Judy: A Legendary Film Career
John Fricke presents clips and history
Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 12 noon
92YTribeca, 2000 Hudson Street (at Canal)
- “People always expect me to be funny. I was never funny; the writers were funny! Do you know who was really funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was naturally funny … the funniest lady in Hollywood. She made me look like a mortician.”
[Lucille Ball to John Fricke, quoted in Fricke’s 2003 publication Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art & Anecdote (p. 290) and referenced during this presentation.]
It is a privilege and a responsibility being a Judy Garland fan. You are endlessly thrilled and energized by the talent. You relive the joy of discovery by watching others discover her talents on television, on film, recording in concert and in the studio, in conversation. You sometimes convene at screenings and meetings with others to share the joy. There are certain projects, poorly conceived theatrical or other adventures based on or abusing her life or legacy, that inspire you to avert your eyes and wait for them to just fade away. There are times when you feel compelled to speak up and correct the historical record from rampant mistruths or half truths or prurient focus directed on real or imagined details of Garland’s private or public life. And sometimes you know that you will be rewarded for listening, reading, attending. One such source of ongoing joy for this Garland fan is personal and professional — one of the most outspoken, articulate, knowledgeable, generous historians of her career has also become a valued friend. This week I attended a public talk in New York City by that friend, John Fricke, about his 2011 volume on the career and life of Judy Garland. I attend to support my friend, to commune with the Garland talent on-screen and with individuals in person I grew to know during last summer’s scores of Garland screenings at the Paley Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Primarily, for this long time fan familiar with the clips in isolation and familiar with many of the anecdotes shared, I attend for the glow from all these quarters that remains with me now, hours later.
This afternoon a compact auditorium room at 92YTribeca is filled to its capacity — and from the enthused post-show reaction of Director of Day Programs Debbie Himmelfarb, a larger space and repeat Fricke Garland programs may be in the offing based on the great turn out. John sets up a selection of clips with comments on his intent to focus on the film career. He sets a tone of humor and astute observation using a version of the Lucy quotation that heads this blog entry. We are provided with short-hand references to capture the decades of Garland’s life (1922-1969) and career (over 40 of those 47 years). In her teens she was “the little girl with the great big voice.” In her 20s she was M-G-M’s greatest asset. In her 30s, during her hundreds of concert performances around the world, she was “Miss Show Business.” And in her 40s, for those years of her 40s we had her, she was simply Judy Garland, the world’s greatest entertainer.
Fricke sets up extended musical numbers from Garland’s film legacy (full numbers please, no fragmented experiences here), enjoys each one as enthusiastically as anyone in the room, and answers questions about this series of specially selected clips. What is particularly entrancing for this long-time fan is that each clip shows off Garland to her best in each era, and captures her in character in performance before people on stage or in a group — Garland at her most resonant, Garland the performer gathering strength from those around her. In these sequences we don’t have her singing in a barnyard or at a window pining after a boy next door but joyously singing and dancing on a concert stage, solo or in a group. Singing with us and to us as she and her sisters did in vaudeville, and as she and assembled colleagues (including family) and she as a solo act did for decades on stages around the world.
Judy as Judy Bellaire in Everybody Sing (1938). As the daughter of performers who wants to performer herself, Judy as teenaged Judy Bellaire knocks ’em dead in a small cabaret singing “Down on Melody Farm.” Quoting from myself writing about a 2011 summer screening of this film: “I have a special place in my heart for the odd and farcical You Can’t Take It With You-esque theatrical family (and house in perpetual chaos) in Everybody Sing. From the first moments of Judy Bellaire (Garland) as a school girl causing a bit of music class havoc turning a Mendelssohn ditty into a bit of swing fever, we’re hooked. Judy’s penchant for swing gets her thrown out of school and a return to a household with a playwright father, actress mother (Billie Burke) and sister (Lynne Carver), and a cook with a performing past (Fanny Brice, the great and masterful). Little Judy’s singing talent will win the day and resources to keep the family afloat. Some songs hit, some songs miss, some acts lead your mind to wander. And still, this charms.”
