Posted Tue Jun 21, 2022 at 02:29 PM PDT by David Krauss
That voice. Instantly recognizable, it brims with power and emotion, expressing heartbreak, longing, and boundless joy with equal fervor. It can raise the rafters and plumb the depths of your soul - sometimes simultaneously - all while sending chills of excitement down your spine. Almost as soon as she learned to talk, Judy Garland began to sing, and her inimitable, indefatigable instrument coupled with her peerless ability to connect with audiences eventually led her to be dubbed the World’s Greatest Entertainer. That might sound like hyperbole, but time and again Garland lived up to the moniker. She may have stood only four-feet-eleven-inches tall, but she was a giant in the entertainment industry, a triple-threat dynamo who conquered every medium - movies, television, radio, recordings, the concert stage - and remains one of the most admired, beloved, and enduring performers in show business history.
Garland would have turned 100 years old this month, and although she died much too soon at age 47 from an accidental prescription drug overdose, she’s still very much alive on TV, movie, and computer screens and music streaming services. As long as there’s a video monitor, speaker system, or pair of AirPods, Garland will continue to beguile, thrill, and delight.
Like many children of a bygone era, I first discovered Garland through the annual network television broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz. The fateful year for me was 1967. I was 4. Yet even at that tender age, Garland’s warmth and sincerity touched me, so when my dad opened his daily New York Times a couple of years later and announced the woman who played Dorothy had tragically died, I felt genuine sadness. Five years after that, in 1974, my parents dragged 11-year-old me to a screening of That’s Entertainment!, MGM’s lavish salute to its legendary Golden Age musicals. “A documentary?!” I whined. I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.
Two-plus hours later, my life had forever changed. Not only did That’s Entertainment! expose me to the full breadth of Garland’s massive talent and turn me into a lifelong, passionate fan, it also sparked a love affair with classic movies that continues to this day. Garland, though, was the instigator, the hook, the portal that transported me into a wondrous cinematic world. I read everything I could about her, watched her films on late-night TV (there wasn’t even VHS back then), bought her records, and soaked up the magic of her performances. Decades have passed and her work continues to amaze and inspire me. I can’t think of any artist who is more genuine, who can communicate so directly and so viscerally, and who can dazzle the senses so consistently and so completely.
Judy Garland is one of a kind. We’ll never see anyone like her ever again. I could celebrate her every day, but her 100th birthday seems like the perfect time to spotlight in chronological order what I feel are the 10 best examples of Garland’s best film work. All of the movies are available on Blu-ray - and one is even in 4K UHD and 3D! Click your heels to guess which one. You can certainly take my word for how good the following films are, but if you watch the accompanying video clips (and I strongly encourage you to do so!), you’ll witness the breathtaking talent that made Garland an entertainment icon and keeps her relevant, relatable, accessible, and - most importantly - timeless. Frank Sinatra once said, “The rest of us will be forgotten. Never Judy.” He was right.
Happy 100th, Judy. Here's looking at - and listening to - you, kid...
The cyclone may whisk Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, but the impact of The Wizard of Oz on Garland was far more consequential, transforming her from an adolescent MGM contract player into a major movie star. We've all seen this intoxicating fantasy dozens of times, but the reason we keep coming back to it is Garland. As I wrote in my review of the 70th anniversary edition of the film in 2009, “Though so many elements contribute to the success of a film, it's impossible to imagine any one piece of the Oz puzzle having a greater impact on the film's viability and durability than Garland's performance. Sure, her simple yet stirring rendition of 'Over the Rainbow' ranks high on the list of milestone movie moments, yet this gifted 16-year-old actress brings so much more to the table than her mellifluous voice. Honesty and sincerity ooze from her pores; every word she utters is totally believable, and her pluck, vulnerability, innocence, and empathy instantly seduce the audience. From the opening frames to the 'no place like home' coda, Garland keeps us transfixed, maintaining an intimacy that's rare in such an extravagant production. Her performance, more than any other, keeps The Wizard of Oz contemporary, and allows the picture to connect with past, present, and future generations.” This all-time classic is available in Blu-ray, 3-D, and 4K UHD editions, and in standard, steelbook, and collectible box set packaging.
