Film Criticism / Film History / Film Theory / Gay History / Gay Studies / Judy Garland / List-o-rama

Five Films Starring Judy Garland (that you were afraid to watch) -

Judy has gotten a bad rap as time goes by. She has, and always will be one of the most potent cult figures in Gay history, a fact that has cast over gay culture, and all American pop culture, like a long and sinister statue. Saint Judy, we think we know her all too well, tears streaming down her tragic baby doll face, an altar made of barbituates, broken dreams, roses and rainbow flags. Judy herself claimed she’d die with a boat load of fags saluting a flag singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ in gleeful chorus. For most, she is a stereotype even more eye-roll inducing than Cher, Madonna, or Lady Gaga combined. But what exactly about her leaves us with a twinge of revulsion and resentment? Is it the prejudiced assumption that because Judy Garland is a tragic figure, that all those of the LGBTQ community are inherently tragic? That our lives are torrid, unseemly, prone to scrutiny, that our mothers didn’t love us enough? That those in power, be it the society we live in  or the culture we are born into, is as harsh and judgmental as Judy’s damning film studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer? But Judy, like it or not, is tied seamlessly into the culture of the Gay Rights Movement, all because of a hot summers night on June 28th, 1969, the day after Judy Garland’s funeral at Campbell’s. Thousands of on lookers passed in toe to see their beloved Judy in an open casket. Stonewall was a hole in the wall bar with no liquor license and prone to police raids. But that night, the patrons had had enough when the cops came in that night. What would occur were the Stonewall Riots, which would change the face of what Gay Rights truly meant to the outside world, forever. While Judy certainly can’t take all the credit, it can only be said it was more than appropriate. But what is so maddening about Judy’s damning legacy, is that unlike so many recent gay icons in the past decades since her untimely death to an overdose at the age of 47, is how truly talented and versatile she was. Judy is, and always will remain the queen of Movie Musicals, and her legacy as Dorothy Gale will continue to endear generations of children as long as the earth continues to spin. But while she is known merely as Dorothy to the outside world, her filmography is not only filled with variety, but with a consistency through even her worst years that makes her shine like a diamond. Take a deep breath, put on your ruby slippers and stroll down a list that shows a truly breath-taking career that should be given more attention in the passing years…

5. Meet Me in St Louis (1944) Dir: Vincent Minnelli

‘My favorite musical’, said Gene Kelly wistfully when asked about the film, and one doesn’t have to look hard to see why. Though devoid of any breath taking dancing, show stopping numbers or bold flashy colors, no film captures a sense of nostalgic Americana, an America that never truly existed, quite like Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis. As though the quietest Ozu film were transposed to the 1940’s dream factory of MGM, Meet Me in St Louis is a small plot with quiet, modest scenes centering around a year in the life of The Smith Family in St Louis, Missouri 1904. Judy was initially furious about the idea of playing Esther Smith, a goofy teenage girl in love with John Truett, the boy next door. Resentful at having been damned to roles of young ingenues for so many years, struggling to maintain an new, adult image, even Judy’s Mother tried to convince Papa Mayer, head honcho of MGM to give it to someone else. But the Freed unit, responsible for almost all of the quality musicals the studio produced, insisted. Known as the one take girl on the lot, Minnelli infuriated Judy from day one when he insisted on one take after another, going as far as requesting rehearsals for the tiny yet deliriously intricate scene involving a mere telephone call at dinner one afternoon, taking days to shoot. But what would occur for Judy throughout the long and grueling shoot of Meet Me in St Louis would be a turning point that proved bittersweet. Judy’s make up artist, Dorothy Ponedel took one look at Judy, demanding she take the cosmetic plugs stuck in her nose to ‘correct’ her face since her Oz days in 1939, insisting that Judy was simply beautiful the way she was, giving her a modest layer of make up. How right Dorothy was, for Judy never quite glowed as a beautifully as she does on screen for Meet Me in St. Louis. Though Judy plays a teenage girl in love, her performance as Esther is a haunting, heavenly portrait of young girlhood.

Though Judy initially despised her young ambitious director, Vincent Minnelli, they would both fall in love and marry, eventually starting a family with the birth of their child, Oscar winning singer and actress, Liza Minnelli. But problems occurred continuously throughout production. Many were less than thrilled with the marriage of Minnelli and Garland, especially a manipulative Papa Mayer and those aware of the long standing rumors of Minnelli’s homosexuality before his move to Hollywood. Meet Me in St Louis was, for Judy, another turning point for the erratic, unpredictable behavior that would eventually taint her career until her death. Here, Judy begins to come to the studio late, making one excuse after another, sometimes not even showing up to work at all. Years of pill addiction thanks to the powers that be at MGM began to take their toll on the young Judy, who would eventually be fired in 1950, after a failed attempt at starring in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), replaced by Betty Hutton.