Judy as Ginger Gray in Girl Crazy (1943). “Embraceable You” enchants on every possible level. Her character entertains a roomful of college men with the Gershwin classic at a party for her birthday. From my own ruminations inspired again by the 2011 festival of screenings: “Pieces of plot (a “girl crazy” rich kid is sent off to yet another college to focus on his studies) and a number of musical numbers (six by the Gershwins) are retained from the 1930 original Broadway musical in Girl Crazy (1943). M-G-M creates out of these raw materials something unique, while paying homage in plot and even character names (the 1930 original production features Ginger Rogers as Molly Gray, and Garland’s Ginger Gray is a blended honorific). What also enchants movie viewers in 1943 and today are the glimpses of the beautiful and funny young woman Garland has become since sobbing and yearning and supporting as Betsy Booth and her fictional sisters. Here (just look at that face) Garland just is — approachable glamour.”
Two clips illustrate Garland singing and dancing with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, regarded by many as the greatest male dancers on film during this era. As a set up, Fricke quotes Judith Crist (film critic and unrepentant Garland fan that she was) reflecting that Garland was “the only partner Gene or Fred ever had where you watch the partner.” I test myself on this point with each viewing of these dancers together (many times over the years) and for me that statement proves right very time. In Summer Stock (1950), the third movie Judy is paired with Gene after For Me And My Gal (1942) and The Pirate (1948), Judy and Gene prance away in “Portland Fancy”, in a dance number in which Judy as Jane Falbury attempts to control the high spirits of a theatrical troupe led by Gene as Joe Ross who have infiltrated a dance being held in Jane’s barn. Jane gives over to the energy and demonstrates to Joe and the troupe her own dancing prowess in the process.
In Easter Parade (1948), Judy as Hannah Brown and Fred as Don Hewes play vaudevillians in the early 1900s finally auditioning for the big leagues, the fanciest show around, the Ziegfeld Follies. “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.” My personal point of view has shifted toward this particular dance sequence over the years. This tune once was one of my least favorite of Garland’s offerings on-screen, and I gradually have grown to love it as representing a song of the style and approach (and costuming) of the period. Now that I live in Manhattan and attend meetings regularly in the Disney Theatrical offices on the upper floors of the real New Amsterdam Theatre (Ziegfeld’s theatre, renovated for Lion King, currently housing Mary Poppins, and represented here as the stage on which Hannah and Don perform) I feel more connected to the world of these characters. And I only see Garland.
Fricke concludes the film clips with a segment from Garland’s final film, 1963’s I Could Go On Singing. In the first performed song of the movie, “Hello Bluebird,” Jenny is performing for a London Palladium audience that includes her young son. It’s not the potboiler plot that thrills most fans (the son doesn’t know he is actually her son and she is just discovering the joys of a borrowed sense of motherhood spending time with him) but the backstage preparation that gets you. In this sequence we observe Judy as Jenny ramp herself up for a performance (and her manager George join in her enthusiasm), clapping, encouraging herself and her conductor played by her real-life concert conductor Mort Lindsay, then pulling herself together, looking over her shoulder with a perfectly timed glance, and physically entering onto the real Palladium stage before extras and real fans. The entrance thrills before she sings a note, and is the closest any current day fan can come to encountering Garland in the flesh during her concert years, with a little backstage “something extra.”
Questions from the audience are engaged and enthusiastic. Yes, she was known for singing during the playbacks of her pre-recorded (as was the convention at the time) film singing sequences, and known for outsinging those playbacks. (A personal aside: one of my obscure time machine wishes has long been to have been present on the set of one of Garland’s musical numbers as filmed with playback while she was singing along to herself to provide the appropriate physical representation of singing muscles and phrasing — imagine the Garland voice in duplicate in real time.) The usual questions about Judy’s children Liza, Lorna, and Joe. And the query about whether Judy actually played piano (yes she did and she kept it to herself).
And stories from Hollywood stars who knew and loved Garland. Ann Miller‘s bawdy summary of one of Garland’s husbands. And Fricke’s reflections on the intensity of June Allyson‘s engagement with Garland memories when he interviewed her for a Garland related project some years ago. “When you got on the subject of Judy Garland with June Allyson,” he noted, “you had to order pizza.”
Order the book. Watch the movies — perhaps during a just-announced day-long marathon on what would have been Garland’s 90th birthday, June 10, 2012 on TCM. Listen and feel, people, listen and feel.
© Martha Wade Steketee (March 3, 2012)