The Stars Have Lost Their Glitter
There is a moment early in the film ‘A Star is Born’ after Judy Garland has sung ‘The Man That Got Away’ when James Mason describes to her his feelings on hearing a great singer. He makes the comparison regarding a prize fighter, or a great dancer, that it is something one senses from within when in the presence of a true performer. I’ve been fortunate myself to have had this experience in the theatre a few times. Years ago in Paris I saw Edith Piaf, and this tiny woman dressed in a simple black dress reduced me to tears oy the mere sound of her voice. The effect of Billie Holiday, in my opinion the world’s greatest jazz singer, was likewise an experience I shall always treasure. The lives of these three women, Piaf, Holiday and Garland had many similarities — their love lives seldom ran smooth, their reputations for taking drink and druss all helped ultimately in destroying them before their time. I hasten to add that there have been other performers who led more stable lives yet had the same ability to hold their audience.
With all show business immortals it is difficult to be objective. My theory is that they fall into two categories: some people idolise them, and others abhor them. Very rarely is there any in-between opinion.
In the 3-year period since Garland’s death, two books have been written about her. One by singer Mel Tormé (‘The other side of the rainbow’) and one by her last husband, Mickey Deans titled ‘Weep No More My Lady’. The former is a somewhat hard-hitting account of her work with Tormé whilst filming a weekly television series in Hollywood. At first reading one feels a sense of betrayal in its laying bare of so many incidents that occurred. But through it all one feels the admiration that Tormé felt for her as an artist when she disciplined herself enough. The latter book is much more on the side of Judy, painting the studio and her early up-bringing there as the cause of her decline in later years. Neither book, in my opinion, manages to relate the true story, and it’s to be hoped that some future book might be nearer the truth. The co-author of ‘I’ll Cry Tomorrow’ (Lillian Roth’s searing biography) Gerrold Frank is supposed to be starting a book on Garland shortly, and I have high hopes of this one when it is completed.
The Legend Begins
Born Frances Gumm in 1922, both her parents and two elder sisters were variety performers. Frances joined the two sisters in a singing act when she was 3, and they moved out to California by the time she was 5. Soon after this move her father became ill, and the trio of youngsters became the main support of the family. There have been many varied stories as to how she got her stage name. The most popular seems to be that they arrived at one theatre to find the electrician had wrongly spelt their name in lights as The Glum Sisters, and that, followed by thThe Barkleys of Broadwaye suggestion of George Jessell, another performer on the bill, they changed to become the Garland sisters. She herself chose the name Judy as she liked the popular tune of that time, written by Hoagy Carmichael.
By 1934 the act had broken up and the following year she auditioned for Louis B. Mayer, and when signed by Metro was the first player at MGM to have been given a contract without taking a screen or sound test. Her first film in 1936 was a short entitled EVERY SUNDAY in which she co-starred with Deanna Durbin. For unknown reasons Metro dropped their option on Durbin, who went on to become one of Universal’s brightest performer within a few years. Judy meanwhile, went on to make a series of unimportant family type pictures.
One early film THOROUGHBREDS DON’T CRY saw her co-starred with a young Mickey Rooney, and they subsequently made a further 7 films together over the coming years, as well as making many personal appearances and stage performances together. At a later date, the much married Rooney was asked why he never got around to marrying Judy at some time or other. He replied that they were at all times the closest of friends, but having grown up together he came to regard her almost as his sister.
She was 17 when she made THE WIZARD OF OZ but managed to fully convince audiences everywhere that she was as young as the character of Dorothy was meant to be. It was in this film that she first sang ‘Over The Rainbow’ which was to stick to her for the rest of her career. Her daughter Liza tells an amusing story of her mother being cornered in the ladies room of a night club by an inebriated woman fan who kept babbling “Judy, don’t you ever forget that rainbow. Whatever happens, never forget that rainbow.” “Why madam”, replied Judy, dramatically flinging her black feather boa over her shoulder, “how could I ever forget the rainbow? I’ve got rainbows up my ass”.
For her performance in OZ she received a special Academy Award as Best Juvenile Performer of the year. At that time she had already begun her battle against over-weight, and was put on a strict diet. Many people contend that her persistent use of diet pills, slimming pills and stimulants during her youth started her on the collision course she was to follow for many years. Three films with Rooney followed in quick succession and she was then given LITTLE NELLIE KELLY in which she had the dual role of mother and daughter. During the making of the film she announced her engagement to composer, orchestra leader David Rose. He had just divorced that ace-comedienne Martha Raye, and both the studio and Judy’s mother raised objections, but the marriage took place.
