There are so many clichés about Judy Garland. To many she was the tragic figure tortured by what always seemed to be on the other side of the rainbow. Was she really though? How could someone who has brought joy to so many and who never considered herself as a tragic person embody the epitome of the staged tragic figure?
Judy was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922. “Baby” Gumm was the daughter of Frank and Ethel Gumm who owned a theater in her birthplace of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. At the age of two and a half, Garland got her first taste of an audience and later became the third member of an act with her sisters, Susie and Virginia. Garland’s mother pushed the girls into show business hoping that they would achieve the success she did not. Despite the pushing, Garland was a natural performer and her love affair with music was something genuine and sincere that her audiences found contagious.
The Gumm family moved to Lancaster, California in 1926. Judy adored her father, but often resented her mother’s push and shove methods. Grand Rapids was the closest thing Judy believed she had to a normal childhood. When the Gumms’ moved to California, Ethel pushed even harder to get the girls into show business. This worsened when Frank Gumm died, which was the day after Judy sang “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart” on her second appearance with Wallace Beery on the Shell Chateau Hour. This was a song Judy also used for her audition with MGM. Garland signed a contract with MGM on October 1, 1935 with a starting salary of $100 per week. Frank could only imagine, but would never know how successful his “Baby” would become.
Garland made many musicals for MGM and almost every film brought in money. Films that lost money were those that had expensive shooting schedules due to accidents on the set, temperament (though Judy’s temperament may not have been as bad as legend seems to have left the public), and plots that may have been a little too modern for audiences at the time such as The Pirate. Another film that was under financially after its release was The Wizard of Oz, Judy’s first big budget film with a starring role and the one that truly made her a legend and popular culture icon.
Judy’s filmography is outstanding; she had two academy award nominations, one for A Star Is Born and another for Judgment at Nuremberg. She also won an Academy Juvenile Award for The Wizard of Oz. Judy brought humanity and sincerity to her roles. You know Judy wants to get back to Kansas to see Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, because of her body language, you can see it all over her. Meet Me In St. Louis is a film in which you feel like you know Judy personally—her family is your family. You find yourself wanting more after the film has ended.
Not often is there a celebrity who has such a broad grasp to make people feel like they knew her. Garland makes you feel connected to life. She could put you in tears and make you laugh in the same breath from the death scene in Little Nellie Kelly to her ripples of laughter in Girl Crazy from under an old jalopy.
Judy was just ridden with natural talent, though her acting was quite overlooked amidst her unique vocal qualities. The only person who had anything over Judy in song plugging was Alice Faye, but this was made up for in Garland’s staying power. Nearly anyone can identify with something in Judy’s life and can understand her successes, dreams, failures, and doubts. Judy portrayed innocence on screen as Dorothy touching everyone’s hearts from childhood and made Dorothy one of the most recognizable characters in film history. Those that are lost can identify with Judy’s real struggle to cope with loss and fame.
Garland was married five times; her hubands were David Rose, Vincente Minnelli, Sid Luft, Mark Herron, and Mickey Deans. She would often make fun of her own taste in men. Barbara Walters asked Garland on The Today Show if she had any advice for Liza before she married Peter Allen. Garland’s reply was, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I can qualify, because I’ve not been too successful myself in marriage—just in my children.” She approached everything in her life with a healthy sense of humor, colored honesty, and a for knack of story telling that was both riveting and engaging.
Judy was versatile beyond the silver screen. From her beginnings in vaudeville as “The Gumm Sisters,” radio, television, and the concert stage, in every field, Ms. Garland was a success. Garland hit everything but Broadway and even on Broadway she reopened the famed Palace Theatre in New York City. Every vaudevillian’s goal was to play the Palace. Garland highlighted that in her medley during her Palce run, “I’ve played the State, the Capitol, but people say don’t stop unless you’ve played the Palace, you haven’t played the top!” Another great success was her performance at Carnegie Hall, those that were there have said that the night was magical and that it was a night they would never forget. Judy also had a successful variety show on television, The Judy Garland Show. The lack of apathy CBS possessed toward the show and having the show pitted against Bonanza lead to the cancellation Garland’s show. Judy, never truly down for the count, went back to her concert career.
A life filled with laughter, joy, and tears—a life in which Garland experienced more realms of the human condition in her 47 years than most of could in several lifetimes. Garland not only brought us a complete range of human emotions on reel to reel of her films and public appearances, but also lived them. Judy lived. Many of her critics couldn’t say the same. Judy Garland has had a substantial impact on people all over the world even decades after her death. Her impact on the music and film industries continues. She will always be looked to for inspiration from all aspects of her life. That’s right kind readers, Judy Garland is the one and only.
Fricke, John. World’s Greatest Entertainer. Holt, 1992, 1997
Johnson, Jim. The Judy Garland Database. http://www.jgdb.com/bio.htm