Where to begin with Judy Garland

On the centenary of her birth, and with a celebratory season screening at BFI Southbank, we follow the yellow brick road through Judy Garland's luminous screen career.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Why this might not seem so easy

Judy Garland was just 47 when she died in 1969, but she left behind an incredible 30-plus-year cinematic legacy. Born Francis Ethel Gumm, the 13-year-old Judy (who changed her name at a young age) was singing in a group with her sisters when she was discovered and signed by MGM. Honed by the studio as the “girl next door” – a look with which she was never comfortable – the teenage Judy was quickly paired with Mickey Rooney for a series of youthful, carefree musicals. 

She would build her screen career on that glorious singing voice, which she deployed to rousing effect in many films (and in her Grammy award-winning 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall), but she was also a compelling dramatic actor and showed a flair for comedy. Anyone discovering Garland’s work for the first time today is approaching a career tinged with sadness: struggles with addiction and in marriage began to dominate headlines in later life, and reports of her troubling ill-treatment by studios and during filming have also emerged. Yet her phenomenal talent can never be dimmed.

The best place to start – The Wizard of Oz

Garland’s trip down the yellow brick road to the magical land of Oz may seem like an obvious place to start, but her role as Dorothy Gale – the 1930s Kansas farm kid who gets whipped up during a tornado and deposited in an alternative multicolour universe – is the stuff of cinematic legend for a reason. Just 16 years old when she took the part in MGM’s huge (and, according to many reports, challenging) 1939 production, Garland captivates in her performance as the wide-eyed girl who demonstrates an enduring bravery and resilience. Her place in film history was secured by numbers such as ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ and the yearning ballad ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. 

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It’s no surprise that, according to the US Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz is the most seen film in movie history. Victor Fleming’s film is preserved in the US National Film Registry and is one of few films on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

What to watch next

Girl Crazy (1943)

Exploring Garland’s back catalogue in chronological order is like watching her grow on screen, from rosy-cheeked child star to her emergence as a leading lady in her own right. It’s worth continuing with one of those early Garland-Rooney musicals, such as Babes in Arms (1939) or Girl Crazy (1943). The latter – the last of the series – is notable for the fact that Rooney’s character is in pursuit of Garland’s, rather than the other way around, an indication of her growing status.

Indeed, the year before Girl Crazy, Garland had taken on what is considered to be her first truly adult role, in For Me and My Gal (1942). She plays a stage performer whose burgeoning romance with a fellow vaudeville star (played by Gene Kelly, in his first screen appearance) is threatened by the arrival of the Second World War. Here, Garland is placed front and centre of the action, taking on complex dance numbers and starting to flex her dramatic muscles. When she immediately followed this with Presenting Lily Mars (1943), playing a small-town Indiana girl who travels to New York City and becomes a major star, the message couldn’t have been clearer.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

In 1944, Garland appeared in one of the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis. Directed by Vincente Minnelli – whom Garland would marry in 1945 – it follows a year in the life of the Smith family in the eponymous Missouri city from 1903 to 1904, with Garland playing second-oldest daughter Esther. Eschewing traditional song-and-dance set pieces, Minnelli’s film embeds its songs into the narrative in a more naturalistic fashion, giving Garland the chance to truly embody numbers like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. This bittersweet lament on time passing and the destabilisation brought by war is given true emotional heft by Garland’s unmatched voice. It was also on Meet Me in St. Louis that Garland first worked with make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel, who gave her a more grown-up, refined look. Garland liked it so much that they worked together on every subsequent MGM production.

Despite Garland’s desire to break out of the musical mould and evolve as an actor – as suggested by her nuanced turn in Minnelli’s sublime romantic drama The Clock (1945) – there was no escaping the fact that her singing voice continued to be one of her greatest assets. A subsequent highlight of her remaining work under contract at MGM is Easter Parade (1948), which sees Garland as a chorus girl who more than holds her own against Fred Astaire’s manipulative nightclub performer and Anne Miller’s dance sensation. 

A Star Is Born (1954)

Singing and adult drama were mixed to triumphant effect in 1954’s A Star Is Born (1954). Returning to the screen after a four-year hiatus, having been fired by MGM and plagued by rumours about her off-screen life, Garland has something to prove – and boy, does she. Her performance as wannabe actress Vicki Lester, helped in her career by ageing alcoholic star Norman Maine (James Mason, no less) is an astonishing blend of optimism and realism. She brings, perhaps, her own experiences to this tale of fame and glory – both on the ascent, with Vicki, and the decline, with Norman. The performance secured Garland her first Oscar nomination, though many blamed her lack of a win on the savage cuts Warner Bros made to the film to achieve a more ‘audience-friendly’ running time. (It was eventually restored in 1983).

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A second Oscar nomination came late in Garland’s career, this time for a purely dramatic role in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). This star-studded film about a Nazi war crime trial features Garland alongside the likes of Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich. Her part as Irene Hoffman, a witness for the prosecution, is a small but powerful one. She provides devastating testimony against her persecutors in a measured yet deeply emotional turn. 

Where not to start

As any Garland fan will tell you, her star quality lifts any film in which she appears. Some of her earliest musicals are undoubtedly dated, however – for example, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), the rather pedestrian tale of jockeys and gamblers in which Garland plays second fiddle to cheeky rascal Mickey Rooney for the first time. Also divisive is Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate, the lavish, some would say overwrought 1948 musical swashbuckler in which Gene Kelly poses as legendary pirate to win the heart of Garland’s local girl. Its campy excesses are best experienced once you’ve got a taste for her many-splendored MGM work.

A season of Garland’s films, Judy Garland: A Star Is Reborn, plays at BFI Southbank throughout June 2022.

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