On film, Judy Garland largely defined the Hollywood musical during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Onstage, she emerged as one of the most dynamic performers of the 20th century, earning a legion of fans whose ardor for Garland has scarcely diminished since her death in 1969.
The youngest of three sisters, she was born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on June 10, 1922. Her father managed a movie theater, where he sang between films, accompanied on the piano by Frances’s mother. When still a toddler, Frances and her older siblings also began per forming for moviegoers as the Gumm Sisters.The act continued to play local theaters after the family moved to southern California in 1927. Placed in a theatrical school by her ambitious mother, Frances soon became the group’s star, singled out as the “little girl with the great big voice.” In 1934 while performing in Chicago, the singing Gumms adopted the name Garland, perhaps at the suggestion of vaudeville comedian George Jessel. A year later, Frances herself decided to change her first name to “Judy” after the title of a popular song. As her reputation grew, Judy was invited to audition for movie studio head Louis Mayer in 1936. Without a screen test, he signed her to a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM),which immediately set about grooming her for stardom. Her first screen appearance was in a short titled Every Sunday (1936), in which she appeared with fellow teenage singing sensation Deanna Durbin. Unsure how best to use Garland, MGM then loaned her out to Twentieth Century-Fox for the campus comedy Pigskin Parade (1936). In her next movie, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), she caught the attention of all Hollywood. Stealing the movie from stars ELEANOR POWELL and RobertTaylor, Garland memorably performed a love song to a photograph of movie heartthrob Clark Gable to the tune of “You Made Me Love You.” The music was arranged by Roger Edens, a vocal coach and composer who would have a long, fruitful working relationship with Garland.
Her next great screen role was the one for which she is still best known—Dorothy in the classic musical film The Wizard of Oz (1939). Although the movie now seems inconceivable without Garland, she won the coveted part only because MGM could not get its first and second choices, child star SHIRLEY TEMPLE and Garland’s former costar Deanna Durbin. In another irony, her performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—which later became her signature song—was nearly cut from the film at the last minute because the studio feared the song was too melancholy for a children’s film. Despite their worries, both Garland and the song were embraced by the public. For her work in Oz, she received her only Academy Award—a special Oscar for the best juvenile performance of the year.
Garland spent much of her late teens starring in two popular series of films with former schoolmate Mickey Rooney. She appeared in three “Andy Hardy” movies as Andy’s spirited but somewhat insecure pal Betsy Blake. Garland also shared star billing with Rooney in four films of the “Babes” series of lighthearted, frivolous musicals. In Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943), they played would-be performers inspiring their friends to “put on a show. "Offscreen, Garland was far from the happy girl next door she so often played on film. Her boss, Louis Mayer, and her mother (who Garland later called “the real Wicked Witch of the West”) dominated the young star, pushing her to meet a r elentless schedule of filmmaking, recording, radioperformances, and personal appearances. As a result of the stress, Garland developed insomnia. To help her sleep, she was given barbiturates. To help her wake up and maintain her weight, she was given amphetamines. By the end of her teens, Garland was addicted to pills. Despite her difficult personal life, Garland did much of her best film work during the 1940s. She appeared in a string of popular musicals including For Me and My Gal (costarring with Gene Kelly in his screen debut, 1942), The Harvey Girls (1946),and the classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), on the set of which she first met director Vincente Minnelli. In 1945 she wed Minnelli after dissolving her marriage of four years to composer David Rose.
The couple had one child, LIZA MINNELLI, who would grow up to become an accomplished performer in her own right. Minnelli went on to direct Garland in The Clock (1945), a romantic drama, and The Pirate (1947), a Cole Porter musical that reteamed her with Kelly. By this time, however, her workinghabits had grown erratic. Her drug addiction, combined with an ever-present insecurity about her talents, made her chronically late and often too frightened to leave her trailer. After filming ThePirate, Garland was briefiy confined to a mental institution before returning to the screen in still another successful musical, Easter Parade (1948), opposite Fred Astaire. She was set to star again with Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), but because of her mental instability, she was replaced by Astaire’s old dance partner GINGER ROGERS. Her fragile condition also lost her leads in the films Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Show Boat (1951), musical properties bought by MGM with Garland in mind.
In 1950 Garland had hit with Summer Stock (1950), in which she performed “Get Happy,” a song that became a popular part of her repertoire. However, on the set of her next movie, Royal Wedding (1951), her difficult behavior compelled MGM to fire their star. Soon afterward, she made a highly publicized suicide attempt, the first of several. With no offers from other studios, Garland, with the help of agent Sid Luft, began to perform in concert. Luft booked her for an astoundingly successful run at the Palladium in London, followed by an even greater triumph at New York’s Palace Theater. She broke box-office records during her 19-week engagement, which won her a Tony Award. Her concerts also earned Garland one of the most devoted followings a singer has ever enjoyed. Singing many of the songs she made famous in her films, Garland created a sense of intimacy with her audiences with her emotionally intense performances.
Divorced from Minnelli in 1951, Garland married Luft the next year. (The couple would have two children, Lorna and Joey.) Soon after their marriage, the couple established their own produc tion company at Warner Brothers in order to make A Star Is Born (1954). A musical remake of the 1937 film of the same name, the movie told the show-business story of a rising young star who eclipses her husband, a once-famous actor caught in the grip of alcoholism. The melodrama inspired perhaps Garland’s most stirring dramatic performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but lost, possibly because Hollywood had trouble forgiving her for her past temperamental behavior. In her next film, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), her brief role earned her another Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actress.
After A Star Is Born, Garland returned to the concert stage, although ill health often interfered with her work. During one of several comebacks, however, she turned in possibly her greatest performance on April 23, 1961, at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The live recording of the concert sold more than 2 million copies and brought her two Grammy Awards. In September 1963, Garland made her debut in her own variety show on television. The programs varied in quality, though some episodes (such as one in which Garland sang with the then largely unknown BARBRA STREISAND) contain excellent performances. Nevertheless, the show failed to find an audience and was canceled before finishing a season.
In need of money, Garland went back to singing in concert, with mixed results. After a bitter custody battle, she divorced Luft in 1965 and married actor Mark Herron the same year. They separated after six months and divorced in 1967. Two years later, Garland wed for the fifth and last time, marrying discotheque owner Mickey Deans. While on tour in London, Deans found Garland collapsed in her hotel room on June 22, 1969. She died at 47 from an apparently accidental overdose of sleeping pills. The enormous impact she had had on American culture was evident at the outpouring of grief from her devoted fans. More than 20,000 came to her funeral to pay their last respects.
Clarke, Gerald. Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. New York: Random House, 2000.
Edwards, Anne. Judy Garland. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.
Frank, Gerold. Judy. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Shipman, David. Judy Garland: The Secret Life of an American Legend. New York: Hyperion, 1993.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). MGM/UA, VHS, 1992.
The Judy Garland Show Collection (1963). Pioneer Video, DVD set, 1999.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1945). Warner Home Video, VHS, 2000.
A Star Is Born (1954). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
The Wizard of Oz (1939). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 1999.