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Judy Garland on TV

by Billy Ingram

Judy Garland photo"Living legends don't go on roller coasters but I've been put on one - and it's been a damn fast ride, but it's been an interesting one!"
- Judy Garland, 1964

 

INTRODUCTION:
In Hollywood, traditional wisdom holds that it doesn't matter what people say about you as long as they're talking about you. Judy Garland was (and is) one of the most written and talked about human beings in all of history.

She was bred to be an entertainer; like Tarzan raised by the Great Apes, hers was an almost impossibly insular existence. Frances Gumm, rechristened Judy Garland, was a wholly manufactured product of a stage mother that pushed her relentlessly and a movie studio that programmed her, sheltered her from reality, then coldly spat her out into a world she knew little about.

Who do you know that was put to work at age two? Little Frances Gumm was, touring backwater hick towns as part of a two bit vaudeville act, the Gumm Sisters.

"Nobody asked me," she recalled of her first time on stage. "I was too little when I went into Vaudeville. I was two years old and I just knew 'Jingle Bells' and my grandmother threw me on to my father's stage - he owned the theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota - and I just sang 'Jingle Bells' and nobody told me to stop."

Coming from a childhood that was, in her words, "no good to begin with, no fun" and, "something out of Tess of the Stone Country," 13-year old Judy signed with Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1935; she inked a deal with Decca Records a year later to pump out 78 rpm singles.

She arrived at MGM addicted to speed supplied by her overbearing stage mother. The studio doctors took over, chemically winding the kid up in the mornings and spinning her down each evening. After all, she was expected to be impossibly perky when the director yelled "Action" every morning, 6 or 7 days a week with rarely a week off.

Today we'd call it child abuse, or extreme mental and physical cruelty. Judy never attended school, at least none that we would recognize; she was tutored by a studio provided teacher between shots on the set only because it was required by state law.

That was the price Judy Garland paid to do what she loved - what she did best - pleasing people. And, boy, did she please the crowds with one hit after another - Babes on Broadway, Strike Up The Band, For Me and My Gal, Meet Me in St. Louis, the Andy Hardy series, and, of course, The Wizard of Oz just to name just a few.

 

THE GREATEST STAR

It's hard in modern day terms to conceptualize what a huge star Judy Garland was in the 1930s and '40s. For a decade she was a top-ten box office draw, the rare child that graduated from kiddie fare to adult stardom.

She'd 'graduated from high school' but had never written a check. She'd never purchased a train ticket and knew little about the daily transactions that people took for granted. Judy merely turned to her right or left at any time during the workday and there was someone ready to tell her what she was required to do next. Time was too valuable on a movie set to have the star waiting in line at the DMV, attending high school, depositing her paycheck or doing life's simple tasks.

From the beginning MGM carefully crafted Judy's public persona with made up stories and contrived photo ops. Keeping a star's image intact was 'job one' at this bizarre dream factory so every public appearance was carefully controlled, exquisitely micro-managed.

Before long hospital stays had to be arranged to dry out MGM's biggest star, but doctor's advice was systematically ignored by the studio to get their cash machine back on the soundstage and in some kind of working condition.

So it was when Garland was dropped by MGM in 1950, shortly after her 28th birthday, because she could no longer keep up with the studio's unrelenting demands on her life and talent.

But being a movie star was all Judy Garland knew. Suddenly she was on her own and no one in the motion picture profession would hire her in spite the fact that her last picture had made more money than ever. The reluctance to hire the screen's biggest star was thanks to an aggressive smear campaign waged by her former employer.

Following her firing, Judy attempted suicide and the press piled on, portraying her as an ungrateful bitch - after all, who wouldn't want to live the privileged life of a 'pampered' movie star? What was her problem, anyway?

 

THE MOST AMAZING
COMEBACK OF ALL TIME

Judy Garland radioAs an aspect of her movie stardom, Judy had been a popular guest star on network radio programs; she continued to appear regularly on the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope broadcasts during the 1950-51 season, as well as other high profile radio productions including a Christmas Day recreation of the Wizard of Oz for the Lux Radio Theater.

Bob Hope Judy GarlandThis helped, but radio was in its waning days and Judy Garland was radioactive now; what's more her marriage to Vincent Minnelli - a gay man - was unraveling.

What she did next was the gutsiest move possible - she mounted a one woman act for the London stage written and arranged by Roger Edens and Oscar Levant, two of Hollywood's most gifted writer / musicians. Judy previewed a portion of the act in a pre-taped performance for CBS's Red Cross Fund Program hosted by Ed Sullivan on February 27, 1951, her first foray into television.

When a terrified Judy Garland hit the London Palladium stage on April 9, 1951 it registered as one of the greatest show business comeback stories of all time. The Evening Standard wrote, "In fact, she is an artist. We saw a brave woman on Monday, but more than that, we saw a woman who has emerged from the shadows and finds that the public likes her as she is, even more than what she was."

Concert audiences didn't just applaud for Judy they screamed, stamped their feet and yelled until they were hoarse. They cried out for encore after encore and Judy delivered like no performer before or since. Rivaled only by, it is said, Al Jolson - only Jolson was a 'you had to be there' kind of thing, no live recordings exist of any of his concerts. There's very little surviving film footage of Jolson and most of that is relatively unimpressive.

Judy GarlandCritic Kenneth Tynan described the response to Judy after one 1951 London performance, "The house rose to her in great crashing waves of applause, the kind for which the Palladium was built." Judy brought her act to New York and made Broadway history, then conquered Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Soon Garland was earning many times her former MGM salary and living life on her own terms.

READ: PART TWO:
Judy finds her audience, but at what cost?
...and brilliant TV specials lead to a weekly series.


Judy Garland's Comeback
Judy Garland on TV
Judy Garland TV Show
Judy Garland & TV - part 4


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Judy Garland's Comeback
Judy Garland on TV
Judy Garland TV Show
Judy Garland & TV - part 4

Read about the Judy Garland
Christmas Show here.

Judy Garland Christmas ShowJudy Garland TV series on DVD
The Judy Garland
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