96 years ago today, one of the world’s best entertainers was born. Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm in 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. As a young girl, she performed with her two sisters, Mary Jane and Virginia as part of the Gumm Sisters vaudeville act. Frances was the youngest and most talented in the group. When Frances was five, the Gumm family moved to the Los Angeles area. Mrs. Gumm tried to keep her daughters in the minds of show business executives by having them appear in various short films. The Gumm sisters toiled in short films, dance classes and schooling for a few years until 1935 when Frances was discovered by MGM. The Gumm sisters had changed their last names to “Garland” at the end of 1934. In addition, Frances changed her name to Judy.
MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, saw Judy performing with her sisters and was immediately impressed with Judy’s talent. He requested that Judy and her father come down to MGM and meet with him in his office. Judy sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” for Mayer. She was immediately signed to a contract. However, soon MGM found that Judy was difficult to cast. She was thirteen–too old to be a child star and too young to be an adult star. Judy spent a few years playing the girl next door parts, co-starring with huge MGM star Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy series. In 1939, Judy was cast in her star-making role: Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
After ‘Oz,’ Judy was seventeen and was eager to move onto more mature parts. MGM however, kept her pigeonholed into girl next door parts. She appeared as a goody goody teen in Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney. In 1940, Judy finally snagged her first adult role in Little Nellie Kelly, playing a dual role to boot! By 1940, much to MGM’s chagrin, there was no doubt that Judy was grown up. She had already been embroiled in a hot and heavy affair with bandleader Artie Shaw until he ran off with Lana Turner. Judy was devastated. She then got together with musician David Rose, whom she married in 1941. By 1942, Judy was a huge star at MGM and was transitioning into adult roles. One of her major adult roles was as a vaudeville star in For Me and My Gal.
For Me and My Gal is notable for not only being one of Judy’s early adult roles, but also for being Gene Kelly’s film debut. Gene had been making a name for himself on Broadway, first as a choreographer and then as the star of Pal Joey. MGM objected to Gene’s casting, but Judy supported him and campaigned for him to get the part. Throughout production, movie veteran Judy supported Gene and gave him acting tips, especially when it came to adjusting his stage acting for the silver screen. Gene always remembered Judy’s kindness when he made his first film and continued to support her throughout the rest of her life.
By 1948, Judy and Gene were huge musical stars. It was also by this time that Judy was having her well-documented personal issues. Judy initially was excited about shooting The Pirate, she thought it would be fun. Director Vincente Minnelli (and Judy’s husband) also thought it would be a nice change of pace for he and Judy. However, the production was in trouble as soon as it began. Production was delayed two months because of Judy’s mental health. She was then worried that co-star Gene would steal all her thunder. Gene would regularly assist in choreographing the routines–he saw The Pirate as a way to make the dancing more ballet-like, a dance style that Gene was very familiar with.
Judy experienced multiple paranoia episodes during production and barely even showed up to shoot her scenes. She was only present about 35 days out of the 100+ days of production. When Judy was absent, the filmmakers would shoot around her. During Judy’s absences, Gene would work closely with Minnelli on coming up with ideas for scenes and such. When Judy would show up for work, she’d notice Gene and Vincente’s close relationship and become jealous. She also thought that her husband had developed a crush on Gene (By all accounts, Gene was straight and did not reciprocate the crush). Judy’s paranoia, combined with her addiction to pills, led to a nervous breakdown.
Judy’s mental health issues caused production to stretch from the planned two months to six. In the end though, Judy pulled out a great performance–like she usually did. Judy’s Manuela is one of her funniest performances–especially when she is hypnotized and starts crying out for Macoco. “Mack the Black” is one of Judy’s most memorable songs. The Pirate ended up losing money at the box office and was considered one of Judy, Gene and Minnelli’s worst films. However, now The Pirate has found its audience and it is considered one of the classic musicals. If you only watch one part of The Pirate, watch the scene where Gene dances with fire while wearing shorty shorts. You won’t regret it.
In 1948, MGM wanted to re-team their two biggest musical stars, Judy and Gene, in another film, this time Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. Judy was supposed to play a waitress whom Gene’s character discovers and molds into his new dance partner. Gene’s partner, played by Cyd Charisse, has decided to leave the act and strike out on her own. Just prior to production however, Gene broke his ankle during a heated volleyball game at his home. Gene managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement and asked him to take his place. Cyd Charisse ended up tearing a ligament in her knee and she was replaced by Ann Miller. If you can’t get Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, I guess Fred Astaire and Ann Miller will have to do (lol). Easter Parade was a smash hit and soon MGM was eager to pair Judy and Fred up in The Barkleys of Broadway.
