soprano Deana Durbin as sort of an audition for which one to keep. Mayer preferred Durbin, but before he made an offer, her contract was up and she was snapped up by rival Universal leaving Mayer with, “the fat one.”
Her singing eventually got her the attention she needed to break through. She sang her first signature tune, Zing Went the Strings of My Heart on a radio broadcast hours after her beloved father died later in 1935. It became a sensation. After singing a special arrangement of You Made Me Love You for Clark Gable at a studio function in 1937, it was incorporated into a studio all-star review film, Broadway Melody of 1938.
Also in ’37 she was teamed for the first time Mickey Rooney. The pair made 9 films together, mostly let’s-get-the-gang-together-and-put-on-a-show musicals that were wildly successful. To keep their young talent on the set for long days and to control her weight the studio pumped her up with amphetamines by day, and gave her barbiturates at night to get her to sleep. It led to lifelong pill popping and the stringent diets adversely affected her health. But the studio drove her relentlessly.
In 1939—the famous best year of movies ever—Garland was cast, only when Mayer could not get Shirley Temple on loan, as Dorothy Gale in Wizzard of Oz. Her breasts were bound to hide her 16 year old budding curves and she was corseted in a blue gingham dress to make her look younger—it succeeded in making her look a little chubbier than she actually was. But she was sensational in the movie and was awarded a special juvenile Oscar for her performance. She was officially one of the brightest stars in MGM famous galaxy.
In 1940 in addition to two more juvenile films, she made her first film as an adult, an adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Little Nelly Kelly in which she appeared in dual roles as both mother and daughter. For the next couple of years she alternated rematches with Rooney and adult roles like in For Me and My Gal opposite newcomer Gene Kelley. That film convinced studio executives to give her the glamour build up and first adult romantic lead in Presenting Miss Lilly Mars.
Meanwhile Garland’s star crossed love life was alternately thrilling her and sending her into deep depression. A teen age affair with band leader Artie Shaw ended when he eloped with Lana Turner, deepening Garland’s deep insecurities about her looks. She became engaged to another musician, David Rose on her 18th birthday but he was still married to comedienne Martha Raye and the studio insisted she wait to marry him until a full year after his divorce. Both Rose and the studio encouraged her to have an abortion in 1942 so that she could continue to work. The marriage ended in separation in 1943 divorce a year later.
In 1944 the studio cast her in her first big Technicolor film, Meet Me in St. Louis. Not only did she sing three great standards in the film, but make-up man changed her look by re-shaping her eyebrows, raising her hair line, and eliminating annoying nose pads the studio had been having her wear for years. The result was stunning and her wide set, big brown eyes and heart shaped face made her a beauty, even briefly in her own mind. More important she fell in love with her director, the temperamental Vincent Minnelli and married him shortly after completing the film.
It was the happiest period of Garlands life. Her daughter Liza Minnelli was born in 1946. MGM followed up with other Technicolor extravaganzas, The Harvey Girls and The Pirate which rematched her with Gene Kelly. But stress was getting to her and she suffered a break-down during the filming of the The Pirate.
Her final years at MGM were punctuated with successful films like Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and The Good Old Sumertime and projects aborted by her frequent absences from the set and erratic behavior. She was replaced by Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway, Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun, and Jane Powell in Royal Wedding after she was suspended by the studio while shooting each film. Garland was reported to have attempted suicide after the last film.
Her final completed MGM film was Summer Stock, again with Kelly. She was noticeably heavy during most of the film, but two months later sensationally slimmed down to film the Get Happy number which featured her in a man’s black coat and white shirt, black nylons nearly to the hip and a jaunty black fedora, which would become her signature look in her later career.
After that 1950 film came the debacle with Royal Wedding. Her personal world was also crumbling with the end of her marriage to Minnelli. Her days at MGM were over and no other studio would touch her, given her troubled reputation.
To pick up the pieces of her shattered career she hired agent Sid Luft who decided to put her back on a live stage, where she had seldom performed since her days in the sister act. He arranged a four month tour of the British Isles in 1951which included a four week sold out engagement at the prestigious London Paladium. She received rave reviews and, according to the veteran manager of the Paladium, the loudest ovation he ever heard.
In October she re-opened the refurbished Palace Theater on Broadway with in a vaudeville style show. It ran for 16 weeks and was described as, “one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history.” She received a special Tony Award the program.
