Judy Garland at Film Society of Lincoln Center & Paley Center (thru Aug 9, 18)

by on July 26, 2011Posted in: Essay

 

JUDY GARLAND WAS a few hundred thousand dollars in debt. It was the early 1960s, and she was still paying off taxes from the early 1950s. Enter wily David Begelman, a talent manager who brokered a deal with CBS for Garland to host a weekly television show and draw a weekly television paycheck, allowing the always-troubled, often performance-averse singer to pay down her debts and gain a measure of financial security. Judy was ready for some financial security, and she pulled herself together and buckled down to make it work. Many of her performances on the series qualify as personal-best renditions of the classics she’s still known for. “The Judy Garland Show” was the actress’ final public flowering, a last-gasp, Camelot-era incarnation that ended soon after Kennedy was shot (right after his assassination, Garland broadcast “Battle Hymn of the Republic” across the nation’s airwaves).
 

Judy Garland’s weight had been fluctuating for years; in the late Fifties, she became so overweight that she was barely recognizable, a fact she joked about in her Carnegie Hall concert of 1961. For “The Judy Garland Show,” which ran for one season (1963-64), Garland slimmed herself down to a flyweight standard (at one point on the show, guest Ethel Merman cries, “Look at you!” and blows on her hostess as if a puff from the Merm’s mighty lungs might scatter sparrow-like Garland away). The series went through three producers, and the second one, Norman Jewison, tried to bring Judy down to earth by having her insulted by a series of guests, a very bad idea that was abandoned by the last episodes, in which Garland just did a series of concerts. She was glamorously dressed for the series and heavily made-up in a way that made the brutishly applied eye shadow and eyeliner look like it might streak down her cheeks at any moment to indicate tears. Her hair was carefully coiffed, but she invariably made a bird’s-nest mess of it when she sang, clawing at it as if she’d like to pull it out and throw it at her audience. Most Judy Garland impersonators are impersonating what she was like on “The Judy Garland Show,” a small woman (4ft, 11in) frenziedly throwing her white microphone cord over her shoulder and then holding the mike itself over her head for one of her sustained “I’ll go even further!” climactic notes, the murderously violent vibrato that might have stunned even Edith Piaf.
 

Garland did not make the money she needed off the show because her manager Begelman robbed her blind, and this betrayal reinforced a lifelong pattern for her. When she was victimized, by her mother (“she was no good for anything except to create chaos and fear,” said Garland), by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (who called her his “little hunchback” and made her a lifelong drug addict), by director Busby Berkeley (who remorselessly pushed her through long hours as a young girl on his sets), she fought back by victimizing herself even more than they had. This was a woman who, at a certain point, repeatedly threatened suicide, but the attempts weren’t serious, or at least, not lethal. She would cut her wrists or slash her throat for the attention it got her. “I wanted to hurt myself and everyone who had hurt me,” she said, about her first suicide attempt. During an argument with her daughter Liza Minnelli, she even forthrightly declared, “Sympathy is my business.”
 


 

LOOKING AT HER early MGM films, where she aged from 13 to her early twenties, it’s clear that Garland is a performer so overtly sensitive, even overly sensitive, that she practically invites sadistic attention. It’s also clear that she was not just a phenomenal singer (she was billed as “The Little Girl With The Leather Lungs” in vaudeville) but also an actress of raw talent and untapped resources. She played a lot of girls next door with names like Betsy Booth or Patsy Barton, and the older characters in her films repeatedly refer to her lack of attractiveness, especially in the early movies like Everybody Sing (1938) (“You wish they wouldn’t,” cracked Pauline Kael). She worked her way through nine films with life-force hamola Mickey Rooney, who mugs up a storm while she just watches him silently and reacts like a body of water that is always rippling away with emotion. Garland got to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), of course, and that ensured her an almost mythological status, but all of those Mickey-Judy movies are a trial to sit through now, not to mention half-baked vehicles like Little Nellie Kelly (1940) and Presenting Lily Mars (1943). MGM under Louis B. Mayer in the early 1940s was a very wholesome and very dull place, and though Garland had her share of top-drawer musical material she was also asked to put over many sub-standard songs and far too many blackface routines with the Mick.
 