The Barkleys of Broadway was supposed to feature Judy and Fred as a successful husband and wife musical comedy team. However, Judy’s character meets a famous playwright who suggests that she take up dramatic acting. Fred’s character of course is upset. Judy started production on the film but was soon fired after it was apparent that she had a serious addiction to prescription pills and alcohol. MGM fired Judy from the film. They then had the brilliant idea of reuniting Fred with his old RKO dance partner, Ginger Rogers. Judy fumed at being replaced by Ginger. It was known that Ginger had an unusually high amount of peach fuzz on her face. Judy, feeling vindictive, sent Ginger a shaving mug and brush to “congratulate” her on the role (I don’t know if this anecdote is true, I read it somewhere, but if it is, it’s horribly petty on Judy’s part. But it’s also hilarious).
In 1950, Judy was cast and then fired from Annie Get Your Gun, due to her normal attendance issues and mental problems. Busby Berkeley had also been hired to stage the musical numbers and Judy absolutely loathed him. They had had their run-ins on previous Judy films. MGM gave her one last shot and re-teamed her with co-star Gene in Summer Stock. By this point, Gene was a huge star and he didn’t want to appear in a typical “let’s put a show on in the barn!” musical. And in fact, Summer Stock does feature the gang putting a show on in the barn, albeit, a very large and fancy barn. Neither Gene, nor director Charles Walters wanted to do the film, but both men did so as a favor to Judy, whom they liked and wanted to help.
In Summer Stock, Gene appears as the director of a small-time musical theater troupe. One of the members of this troupe happens to be Judy’s sister, Gloria DeHaven. Gene is also dating Gloria. The theater troupe has been looking for a place to practice and hold their show. Gloria suggests sister Judy’s barn on the family farm. It is apparent that Judy is working hard to keep her family farm going, even through hard times. Gloria on the other hand, doesn’t want to be a farmer, she wants to be an actress. Eventually, Gloria ends up leaving the show and Gene ends up coaxing Judy to join the show after seeing that she has singing and dancing talent. The conflict is that Judy is dating Eddie Bracken, the son of a very boisterous and bossy man who only wants to unite the two oldest families in town. Eddie however, is such a wimp, that it’s hard to see why Judy even tolerates him. By the end of the film, she doesn’t and has fallen for Gene–who in return, has fallen for her. It’s a simple story, nothing groundbreaking, but it features a lot of memorable songs and dances.
During production, Judy experienced her usual issues, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pressured the film crew to keep going and to accommodate Judy’s issues. He didn’t want to see her get fired from her third consecutive film. In one incident, Judy did show up for work, but wasn’t up to filming. To take the heat off of her, Gene feigned an ankle injury, so that he would be the cause of the production delay. Gene choreographed two of the most memorable numbers in the film: “You, Wonderful, You” which he performs with simply a squeaky floorboard and a newspaper, and “The Portland Fancy” which features Judy and Gene in a fun dance-off. Spoiler Alert: Gene wins! Thankfully, Gene was not responsible for creating the god-awful “Heavenly Music” number. He only had the misfortune of appearing in it. Supposedly, Judy was supposed to appear in it too, but called in sick that day. It was decided to go on without her and film it with just Phil Silvers and Gene. I don’t think Judy was sick, she knew what she was doing. She didn’t want to have any part of that terrible number.
After filming completed, it was decided that Judy needed a big solo number. By this point, she had taken a well needed vacation and had lost 15-20 pounds. “Get Happy” was the number that was selected. Judy looks noticeably thinner in this number and looks and acts more like the Judy Garland that everyone knows. “Get Happy” is one of the highlights of Summer Stock and is one of Judy’s best numbers. Summer Stock was released and was a big hit.
Judy was then re-teamed with Fred Astaire and assigned Royal Wedding. Judy was replacing June Allyson who had to drop out of the film due to pregnancy. However, Judy’s demons once again re-surfaced and she was replaced by Jane Powell. At the end of 1950, MGM and Judy made the mutual decision to terminate Judy’s contract. Judy wouldn’t return to the silver screen until 1954’s A Star is Born. Judy’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is tremendous, especially her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.” Judy was nominated for the Oscar and in my opinion, she should have won. However, Grace Kelly ended up walking away with the award for her performance as Bing Crosby’s plain and disgruntled wife in The Country Girl. Judy was devastated by the loss.
While Gene Kelly’s star soared even higher after Summer Stock (his last pairing with Judy), Judy’s collapsed except for her brief renaissance in A Star is Born. Gene went on to create two of the most influential and highly regarded musicals of all time: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Gene’s rendition and dance to “Singin’ in the Rain” is probably the most famous musical number of all time. Judy herself had sung “Singin’ in the Rain” in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). The famous “Good Morning” song performed and danced by Gene, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds was also performed by Judy and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). These songs were used in the film to show the development and transition of silent to talking pictures. I would argue that Judy was one of the major players in helping the transition. Gene’s contributions were important of course, but films had transitioned by the time he came on the scene. Judy was right there almost from the beginning.
Without Judy Garland, there might not have been a Gene Kelly.