In 1952 Garland married her manager and gave birth to their daughter Lorna Luft. On the strength of her stage triumphs Garland and Luft formed a production company and made a deal with Warner Brothers to finance a comeback film, a re-make of the 1937 show biz tear jerker A Star is Born. James Mason was cast as the washed up movie actor opposite Garland’s rising star. After initially participating enthusiastically, as the production wore on her old insecurities surfaced and she returned to her pattern of missing shooting while pleading illness. The delay cost Warner Brothers a lot of money and enraged studio boss Jack Warner, who refused to work with her again. Despite the struggles in production, the movie was a critical and popular hit, although the production delays caused the film to actually lose money, putting Garland in financial peril.
She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress and was so expected to win that a television crew was dispatched to her home, where she was recovering from the birth of her son Joseph. But Grace Kelly unexpectedly won for The Country Girl in what Groucho Marx wrote her was, “the biggest robbery since Brinks.”
It would be seven years before Garland returned to the screen in a stark dramatic role in Judgement at Nuremburg for which she was nominated again for an Academy Award, this time as best supporting actress.
Between those two films Garland headlined highly successful TV specials, including CBS’s first big color broadcast in 1956. But she lost a $300,000 a year contract with the network for more specials when she and Luft demanded more control over content and format.
She became the highest paid star to headline a Las Vegas show, and returned to the Palace for another run as well as touring and guesting on TV.
In 1959 she nearly died of acute hepetitus and was told that she would never perform again. After months of agonizing treatment and recovery she staged yet another wildly successful comeback at the Palladium and was so taken by the adulation of British fans that she announced she would move to London.
On April 26, 1961 Garland starred in a Carnegie Hall concert that was captured on a two-disc album. Her triumphant performance was described, “the greatest night in show business history.” The album was number 1 on the Bilboard charts for 13 weeks and stayed on the charts for 95 weeks. It won four Grammy Awards including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal of the Year. The album is a perennial seller and has never gone out of issue.
The success of this concert and of her turn in Judgment at Nuremberg several doors opened for her. She made three more films. She voiced a cat in the animated film Gay Puree featuring, at her suggestion, songs by songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the team behind the music for The Wizard of Oz. She made another dramatic film with Burt Lancaster, A Child is Waiting about the treatment of mentally handicapped children in a state hospital. Although she got good notices, the film was a box office failure. Her final film, made in England in 1963 was I Could Go On Singing, a turgid soap opera with Dirk Bogarde in which she played a troubled superstar much like herself. The film was enlivened by several concert scenes.
Meanwhile as her marriage to Luft deteriorated amid charges of physical and financial abuse, a new agent patched up Garland’s relationship with CBS, which signed her to a new deal. Her first special featured Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and aired in 1962. It was such a spectacular success that the network offered her an astonishing $24 million dollar contract, the fattest in history, to undertake a weekly series.
Garland had long maintained that she did not want to be tied down to a weekly series, but she was deeply in debt, owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the IRS and was piling up legal bills fighting with Luft over custody of her children. After two more successful specials, the Judy Garland Show premiered in September 1963. It was a critical and moderate popular success showcasing Judy and featuring many big name guest stars. But CBS scheduled it for Sunday nights opposite NBC’s juggernaught Bonanza. With the cost of the star’s contract, the show could not make money and was canceled, emotionally and financially devastating Garland.
She returned to the stage, including another foray at her favorite venue, the Palladium this time co-staring with her 18 year old daughter Liza. The show was filmed for a successful British television special. A 1964 tour of Australia was marred by a serious bout of pleurisy and bad press for a delayed concert in Melbourne. But Garland fell for her Australian promoter and claimed to have married him secretly on a freighter off of Hong Kong but she was still legally married to Luft. The couple officially wed in November of 1965.
In 1967 she was offered a role based on her in an adaptation of Jaqueline Suzan’s pot boiler Roman a clef novel Valley of the Dolls but her real life dependency on prescription pills disrupted production again and she was replaced by Susan Hayward. She returned to the Palace for a 16 week engagement featuring both of her daughters the same year.
Her health and marriage were both deteriorating. She divorced Heron and married for a fifth and last time to Mickey Deans a sleazy discothèque manager who had provided her with prescription drugs. Her 1969 marriage in March occurred the same month as her last concert in Copenhagen.
On June 22 Deans found her dead in their London apartment. The British coroner discounted suicide, but found that she died of prolonged over-exposure to the pain killer Seconal. Her London physician reported that she would have had only months to live anyway due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver.
Twenty thousand people lined up to view her body at a prominent New York funeral home. Garland’s tragic life and death have undoubtedly contributed to her becoming a cult figure in American popular culture. But the glorious record of her films transcends pity and camp.