It was Vincente Minnelli who finally created a worthy frame for Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a musical masterpiece on fantasy family life where she was placed like a shining jewel behind white lace curtains. In their second film, The Clock (1945), a beautifully judged non-musical romance with soldier Robert Walker, Garland blossoms as a woman and a performer because Minnelli is obviously as sensitive as she is (it might also have helped that Walker was even more of a mess than she was at that time, and so her focus was on helping him). If you want to see why Judy Garland was a potentially major dramatic actress, look at the scene in The Clock after she and Walker have just gone through a disastrously impersonal wedding ceremony. They sit in a restaurant, and she tries to hold back, but finally she just explodes out with, “It was so ugly!” She’s close to total hysteria and breakdown here, as if all of her feelings have suddenly been unleashed at us. It’s perilously close to overacting, but Minnelli’s direction helps Garland channel this tidal wave, providing a formal cinematic structure for her outsized emotions with his careful framings and semi-dreamy camera movements. The two soon married.
 

Minnelli’s kindness was tested on their third film together, The Pirate (1948), where Garland’s drug habit caught up with her. That movie collaboration between Garland and Minnelli feels like some kind of psychosexual nervous breakdown. Her “Mack the Black” number suggests a wild longing for sexual indulgence borne out of sexual frustration, but her anger in The Pirate seems forced, as if she’s shut down emotionally. Garland was fired from MGM in 1950. The studio had chewed her up, sucked down the juices and spat her out, leaving her a hopeless mess for the rest of her life, a victim whose only way of retaliating was by hurting herself. You have to feel bad for Garland, but you have to feel even worse for those who loved her and had to watch her slash away at her wrists and her throat, the very throat that housed the once-in-a-lifetime singing voice she both needed and hated.
 


 

THAT VOICE REACHED new heights in her comeback movie, A Star is Born (1954), especially when she sings “The Man That Got Away” in a dark bar. “No more his eager call,” she sings, holding on “more” and then “call” and making them quiver. “The writing’s on the wall,” she continues, doing the same thing but shooting up even higher vocally. “The dreams you’ve dreamed have all gone astray,” she finishes, and the surprise is that she chooses to hit “The” before “dreams” with her full Phil Spector wall-of-sound lung power. Maybe this is just showing off (the emphasis on that word has nothing to do with the lyrics), but it’s unlike any other sound in movies, an enormous cry of pain dredged up from the bitterest experience.
 


 

As an actress in A Star is Born, Garland is often indulged by George Cukor, who’s slightly too fascinated by her emotional explosions and can’t help her to control them as fully as Minnelli did in The Clock. Garland in A Star is Born has moved bag-and-baggage into full-out 1950s Method acting, with its ties to psychotherapy, and she would continue in this vein for her turn as a victim of the Nazis in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and her last film, the underrated I Could Go On Singing (1963), where she does a magnificently self-indulgent six-minute take confessional with Dirk Bogarde that reveals the Monster Judy, hating her audience yet desperately in need of love from them or from anyone because she has no love at all for herself. (On the set of that picture, the crew started out by calling her “Miss Garland,” but midway through the shooting they were referring to her as “It.”)
 

If her voice was at its technical peak around the time of A Star is Born, it had gained in plangency and despair (and some low notes) by the time she did “The Judy Garland Show.” When she sings “The Man That Got Away” one episode, she feels her way into it semi-humorously, with little half smiles, as if to say, “Prepare yourself, we’re going in.”
 


 

Now when she sings, “Suddenly you’re older,” Garland lets herself feel this chilly line fully, in the way she felt things when she was young at MGM. It’s clear that whatever drugs she’s taking are keeping her this open (is that part of why she took drugs, to keep the performing vulnerability she had as a girl?) On “No more,” her eyes scan the auditorium as if she’s looking for this man that got away, and she still does the big third “The,” but this time it’s more in its proper place. Then, on “gone astray,” Garland chooses to look directly into the camera at us, and her look is candid, rueful, sour, as if to say, “You know what I’m singing about, don’t pretend you don’t.”
 