4. Easter Parade (1948) Dir: Charles Walters

Though 20th Century Fox would offer the famous composer Irving Berlin ungodly sums of money to produce a musical using his immortal music, Berlin insisted the only woman who could sing his songs was Miss Judy Garland. Fred Astaire even stepped out of retirement, just so he could sing and dance with her. Easter Parade is the height of MGM’s powers for both its cast and crew, Garland musing before her death in her last interview, that it was her favorite film she ever did. In a grand tradition of movie musicals, Easter Parade surrounds itself in a lush, consistent catalog of tunes, centering around a pedestrian, though unimportant plot, for the mere magic is not in any sense of immaculate film structure or narrative, but by the pure magic of seeing a group of talented stars strut their stuff. Unlike the star-studded yawn-fests filled with untalented or horrifically mis-cast celebrities of today (cough, cough, Les Miserables, cough, cough), one would have to be made of stone to not melt when Judy croons to Fred In Your Easter Bonnet on that mesmerizing MGM back lot street, furnished with period costumed extras and carriages,  like a Victorian holiday card. It is hard to believe such wellsprings of talent could ever have existed at one time, and that Judy provided such a prolific and massive contribution to one film alone.

3. The Clock (1945) Dir: Vincent Minnelli

The Clock is perhaps, one of the greatest love stories ever filmed, and definitely one of  the most over-looked films of all time. Here, is Judy Garland in her first non-musical role, playing Alice Maybery, a girl living in New York during World War II, where she meets a handsome soldier at a train station. After spending an entire day together, they both realize they are falling in love and vow to marry before Joe has to leave for Military Camp. What makes The Clock so astounding is the realism that occurs on the screen, revealing itself to be a fascinating time capsule into a particular time and place, New York City in the 1940’s. Though filmed entirely on the MGM lot, one can feel the busyness of a wild, bustling New York, contrasting with the delicate, tender romance between Judy Garland and Robert Walker. While hundreds of films were produced during and after WWII in the 1940’s concerning current affairs, The Clock proves itself to be one of the most delicate, unbiased looks into American life at the time, second only to Willam Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Further fascination occurs with Judy’s character, Alice, living with another room-mate independently in an apartment, a startling and new phenomena during the 1940’s, when women were allowed an independence unseen in the burgeoning 20th century. Girls from all walks of life all over the United States were attracted to the glistening meccas of America, securing independence in nearly all assets whether it be jobs, a steady income and a freedom that would quickly be taken away when the boys came home from War. Perhaps, a gentle irony occurs for the independent Alice when Joe sweeps her off her feet, dreams of love, marriage and children becoming inevitable as the films narrative progresses. But Judy makes her character so utterly believable and sincere, you root loudly for the romance between her and her soldier Joe when they are reunited, parted, and reunited again through a bustling New York. Here, Judy proves her potential career as a great, dramatic actress was sadly too overlooked in her own lifetime.

2. A Child is Waiting (1963)

One person who saw Judy’s potential as a dramatic actress was producer/director Stanley Kramer. Her brief performance as a woman persecuted by Nazi’s for an affair with a Jewish man  in his star studded opus Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) would earn her a second Oscar Nomination. Kramer cast her in yet another film, producing A Child is Waiting, with a last minute replacement in none other than director John Cassavetes, one of the most important, and original Independent Film Directors of the 20th Century, who happened to be on loan from Paramount early in his career. Starring alongside Burt Lancaster, Judy plays Jane Hansen, a Julliard graduate looking for a job, who finds herself becoming the music teacher in a Mental Hospital, working with mentally challenged children. Harsh realities  constantly surround her in the hoards of abandoned children, left to fester in a State Hospital by misinformed parents. Jane struggles with the demanding, strict staff and bonds with many of the children who have found their way there, and will more than likely, be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Kramer was by all means, a timely and topical producer of films, an asset that would cause him trouble more than once during the McCarthy witch hunts of the Cold War. The topic addressed by A Child is Waiting is an unfortunate and deeply disturbing issue that haunts a generation of Americas to this day, where the inherent Medievalism of Psychology through out the 20th century reared its head too often. Parents of children who showed signs of developmental problems were consistently assured by doctors to put their children away in Mental Hospitals, since the care and upkeep of them in the home would be too costly and demanding. Many were assured to merely try at having children again, and to forget them, if they could. Stories of children from the 1950’s and 60’s discovering long lost siblings and relatives hoarded away in State Hospitals, appear in the media as hot topic news stories to this day. This is by far, Judy’s most harrowing and realistic role. Garland knows all too well the inherent torment and vulnerability of the children, and herself. The scenes she performs with real disabled children, are some of the most touching examples of acting ever put to film. As we watch the film, it demands us not to fall apart, like Garland, who can barely keep composure when confronted with the human tragedy that surrounds her.

