“Bigger Than Life” — 100 Years of Judy Garland

“Bigger Than Life” — 100 Years of Judy Garland

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By Stuart Mitchner

“Garland’s rendition of this marvelous torch-song, in its visual and vocal subtlety and dynamic power, is the greatest piece of popular singing I know.”

—Douglas McVay, from The Musical Film

If there’s a torch in “The Man That Got Away,” which Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin composed expressly for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, it’s the one she carries up the mountain of the performance, and you go with her. She’s giving everything she has to the song, pushing aside invisible obstacles, then beckoning to the nearest musician, as if to call him up beside her, but then pushing him away, suddenly reaching for the heavens with her right arm to sing “It’s all a crazy game!” By then her voice is everywhere and everything and “game” could stand for life, death, art, love. But you’re up there with her, you who gloomed into the theater, a zombie at 22, alone in New York after a traumatic summer. In the span of a few minutes, she’s changed the world, you’re alive again, and you feel like shouting your thanks. By all rights the people around you should be standing, cheering, but it’s just you and her, you’re hers, and an hour or so later, you stagger out of the movie into the night thinking Judy Garland Judy Garland Judy Garland. The film you just saw is seven years old. You’ve seen a revival. That’s what they call it, you think, you who have been revived.

Time magazine called A Star Is Born “just about the finest one-woman show in movie history,” while Sight and Sound’s Penelope Houston found “the special fascination of Judy Garland’s playing” in “the way it somehow contrives to bypass technique: the control seems a little less than complete and the emotion comes through, as it were, neat. In this incandescent performance, the actress seems to be playing on her nerves; she cannot but strike at ours.”

After giving A Star Is Born almost 20 pages of his 164-page survey of the American musical from 1927 to 1966, McVay makes a prodigious apology: “I have dwelt on this film at such length because I consider it to be not only clearly the greatest musical picture I have ever seen, but the greatest picture of any kind I have ever seen” The level of praise reflects the critical excitement the film received on its release in September 1954. Within a month, however, the Warner executives made drastic cuts in the running time, thus, as McVay admits, the greatest picture he ever saw was the version from which 45 minutes had been deleted, the same one that viewers, myself included, had to make do with until the 1983 restoration.

“A Sad Judy Pain”

I didn’t know about the cuts. All I knew when I walked out of the theatre that night in September 1961 was the wonder of Judy Garland. Interviewed about her supporting role in the 2019 biopic Judy, Jessie Buckley, whose work in films like Wild Rose (2018) shines with something undeniably close to Garland’s charm, energy, and sheer talent, spoke of her in an LRMonline interview “just kind of giving her heart to me, … and she’s been consistently in my life since then, and I love her.” That’s what Garland does — she gives you her heart, she fills you with awe, which becomes joy, then hope, then a transport of admiration, and yes, you love her.

Asked about Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Buckley says “she’s not just a singer, she’s an actress and a storyteller…. It’s a magical film,” and “Over the Rainbow” is “an incredible song that is actually quite sad at the core of it,” a song “about somebody who wants something beyond where they are in that moment, and you feel like they might get it.” Struggling for words, she speaks of “a sad Judy pain” and “the fragility of human hope.” 

June 22, 1969

I have no idea how much Garland’s struggles, her miseries, her collapses and comebacks, fueled the fire of her genius or can be blamed for the accidental overdose that killed her 53 years ago today, on June 22, 1969, only months after the last hurrah in London, the last awkward bow that was the subject of Judy. Although Renée Zellweger has been getting raves for her passionate impersonation of Garland, I found it hard to watch, probably because I’d spent the previous night reveling in  more than a dozen different YouTube dates with the real Judy singing, dancing, clowning. Go to “The Judy Garland Experience” for 15 minutes of Garland with the Count Basie Band, including a rousing double-encore with Mel Torme on the great Basie show stopper “April in Paris” and then an unforgettable rendition of “Cottage for Sale” that left various YouTube bloggers (including this one) in Judy Garland heaven.

Over the Rainbow

Now I’m thinking of another revival, another moment, another song, first seen by moviegoers in the late summer of 1939, with World War II looming. The Wizard of Oz did well at the box office but it wasn’t until it was re-released in 1949 and on CBS television in 1956 that it began to become, according to the Library of Congress, “the most seen film in movie history.” I saw the 1949 version, with Judy singing “Over the Rainbow” in a sepia vision of Kansas — a 16-year-old girl in a gingham jumper singing of a land “where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” Like the song that brings you into A Star Is Born, this one brings you into the world of the film and stays with you long after all the witches and munchkins, scarecrows and cowardly lions and color fantasias have faded. Once again the heart and soul of the film is Judy Garland. Even if you were to subtract what became her signature song and one of the signature songs of the American dream  — as LB Mayer apparently once seriously considered doing — the movie would still glow with her strength and sweetness, intelligence, courage, and spirit.

Helter Skelter

I almost forgot Saturday was Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday. For almost a week now it’s been all about Judy Garland, whose 100th was a week ago Friday. So, after a windy walk across the Princeton Battlefield, thinking of what happened there on January 3, 1777, I click into YouTube for a sepia view of Dorothy and Toto in Kansas, chickens in the yard, Toto on the fence behind Judy, and as she’s singing about bluebirds flying over the rainbow, I glance at the sidebar of postings on my right and there’s Sir Paul in East Rutherford, N.J., last Thursday night, a knight of the realm from Liverpool born eight days and 20 Junes after Judy, and looking more like 60 than 80 as he launches into “Helter Skelter,” one of the most outlandishly heavy rockers the Beatles ever recorded and one he avoided playing on concert tours with Wings because of its association with the Manson murders. To play such a strenuous number now after an hour or more onstage, at 80, has to be a statement, “I’m still rocking.” It could even be read as a  torch song in reverse, “I’m coming down fast but I’m miles above you,/ Tell me, tell me, come on tell me the answer, / You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer.”

The Gay Anthem

Much has been made of the fact that the Stonewall Riots, the D-Day of Gay Rights, broke out on the night of the “gay icon” Judy Garland’s funeral, which had drawn 21,000 people to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This past Saturday, the same day McCartney turned 80, Princeton’s Pride Parade took place, and here I’ve been musing on the song from The Wizard of Oz that opened the door to wonder and dream and imagination, and suddenly it dawns on me that Garland’s signature song is also a gay anthem. In a piece posted in April 2015 Kayleigh Marie Adamson refers to gays identifying as Friends of Dorothy: “The song gives them power. Identifying with something bigger than themselves. After all, isn’t that what Judy was? She was bigger than life!”

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