***** CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS REFERENCES TO SUBSTANCE ABUSE, MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, AND SUICIDE *****
This month marks Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. Born performing, Garland transitioned from vaudeville to motion pictures at the age of thirteen. She earned two Oscar nominations – Best Actress for 1954’s A Star Is Born and Best Supporting Actress for 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg – and was the first woman to receive the Album of the Year Grammy for 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall. In 1962, Garland became the first female recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award, a lifetime achievement award presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the organization that hosts the Golden Globes). The American Film Institute (AFI) ranked her eighth on its list of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Garland was a legend, an icon, a once-in-a-generation talent. She also spent her life haunted by the demons that would ultimately take her life.
Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on June 10, 1922. Her parents were vaudevillians who settled in Grand Rapids to purchase a movie theater they used to stage their vaudeville act. Garland’s two older sisters, Mary Jane “Suzanne” and Dorothy Virginia “Jimmie”, were already part of the family business, which Frances – then known as “Baby” – joined at the age of two. In 1926, the Gumm family relocated to Lancaster, California, north of Los Angeles; they had dreams of stardom for their daughters. After too many snickers and mispronunciations, the Gumm Sisters eventually became the Garland Sisters (the exact origin of the name is still up for debate); Frances chose the first name Judy in honor of the song by Hoagy Carmichael, the Tin Pan Alley artist best known for writing “Stardust”. But the Garland Sisters broke up in 1935 when Suzanne eloped to Reno.
In September 1935, Louis B. Mayer sent a scout to see Judy perform; Judy was brought to the studio and signed on the spot. The studio wasn’t really sure what to do with her; she had a wholesome, girl-next-door look that contrasted with the glamorous stars of the time period, and at thirteen Judy was older than the typical child star but not yet ready for adult roles. She was ultimately paired with Andy Rooney in movies like the Andy Hardy series (in which she literally played the girl next door) and Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms. Over a two-year period, Garland co-starred in six films. Garland later claimed that she, Rooney, and other young stars were prescribed amphetamines to help them maintain that breakneck pace, as well as barbiturates to help them sleep at night. This combination began an ultimately lethal cycle of addiction for Garland.
For the record, Rooney denied Garland’s allegations, but they sure sound plausible to me. MGM had absolute control over Garland; they monitored her weight and oversaw her diet and exercise regimen. They forced her to wear removable caps on her teeth and rubberized discs to change the shape of her nose (what the everloving fuck?). Mayer referred to Garland as “my little hunchback”. Men in power, who are committed to breaking a woman down, will generally stop at nothing to accomplish that objective. Certainly having a doctor on staff to pass out pills would be within the realm of possibilities. Perhaps Rooney wasn’t aware, perhaps he lied; either way, I believe her.
At sixteen, Garland got her biggest break to date: the starring role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Garland wasn’t MGM’s first choice; the studio wanted to borrow Shirley Temple, but 20th Century Fox declined to loan her out. Deanna Durbin was unavailable. The role then went to Garland, who was actually the producers’ favorite from the beginning. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Dorothy. Garland’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, is heartbreaking and goosebump-inducing. It is, quite simply, one of the most iconic musical performances in the history of cinema. As a matter of fact, the song tops AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list (fun fact: Garland and Gene Kelly are tied – with five each – for most appearances on that list). The Wizard of Oz made Garland a star; for her performance, she was awarded the honorary Academy Juvenile Award at the 12th Academy Awards.
Garland made the transition to adult roles in the early forties and starred in a string of successful musicals, including For Me and My Gal, The Harvey Girls, and Meet Me in St. Louis. The latter film (more on it in a bit) introduced Garland to her second husband, Vincente Minnelli. The two of them would make four more films together – and have a daughter, Liza – before divorcing in 1951. By that time, Garland’s film career had stalled; her attempt to segue into dramatic roles was not well-received and her struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues had made her unreliable.
