The new bio-pic Judy, which chronicles the difficult final months of Judy Garland’s life, will be released in theaters this week, but to fully appreciate the brilliance of the “World’s Greatest Entertainer,” you need to see her in her prime. Garland’s 1962 TV special captures this legendary performer at her zenith, and proves just what a powerful, riveting presence she was… and still is.
It was 1962. Judy Garland was back on top of the entertainment world after a blockbuster U.S concert tour the previous year that culminated in a milestone performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Reviews were rapturous, the buzz was deafening, and the resulting live double album from Capitol Records quickly went gold. Judy at Carnegie Hall stayed on the Billboard charts for 73 weeks – 13 of those at #1 – and won multiple Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year (the first live album and first album by a woman to win that award) and Best Female Vocal Performance. The rigorous tour was an unequivocal triumph and another great comeback for the 39-year-old Garland, who just a couple of years earlier survived a life-threatening bout with hepatitis and was told by doctors that she’d be a permanent semi-invalid and would never work again.
Garland, though, was a dynamo, a force of nature, and while she initially welcomed the long-deserved and even longer overdue rest, soon she was itching to get back on stage. The young girl who won our hearts as the wistful yet plucky heroine of The Wizard of Oz at age 16 and matured into an actress of enormous power and range with her Oscar-nominated performance in the finest version of A Star Is Born 15 years later had spent much of the past decade as a concert and recording artist. Newly rejuvenated, she stormed back with a vengeance and achieved even greater heights. Judy wasn’t just over the rainbow in 1962, she was over the moon, and it wasn’t long until television came to call once again.
Garland had headlined two very successful CBS-TV specials in the mid-1950s, but was off the air ever since. Now, as arguably the biggest star on the planet, the network wanted its bite of the proverbial apple. Garland and CBS already had a long, difficult history, and more sturm und drang was yet to come when the network signed Garland for a weekly variety series in 1963, but all was forgiven in the heady early days of 1962 as CBS began to mount a massive special around her.
No expense was spared and the talent amassed in front of and behind the camera was considerable, to say the least. Joining Garland as guests would be Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, while Norman Jewison, who would go on to become an Oscar-winning film director five years later, would produce and direct the program. The fact that both Sinatra and Martin, who could easily star in their own specials, would be willing to play second-fiddle to Garland is further evidence of just how brightly her star was shining at the time. Judy Garland’s aura was immense and everyone wanted to bask in it.
The sets were abstract and minimal, so as not to distract from the mega-watt talent on stage. In fact, the only wattage that could even remotely compete with Garland would be the wall of light bulbs behind her that would spell her first name and those lining a runway that would give her ample room to strut her musical stuff. Though Sinatra and Martin each would have a couple of solo spots and join Garland twice for duets, the focus would be on Judy, who would perform eight numbers, almost all of which were in her Carnegie Hall repertoire.
Over the course of the hour-long program, Garland impeccably sings “When You’re Smiling,” “Just in Time,” “The Man That Got Away,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” Her final duet with Sinatra and Martin, a mash-up of “Let There Be Love” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” is a showstopper. Nothing, though, can top the special’s final block, an extended solo spot for Garland that comes as close as anything can to recreating the electric atmosphere, musical brilliance, superior performing prowess, and fan hysteria of the Carnegie Hall concert. Television had never seen anything like it, and until The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show two years later, nothing could top it.
She begins with a spirited medley of two of her most famous movie tunes: “You Made Me Love You,” which she famously sang as a 15-year-old to a photo of Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938, and “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis. Then she performs a scorching version of an Al Jolson standard that Garland long ago made her own, “Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” After that, she really lets loose for her final two numbers, and Jewison wisely gives her free rein to roam the stage and show the world why she was so often called the “world’s greatest entertainer.” The first is another Jolson favorite, “Swanee,” which Garland performed in A Star Is Born and had since made a concert staple. The second is “San Francisco” from the 1936 earthquake movie of the same name, which contains plenty of clever specialty lyrics, including an intro that both honors and skewers the film’s star, Jeanette MacDonald. Just like she would do in her concerts, Garland skips, kicks, and shuffles while playfully belting out the thrilling arrangements with customary gusto and supreme confidence. She covers quite a bit of ground, too, as the multiple cameras struggle to keep up with her. Garland’s soaring vocals, intoxicating give-it-all-you’ve-got attitude, and seemingly boundless energy dazzle the senses, and yet she still manages to nail a couple of lung-busting final notes. During her bows, the deafening applause and audience euphoria is something to see and hear, as dozens of outstretched arms reach over the footlights in a desperate attempt to shake the hand of a legend.
The special, which aired on February 25th, 1962, garnered the highest ratings of any CBS entertainment program to that date and earned four Emmy nominations, including Program of the Year. It was an unqualified success with critics and so beloved by the public that CBS repeated the special later in the season. Another special would follow the next year, which would lead to the 26-episode Judy Garland Show in the 1963-64 TV season, but this program – and especially its final segment – stand apart as a lasting testament to the unadorned artistic brilliance of Judy Garland.
Garland once said she wanted to give her audiences “two hours of just POW.” Well, here are 12 minutes of pure POW from Garland’s immortal 1962 CBS-TV special. Forget the Renée Zellweger movie; this is what Judy Garland is all about as a performer. Watch it. Comment on it. Share it. Spread the joy. Simply said, it’s magic… and so is Judy.