Another two films with Rooney followed (Metro were never slow to take advantage of a good thing) and one of the leads in the all star musical ZIEGFIELD GIRL. Then in 1942 she received solo star billing for the first time in FOR ME AND MY GAL which introduced Gene Kelly to the screen. By now she was also doing many personal appearances throughout the country, making records and starring in radio plays. Her marriage to Rose virtually came to an end when she began making extensive USA tours, all the while returning to make more films.
She met her second husband Vincente Minelli when she worked under his direction in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS and married him shortly after completing the film. Mary Astor, who played her mother in ST LOUIS, said in her book what a warm-hearted loveable child Judy was when Astor worked with her first in 1937. She then went on to say how the cast of ST LOUIS were often kept waiting around the set for Garland to appear. When Astor marched into Judy’s dressing room and berated her about this, Judy replied that she felt tired and exhausted so often. One can assume by this story that already the years of strict dieting were beginning to catch up with her at quite an early age. Indeed it was in this film and her next UNDER THE CLOCK (in which she had her first non-singing role) that I first noticed her nervous mannerisms, which were to increase as the years went by.
Guest appearances in ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES and TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, and then THE PIRATE with Gene Kelly, in which she first showed signs of her ability for good comedy playing. Kelly was set to co-star in EASTER PARADE with her, but broke his ankle during rehearsals, so Fred Astaire was coaxed out of retirement to do the picture. The film went on to become a top box office winner of that year and Metro immediately planned a reunion of the two in BERKLEYS OF BROADWAY. But by this time the pressure of work, and the years of pills caught up with her and she was withdrawn from the film.
She did manage to film the delightful IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME and do a guest shot in WORDS AND MUSIC (her last teaming with Rooney) but after being set for the lead in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, she was too unwell to keep up with the pace of the production schedule and was again removed, suspended, and sent off to a clinic. She recorded all the songs from that Berlin score before filming began and these have become a rare collector’s item as they were never issued commercially. I have heard these recordings and they vary in singing quality. She lacks her old vitality on the comedy songs, but is in excellent form on the song ‘I Got The Sun In The Morning’ as well as a new song written for the film by Berlin but eventually dropped from the movie. The completed film starring Betty Hutton was only a moderate success, and one wonders whether it might have fared better had Garland been able to complete it.
After 3 months recuperation, a stouter Judy returned to Metro to team again with Kelly in SUMMER STOCK (known here as IF YOU FEEL LIKE SINGING). This opus did little to enhance anyone’s career, and as it transpired was to be her last film made at MGM. She was set to replace June Allyson in ROYAL WEDDING, but once more was unable to keep up with the pace of filming and Jane Powell replaced her.
In 1950, despondent and full of insecurity Judy made the first of several suicide attempts. The following year she began divorce proceedings against Minnelli. By now her movie career seemed to be at an end. She then met Sid Luft, a one time pilot, and also producer of several B films, and he became her agent. It was Luft who persuaded her to come to London and star at the Palladium Theatre. This was to be her first stage appearance in many years in England. On the first night the audience was packed with anxious fans who wanted her to succeed and wipe out the anxieties of the previous years. Succeed she certainly did, with a smartly packaged act that included a line of dancing boys to fill in when she went off-stage to make several costume changes.
At the time I was one of a large band of autograph collectors, and near her hotel one night I spotted her car and ran quite a distance to catch up with it outside her hotel. I arrived puffing heavily for lack of breath to find her sitting in her car for a moment alone. Seeing me at the window she immediately expressed concern for my welfare. It is only a small incident, but I recall her interest in a complete stranger as a typical example of her kindness.
After her fabulous success here she returned to play at the Palace Theatre in New York. She was taking her concerts very seriously in those days as a friend once told me Garland used to be in the theatre several hours before the show in order to rest and be at her best. She subsequently married Luft. On reflection, her life with Luft was one long series of legal battles against a variety of people, and finally between themselves involving the custody of their children. But if it did nothing else, it did bring her back to the screen once again in the finest performance of her career. A STAR IS BORN had previously been a successful dramatic picture starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, and in the new musical version Garland grabbed her screen comeback chances in both hands and delivered the goods. When Academy Award time came round the following year she was nominated as Best Actress, but to most peoples’ surprise, failed to win. Years later Judy was to declare that though she lost out on the Oscar, she gave birth to her son Joe around the same time, and that he was reward enough for her.