Back to Meet Me in St. Louis, which chronicles a year in the life of the Smith family as they prepare for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Once again, a song performed by Garland – this time “The Trolley Song” – was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. Even more significantly, one of the era’s most enduring and iconic Christmas songs – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – was written for the film. Meet Me in St. Louis is sumptuous, with eye-popping colors and an Academy Award-nominated song score. It was the second-highest-grossing picture of 1944, behind eventual Best Picture Oscar winner Going My Way. It was chosen as the tenth-best movie musical of all time by the AFI. You can – and should – stream Meet Me in St. Louis on HBO Max.
In 1948, while filming The Pirate with Gene Kelly, Garland suffered a nervous breakdown. She was missing a lot of days due to a combination of substance abuse and migraines. She was able to finish the shoot, but in July, Garland made cuts to her wrists with a piece of broken glass. She was still taking barbiturates and had also developed an alcohol addiction. Garland was suspended from The Barkleys of Broadway after missing too many days (Ginger Rogers took over the role), but she was able to bounce back with 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime. She was fired again in May of 1949, this time from the film adaptation of Annie Get Your Gun. For several pictures, Garland repeated this cycle until MGM finally had enough, suspending her contract in the middle of shooting Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and replacing her with Jane Powell.
Following the termination of her MGM contract – and another suicide attempt – Garland became a frequent guest on The Bing Crosby – Chesterfield Show (ah, the good old days of cigarette sponsorship). Her appearances on the radio show were wildly popular and Garland parlayed that into a successful concert tour of the UK in 1951. By 1953, Garland was remarried (to impresario Sid Luft) with another baby (Lorna) – and ready to mount her movie comeback. The project she chose, George Cukor’s remake of 1937’s A Star Is Born, was a commercial and critical success and earned Garland her first competitive Oscar nomination. But the financial reward she was looking for failed to materialize. Production delays (often caused by Garland herself, who was back to missing days due to her migraines and substance abuse) caused the film’s budget to balloon to more than $5 million, and A Star Is Born failed to turn a profit. Garland’s film comeback was over before it began.
Despite all the production woes, Garland was nominated for Best Actress at the 27th Academy Awards (the film itself earned five additional nominations). She was widely expected to win, and NBC had a camera crew waiting in her hospital room – where she’d just given birth to her son Joey – to record her acceptance speech. When Grace Kelly unexpectedly won for The Country Girl, the crew had their equipment packed up before Kelly even reached the podium.
Her film career stalled once again, Garland turned to television and concert appearances to pay the bills, including the premiere episode of CBS’s Ford Star Jubilee and a brief residency at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. A 1961 concert appearance at Carnegie Hall yielded a highly successful live double album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, which spent thirteen weeks at the top of the Billboard chart and won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
That same year, Judy made her final major film appearance in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, which was a critical and box office smash. For her performance as Irene Hoffman, a reluctant witness for the prosecution, Garland was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 34th Academy Awards. She lost to Rita Moreno for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story, a decision I cannot argue with.
Garland’s last major project was a series of specials for CBS that culminated in 1963’s The Judy Garland Show. The musical variety series had a devoted following but couldn’t compete in the ratings with NBC’s Bonanza and CBS canceled it after one season. A tour of Australia ended badly. Garland was plagued by money issues; her agents had mismanaged – and outright embezzled – her earnings. At one point, she owed about $500,000 to the IRS, which placed liens on her home and her recording contract with Capitol Records. She was forced to sell her home at a loss. She was fired from one final movie, 1967’s The Valley of the Dolls. She completed a 27-show stint at New York’s Palace Theatre that same year, but the IRS seized most of her $200,000 earnings. And she continued to abuse prescription drugs. On June 22, 1969, Garland was found dead in the bathroom of her rented London home. Her death was ruled an accidental overdose; the autopsy results showed that her blood contained the equivalent of almost 1000 milligrams of the barbiturate Seconal. She left behind a bankrupt estate, three grieving children, and a legacy that has endured for one hundred years.