She starts to feel a little sorry for herself, but this self-pity is mixed in with the little half-smiles, so that all these fleeting emotions are working together like an orchestra playing a symphony. On “No more that old time thrill,” the camera switches to a rather unflattering low angle that allows us to see just what her mouth looks like when that VIBRATO thing of hers makes it pulsate. On “Never a new love will be the same,” she gives us a full-out smile, because still loving someone you’ve lost is a joke, too, of course. “But fools will be fools,” she insists, and she pulls at her hair, the sure sign that she’s agitated and ready to give us French chanson Judy, a middle-aged waif tossed by the storms of life. “And where’s he gone? To?” she asks, and her eyes narrow slightly on “To?” to bring home the loss, and then those spaniel eyes of hers start to blaze with anger. On “The livelong night and day,” her arms open out so that her body really does look like a pool being rippled by her vibrato. She clasps her arms around herself (by herself, alone), and then looks directly into the camera again, as if she’s staring expectantly straight at God.
 

Garland’s up-tempo numbers can be even sadder than her torch songs. On “It’s Almost Like Being In Love,” she keeps chugging uphill with measured “happiness” but makes sure to emphasize the “almost” in the lyric. Watch at 1:48 when she cries, “And yet I love to love!” and then, “Glad I’m alive!” This is Judy Garland singing “Glad I’m alive!” when that clearly isn’t the case most of the time, but it’s part of the lyric, and so she sings it, and then she closes her eyes for a second as if to say, “Well, I guess so, sure…I’m glad I’m alive, right now, for you.” Watch her hands as she works her way up to the big finish, the way that she lightly smacks herself in the face and then opens her left hand up like a flower for “Lo-o-o-ve!” and then the ferociously insistent climax, as if the sheer vast architecture of her voice can make her believe she’s in love or almost in love.
 


 

AN ENDLESS PARADE of guest stars appeared on the show (Garland was chastised by CBS execs for being too touchy-feely with them, too physically needy), and she did sketches with Rooney and sang with Lena Horne and Peggy Lee, but her encounter with a 21 year-old Barbra Streisand is the one for the record books, a study in contrasts. When Streisand sings, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Garland sits by and quietly sings her own “Get Happy” in tandem, and her heightened, druggy sensitivity allows her to feel and enjoy Streisand’s gargantuan singing voice moment by moment. On their medley, Garland is able to get through to Streisand more; she’s so attuned to her, in fact, that it almost feels like she’s singing not just with her but through her. In general, she lets the younger singer shine (at one point, she maternally brushes Streisand’s hair back when it’s obscuring her face), but on “You and the Night and the Music,” when she belts out at 3:05, “Will I-I-I-I-I-I-I ha-a-a-a-ave you?” full voice, even the guarded Streisand looks taken aback and impressed. Streisand’s voice is an almost impersonal war-like instrument, a clarion trumpet, whereas Garland’s is all-too-human and tremulous, a morbid and gruesomely merry disaster area. Whereas the suspicious Streisand is like a hurt, sullen child who keeps herself safe behind a closed curtain, the flailing Garland is alive to every bit of stimuli around her and shows off her entire battered soul for us with often-unseemly recklessness.
 


 

“Don’t you enjoy singing?” Garland asks Streisand before their duet. “Doesn’t it get all the rage out of you?” She was a person who was filled with anger, and a lot of her talent came from a kind of transmogrified anger, so that this anger came out as humor, or “humor,” either low camp or high irony. She would tell long, rambling stories on her show and dither around words vaguely until she decided to leap on a word for a laugh, and she’d get one, but it would often be an uncomfortable laugh. Her friends and family are always insisting how funny she was because they think that this will somehow balance the tragic perception of the drug addict girl from MGM who had a hard life and died too young, but Garland’s humor to me is the scariest thing about her. Just watch the way her eyes open comically wide as she’s caught up short after singing the lyric, “Life is one long jubilee!” during “Who Cares?”:
 


 

Life is one long jubilee? Really? Garland obviously finds this lyric hilariously wrong, and she always keeps getting stopped cold by cheery lines like that in her songs but then plowing ahead to be sporting for us.
 