1. A Star is Born (1954) Dir: George Cukor

It was to be the most momentous come-back in American Film History. Garland had not starred in a film since her firing from MGM in 1950, and what her and her producer husband, Syd Luft planned, was a show-stopper with songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, a script by writer Moss Hart, and a director in the genius, George Cukor. But what occurred was yet another tragedy that would scar the brief life of Judy Garland. But what little is left behind of this battered film, is proof that if ever fully restored to its brief, former glory would be perhaps the most important and revolutionary movie musical ever made. While the zeitgeist of The Wizard of Oz will forever immortalize Judy Garland in the heart of millions, perhaps billions, A Star is Born is the ultimate testament to one of the greatest, if not the greatest, vocal talents of the 20th century. A Star is Born was already an oft-remade vehicle originally made in 1937, a film that famously plagiarized the 1933 film What Price, Hollywood? directed yet again, by George Cukor. The film’s plot remains Hollywood’s most potent myth, one still cannibalized every few decades. Vicky Lester is discovered singing by Movie Star Norman Maine, who helps spearhead her career. While her star rises, his own fades, devoured by his own alcoholism and the cruelty of a fleeting Hollywood. Garland must have seen much of her own life in the tragedy that befalls the plot of A Star is Born, and could easily guessed life imitating art in the cruel Hollywood depicted in the film. Nominated for an Academy Award that critics were positive she would win, Garland would lose the award to upstart Grace Kelly, for the pathetically forgettable film The Country Girl. While Garland couldn’t attend the awards due to the birth of her son, cameras were put in the hospital in anticipation. Soon, they would vanish when she lost. Later in the night, Garland received a telegram from none other than Groucho Marx stating it was “The biggest Robbery since Brinks.”

One of the great, if not the greatest tragedies in American film history was Warner Bros. butchering of George Cukor’s film. What many claimed was one of the greatest musicals ever made and without a doubt the best film of the year, was edited to oblivion by the studios when they felt it played too long and wouldn’t make enough money. Some felt it was the studios revenge for having dealt with a frail, mentally ill Garland after the film went over-budget. Regardless, out went the footage, of which has been reportedly lost forever. Nothing but stills, subplots left only to the script, and utter compromise in its wake. Rumors have abounded for years the uncut version has been in the hands of wealthy collectors. Only time will tell…


4 thoughts on “Five Films Starring Judy Garland (that you were afraid to watch)

  1. Pre-comment: I’ve started to read this and shall finish tonight, but I just gotta object about Judy. She’s a badass, and I’m not so sure about the Gay Movement’s rush to be a “pasty normal” (that be a Muñoz reference.) Marriage is *not* a Leftist value, and as it is descended from woman as property, i.e. slavery, it really shouldn’t be. Now I’m no homo (good lord, I loved typing that), but as a teenage riot grrrl I got more “dyke” thrown at me than many an adult lesbian. (I’m a bit obsessed with this, “gay” might be something other than gay — so what would that be?) And I handled it by moaning and telling them that I could score more pussy than they could. This was both true and highly effective. I also canvassed for HRC in the 90s and have fielded more questions about my sexual proclivities than you could shake a stick at. Honestly, fuck normal. And the fated always have a tragic element, for worse, but also for better. I think this is underscored by the “No one chooses…” argument, which is an argument for normalcy and yet ironically, ahem, fated. It’s also grossly apologist and I prefer the “we’re here, we’re queer, deal with it” angle. OK. That’s my caveat. Love the people that love you. And she was staunch about the “musical” and does not deserve eye-rolls. Eye-rolls are mean. Meanwhile, I watched Hillary Clinton go on an on about how we’re all the same and we’re all Americans in front of the HRC during the primaries, way back. I think she said “gay” twice. I know she’s staunch, too, but if she can’t even say it…. I also want to share this video with you — It’s Liza v Carol Channing. (I LOVE Carol Channing!) I can’t imagine anyone who likes old-school Waters not appreciating it, but that could be the fault of my own imagination…. I’ll finish reading now.

    • i do hope you know that i call judy garland the greatest vocal talent of the 20th century at least three times in this article. if it weren’t for her movies, i would not be typing to you, maintaining this website, or be writing about movies at all. just finish the article, believe me, the loves there.

      • Yes, yes, I know. And it wasn’t directed at you, so much as potential eye-rollers. I love the post but I’m stuck at The Clock through absolutely no fault of your own. This is terribly symbolic — I’m dumbly dilly-dallying all over everything. The post is open and I’m even taking notes so I can download. I’m also trying to finish my own post. I’m a ridiculous human being today. This happens. It’s not always.

  2. I have no idea how I missed “A Child is Waiting.” Cassavetes is my all-time favorite, although I confess to not being the most thorough — he gives the viewer time to actually think about what they’re watching, and he’s deeply humane. I haven’t seen any of these and I intend to watch them all, but the Cassavetes I’m getting now. The topic is right up my alley, too. I hadn’t even heard of it. As for eye-rolling, I didn’t mean to implicate you, and I hope that’s clear. I wouldn’t be reading what you wouldn’t be writing. I just hate mono-culture. And I can’t see how Judy Garland would be so problematic a figure in Queer Film. There are so many problematic figures that she strikes me as comparatively benevolent.

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