However, from there on she rode the crest for several years doing her concerts both here and in America. Her recording career was also revitalised and several albums released during those years show her voice at its best. Around this time she began to gather a large following of homosexuals at her concerts, who were eager to applaud each and every thing she did at these shows. Perhaps the majority of those audiences saw in Judy a loser who was fighting back at life, and they could themselves draw a parallel to this. In a reported interview with Liza Minnelli, she tells of her mother once wisecracking “When I die I have visions of fags singing “Over The Rainbow” and the flag at Fire Island being flown at half mast.’ One should also remember that she still managed to retain all her ‘straight’ admirers over the years, though of course these people were less exhibitionistic in their reaction to her concerts. During her run at the Dominion Theatre in London her work would vary from day to day, so that attending on a Monday night her voice might be bad, and yet a few nights later she would be back on form.
After separating from Luft in the late 50’s she once again returned to the screen in a cameo role in Stanley Kramer’s JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG. This time she received a nomination as Best Supporting Actress of the year but was by-passed once more. Undaunted by her lack of success with the Academy results, she again acted for Kramer in A CHILD IS WAITING, supplied the voice for the cartoon film GAY PURREE, and then came to England to film I COULD GO ON SINGING. Dirk Bogarde said in interview that their big dramatic scene towards the end of the film was written between them, and that they rehearsed it through one afternoon, going on the set late that day and filming it in ‘one take’, a rare thing in cinema Filming. It remains a compelling scene, and as I recall has sad echoes of her own life. “Tell me why do I throw away all the good things in life and just hold on to the rubbish?”
Returning to America after completing the film she then signed with CBS for her own series on television. In spite of employing top guest stars of the calibre of Lena Home, Jack Jones, Ethel Merman, Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé, the series were not successful and CBS dropped their option after the first 26 were completed. During this period she saw a lot of Glen Ford though the romance ceased almost as suddenly as it began.
Once again she returned to the Palladium for two midnight shows with her daughter Liza and scored a tremendous success. She then toured around the world and there were incidents in Australia where she failed to turn up on time and audiences became hostile. Her travelling companion was Mark Herron, an unknown actor, and after much haggling with lawyers as to whether she was legally divorced from Sid Luft, Herron became her 4th husband. They separated six months later and he disappeared from the scene.
20th Century Fox then signed Judy to play an ageing musical comedy star in their film of the current best seller VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but the Film was completed with Susan Hayward filling the role. Garland gave a fascinating interview to LIFE Magazine at the time declaring she was fired by one of the executives whilst having her lunch in the studio restaurant. She need not have worried, as the role amounted to hardly any screen footage when finally completed. After announcing her engagement to a young publicist, which came to nothing, Judy got together with her ex-husband Sid Luft to fulfill a series of engagements both in New York and touring America. She had a wide success in New York but there were a series of cancellations, late arrivals and angry audiences on tour. At Christmas, 1968 she met the man who was to be her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, a night club manager. They flew to London in January 1969 and proceeded to make plans to wed here.
Another parallel with Edith Piaf occurs here as both women in their last wedding photograps appeared so tiny and frail, and both had married attractive younger men. There the similarity ends as Piaf’s wedding had throngs of people waiting ouside the church to wish her well. On the other hand somebody in Judy’s entourage gave out a list of expected wedding guests to the press, but according to reports afterwards none of them showed up. She must have felt this snub deeply, and again her reception at the Talk of the Town where she appeared for a 5-week run was often greeted by hostile audiences. I attended one of these shows and fortunately that night she appeared on time, but I was shocked at the disintegration of her voice. Even so on some songs there were traces of the old vitality and magic. Her strange attitude towards the audience also puzzled me. It was almost as if she were attempting to antagonise them. The run completed she and her husband stayed on in London and for a few months she ceased to make newspaper copy.
I heard the news of Judy’s death over the radio on a summer’s day that June. Somehow it was easier hearing it that way than seeing it written on a newspaper placard, but it still came as a shock even allowing for the many years of suicide attempts, walkouts, and firings associated with her. She has gone from us in body but fortunately she left us a legacy of many fine recordings and screen appearances. I make no apology for paraphrasing a line from her song ‘The Man That Got Away’ for my sub-heading, as indeed the world is a little less lustrous without her artistry.
Footnote to Judy Garland
On Christmas Eve BBC Television is screening for the first time a programme called ‘Judy – Impressions of Garland’. According to the lady at the Beeb, “The film captures the essence of Judy Garland as a person and a performer. There will be extracts from her films such as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ ‘Meet Me In St.Louis’ and ‘A Star Is Born’. Taking part in the programme are friends and those who worked with her, including Dirk Bogarde, Mickey Rooney and her daughter Lisa Minnelli”