GARLAND TEMPERED HER manic numbers with a few slow versions of tunes like “Do It Again” or “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” that brought her audience to a suspended-in-time, foggy standstill, but she was most herself when spurred on to be both Dionysus and Bacchante rolled into one by this lighting-fast bongo drum arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine”:
 


 

Get a load of her on, “Wo-hont! That be fine!” at 2:35, where she closes her eyes and opens her left hand out and then hurls out “that” in “that be fine” with her whole body. Then the BIG finish of all big finishes: “I’m with you baby,” then “I’m with you baby,” higher and louder, and “I’m with you always,” as she smacks the mike cord down like a whip, “Come rain or shi—aw—in—aw—i—i—ine!” She pushes her voice to its absolute limit, and it’s all in her throat here, not coming from her diaphragm, which means that technically she’s singing incorrectly. She’s singing in a way that will eventually destroy her voice, but she obviously doesn’t care. Look at the childlike kick she gets out of flinging that last line out at us; she actually throws her head back and laughs gleefully afterward, like a kid who just got away with something. One of the all-time great singing voices? She’s sick of it, you can have it! To hell with you, Mother, to hell with you, Louis B. Mayer, to hell with you Busby Berkeley and then, inevitably, she turns on herself, too.
 

It’s always been said that this kind of all-out live entertaining began with Al Jolson, and Garland often sang Jolson numbers like “Swanee” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Jolson was the king of show business in his time, or at least live performing, and he was succeeded by Garland and Frank Sinatra (for 20th century live acts, they sit at the top with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Streisand herself). Sinatra sang “Old Man River” as a young man in Till The Clouds Roll By (1946), and he seemed totally wrong for it then, too callow, not soulful enough yet, far too white. He would try that song again in later years, and it never quite worked for him. But when Garland did “Old Man River” on her show, it expressed her nihilistic philosophy of life to a T. Look at the conviction she brings to the lyric at 2:23, “I’m tired of living but scared of dying,” where she lets her own voice buffet her as if she’s on the prow of a ship and a hurricane-force wind is hitting her body. She’s just untouchable here:
 


 

AFTER THE SERIES ended, Garland had a few more years of concertizing before her death in 1969 at the age of 47. She often didn’t even have enough money for food to eat, and there was no pension forthcoming from MGM, a studio that made millions off of her movies. In those last years, her voice started to fray and she physically aged until she resembled a careworn little old lady who had been felled by some drastic illness. Liza Minnelli recently related a story on stage about telling Garland’s lifelong friend and musical arranger Kay Thompson that Garland had died. There was a pause (they were speaking on the phone), and then Thompson said, “Your mother lived a marvelous life. She did everything she ever wanted to do.” That struck me as odd when I first heard it, like some kind of denial, but Thompson knew Garland better than anybody, and what she said about her is not just an attempt to soothe a grief-stricken daughter. Judy Garland did do everything she wanted, often to her own detriment, and there is still a lot to marvel at in what she left behind. She always advises us to throw caution to the winds, and her vibrato was a solid stone staircase leading up to a place where we might get happy. Hopefully it’s quiet and all so peaceful for her on the other side.
 


 

Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen
 

“All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy!”, a retrospective of Judy Garland’s feature films, is playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center July 26 to August 9th.
 

“Judy Garland: The Television Years,” a comprehensive retrospective of Judy Garland’s television appearances , is playing at the Paley Center through August 18th.

  • I disagree about the Mickey-Judy movies, Dan. “Babes in Arms” is excllent and “Girl Crazy” is bloody marvelous — especially for the “Embraceable You” number where she dances with Charles Walters. He also partners her in the finale of “Presenting Lily Mars,” and directed several of her best films — “Easter Parade” and “Summer Stock.”

    Here’s my favoirte Judy number

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-Q3gd6S1as

    • Very nice article, Dan.  Didn’t Gloria Steinam, or someone with equally notable feminist credentials, once write about overcoming her distaste for Marilyn Monroe.  In a simiular way, I — as a gay man of a certain, post-’50s generation — had to overcome my aversion for Judy La Souffrante.  Enormous dramatic and musical talent, but … it’s as if she had to pummel the audience with her pathos.  Was that a truck running over us, or simply Garland being “sensitive”?  I think that’s why I like her best in “Ziegfeld Follies” or here

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XehbAYSx2mU

      • Jim M.

        Yes, indeed, it might be said Judy Garland’s performances, especially later in her life, ran the narcissistic gamut from pathos to bathos.

  • She has fine moments in “Babes in Arms,” and “Girl Crazy” is definitely a cut above the others, but “Strike Up the Band” and “Babes on Broadway” can get pretty grim.

    Charles Walters is definitely a talented and still under-valued director. What was his personal life like? Was he part of George Cukor’s circle?”I Don’t Care” is a nice choice—it’s lots of fun and not too well-known. I really like the single take version she does of Weill’s “It Never Was You” in “I Could Go On Singing,” where she knows the exact moment toward the end to raise her hands to her face.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v246Bbaiv0

  • Walters was gay and he and Cukor were friends. But everyone in Hollywod had their own particular circle. When Cukor did “Les Girls” he was very worried about doing a musical, especially with Gene Kelly. Walters gave him advice, which Cukor took, about handling Kelly. When the film premiered Walter sent a Cukor a nice note (which I found in Mr. Cukor’s files at the Motion Picture Academy) congratulating him — signing it “Madeleine Carroll’  A private joke between two execptionally sophisticated gay men.

    Jacques Rivette is a huge Walters fan, preferring him to Minnelli in many respects.

    Walters began as a dancer on Broadway. He partnered Betty Grabel in the “Well Did You Evah?” number in “DuBarry Was a Lady.” MGM bought the show outright and many members of its cast, Walters included. (They passed on Betty Grable who was snatched up by FOX and became that studios very biggest star.) Walters worked as a dance director and chorus boy wrangler for many years befroe being given the chance to direct a film on his own in 1947 — “Good News” It was a masterpiece — and a big hit. Years later he directed one of the studio’s biggest hsmashes, “High Society.” Cole Porter wrote the score but as they were putting the project together Walters realized they needed a number for Frank and Bing to sing. So Cole Porter said they should do “Well Did You Evah?” So umpteen years after he first did that numebr Charles Walters taught Frank and Bing to sing and dance like himself and Betty Grable.

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  • Walters was good with the Junes, the Debbies, the Esthers and the Leslies of Hollywood. His “Lili” is one of my favorite films. And of course I love watching him trip over Joan’s leg in “Torch Song.”

  • There’s a book coming out about him. Leslie Caron told me she was interviewed extensively for it.
    As for Walters’ “stageinf of numbers, here’ something gay men “d’un cerain age” refer to as “The National Anthem”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFaREEaN1XU

  • Very glad there’s going to be a book about Walters, he deserves one.

  • Anonymous

    Great use of these videos to showcase Judy as a performer.  And I enjoyed how you read them as commentaries on her life.  But I’m not convinced.  I see Judy as having created a persona but not letting it overwhelm her performances with emotional asides about her life.  I think she was too professional and smart for that.  I think she uses these performance and yes, her life, to make emotional statements but not ones that only pertain to her.

    For example, with “Come Rain or Come Shine,” I don’t think she is singing with such abandon out of rebellion against Louis B. Mayer or her mother but because that abandon is the whole point to how she is delivering that song.  This orchestration and her performance is all about the insanity of love.  As for her way of singing destroying her voice, there is no evidence of that.  Drugs, illness, smoking, drinking and sleepless had far more to do with her vocal weaknesses in the years before her death than her method of singing.  There are performance in the last year of her life (Philadelphia 1968) where her voice is still there.

    I do agree with you about “A Star is Born.”  She should have toned it down in the second half.  She cries and chews the scenery in every dramatic scene once Norman is on the way down.  I found her shrill and annoying.   Its too bad because she is very good in the early scenes and Swanee with her slapping the cane as she dances is always a thrill to watch.

  • I chose to read these performances through a personal lens, but I agree that they are also universal. When Garland was at her best, as she is in these clips, and especially on “Old Man River,” she has almost total control over what she’s doing, even when she’s singing with such abandon and “let the chips fall where they may” extravagance. It’s that mixture of abandon and control that makes her so unique. There were times, though, when that control left her, as in her all-over-the-place rendition of “San Francisco,” where even the camera is out-of-control: 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkQ93yvYtUs

    Agree about the second half of “A Star is Born,” though those hysterical scenes of hers do have their fascination.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, there were series performances that weren’t so hot and that version of San Francisco is definitely one of them.  When she was off, it seemed Jerry Lewis had taken over her body and she just mugged up a storm.  

      But mostly she was “on” and range and depth of feelings expressed is something to behold.  I’m surprised at how many time I can watch one of the greats, “Old Man River,” “Moon River” both versions of the “Man that Got Away” “When your lover has gone,” “Cottage for Sale,”  “Here’s that Rainy Day” etc. and see something new and surprising in a performance I’ve seen more times than I care to admit.  Thanks again for the article – and I’m glad it’s getting noticed!

    • Anonymous

      Yes, there were series performances that weren’t so hot and that version of San Francisco is definitely one of them.  When she was off, it seemed Jerry Lewis had taken over her body and she just mugged up a storm.  

      But mostly she was “on” and range and depth of feelings expressed is something to behold.  I’m surprised at how many time I can watch one of the greats, “Old Man River,” “Moon River” both versions of the “Man that Got Away” “When your lover has gone,” “Cottage for Sale,”  “Here’s that Rainy Day” etc. and see something new and surprising in a performance I’ve seen more times than I care to admit.  Thanks again for the article – and I’m glad it’s getting noticed!

    • Anonymous

      Yes, there were series performances that weren’t so hot and that version of San Francisco is definitely one of them.  When she was off, it seemed Jerry Lewis had taken over her body and she just mugged up a storm.  

      But mostly she was “on” and range and depth of feelings expressed is something to behold.  I’m surprised at how many time I can watch one of the greats, “Old Man River,” “Moon River” both versions of the “Man that Got Away” “When your lover has gone,” “Cottage for Sale,”  “Here’s that Rainy Day” etc. and see something new and surprising in a performance I’ve seen more times than I care to admit.  Thanks again for the article – and I’m glad it’s getting noticed!

  • Love her punk rock hair, Chris!–

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  • Joan Roseman

    Wonderful, Dan.  I so look forward to these pieces, probably because you articulate for me so perfectly the deepest loves of my childhood and young adulthood.  Marilyn, Judy — I cannot wait to see who is next.

  • Thanks so much, Joan!—very glad you’re liking these actor pieces–

  • Not only a brilliantly-written and lyrically-felt, somehow, article but the device of including the You Tube clips—a technique that I happened upon myself earlier this summer when beginning a series of articles I’m working on about the Under-rated Films & Performances of Elizabeth Taylor…I find it so effective and so lovely to be led by you, in this way to a greater appreciation of artistry that, because so often fetishized, is also often under-appreciated & taken less than seriously. Truly, Dan, thank you!

  • J J

    What a great article, Dan.  I remember when I was first mesmerized by and introduced to Judy’s TV show performances  on PBS many years ago.  I go through phases in my appreciation of Judy’s genius …wondering at times if it really is simply madness…you remind me that I was right to be mesmerized.  It seems she doesn’t really have the legacy she deserves.

    I agree that the Rooney/Garland movies are sometimes a chore to get through.  But she comes across as a very cute, typical 1930’s teen..and there are some musical numbers that are treasures…(and others that are awful), but try to catch some of the numbers like “Strike Up the Band”, “I’ve Got Rhythm” & “Do the Conga”…a bit campy at times, but the genius is there.

  • Robert Anderson

    I had a hard time reading this because of that Ctm or whatever that cursed block was ! So I just gave up.

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