This rousing, surprisingly dramatic salute to vaudeville during World War I not only showcases Garland’s enviable singing, acting, and dancing abilities, it also marks the film debut of Gene Kelly. As I wrote earlier this month upon the movie’s long-awaited Blu-ray debut, “For Me and My Gal showcases [Garland’s] talent in all three disciplines to a greater degree than perhaps any other film. As the sole star, Garland must do it all, and she handles the heavy responsibility of 'carrying' a major motion picture with ease. The movie also offered Garland her first truly mature role, as well as the chance to step out from behind Mickey Rooney's shadow. She makes the most of both opportunities, and her unqualified success hastened her breezy transition to adult stardom.” Below, she performs one of the all-time great torch songs, “After You’ve Gone,” which would later become a staple in her concert repertoire.
One of the most beloved and acclaimed musicals of all time, Meet Me in St. Louis chronicles a year in the life of a typical American family as they anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair. Director Vincente Minnelli’s sumptuous film brims with humor, charm, warmth, and romance, and completes Garland’s seamless transition to adult roles. It also contains an array of future Garland standards, including “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” (see clip below), and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Along with The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born, Meet Me in St. Louis stands as one of Garland’s greatest and most enduring films and features one of her most natural and endearing performances. The Blu-ray is available in both standard and digibook editions.
Garland and Minnelli followed up Meet Me in St. Louis with The Clock, a beautiful and affecting romantic drama about a GI (Robert Walker) and office secretary (Garland) who fall in love during his 48-hour leave in New York City. Garland doesn’t sing a note in The Clock (one of only two non-musicals she would make during her career), but her understated, intuitive portrayal is so good, we don’t miss her vocals at all. As I recently wrote in my Blu-ray review, “Though the lyrical script…gives her only one brief emotional scene, Garland’s enviable ability to bring meaning and authenticity to the mundane makes her quiet work here rival her raw, powerful, Oscar-nominated portrayals in A Star Is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg.” At last available on Blu-ray after an interminable wait, The Clock is one of Garland’s most unheralded and underrated movies, and her revelatory work continues to resonate more than 75 years after the picture's premiere.
Did waitresses tame the Wild West? According to The Harvey Girls, they did. A musical homage to the adventurous women who ventured west in the late 1800s to work for the Harvey House restaurant franchise, The Harvey Girls gives Garland a chance to show off her flair for comedy (see clip below) and participate in a no-holds-barred catfight that rivals the barroom brawl in Destry Rides Again. As I wrote in my 2020 Blu-ray review of this blockbuster hit, “Garland…carries this infectious film that wonderfully showcases her comic timing, spunky personality, transcendent warmth, and - of course - legendary voice. Her powerhouse pipes belt out the picture's signature song, the Oscar-winning 'On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,' as well as a few other spritely tunes by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren. Though the top-notch ensemble cast includes such big names as John Hodiak, Angela Lansbury, Ray Bolger, Virginia O'Brien, Preston Foster, Marjorie Main, and - in her first speaking part - a young Cyd Charisse, it's Garland who looms the largest, wins our hearts, and reminds us why she later would be dubbed the World's Greatest Entertainer.”
The dream pairing of Garland and Fred Astaire only happened once, but the resulting film, Easter Parade, is another all-time classic that deserves a spin every spring. Two-dozen Irving Berlin tunes pepper this romantic romp about a jilted ballroom dancer (Astaire) who vows to transform a chorus girl (Garland) into a vision of terpsichorean sophistication. In my 2013 Blu-ray review, I laud Garland for once again combining “heartbreaking vulnerability with impeccable comic timing (just watch how she proves to Astaire she's a sexy dish) to create a totally unaffected portrayal…Garland is always completely genuine, and that all-too-rare quality - as much as her peerless voice - puts the audience in the palm of her hand. [Although] many cite ‘A Couple of Swells’ (a classic number in which Judy and Fred cavort as lovable tramps) as the picture's musical highlight, in my book, a medley of Berlin standards capped by an exhilarating rendition of ‘When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'’ displays Garland to even better advantage. Sure, Judy's no Ginger, but she more than holds her own with Astaire, and their dances together possess an infectious enthusiasm that more than compensates for the simplistic steps.”
This is my go-to Garland movie. If ever I need a jolt of Judy to lift my spirits, I pop in Summer Stock, the last of three movies she made with Gene Kelly, her final film at MGM, and the one that contains perhaps her most stylish and infectious number, "Get Happy" (see clip below). The backstage story calls to mind the plots of the Rooney-Garland let's-put-on-a-show musicals, but the snappy script, swift pacing, crackling chemistry between Garland and Kelly, and exhilarating songs and dances put Summer Stock in a class by itself. Garland's feisty portrayal and full-throated vocals reveal a newfound maturity, and anyone who doubts her terpsichorean talent need only take a gander at the dynamite "Portland Fancy" competition dance with Kelly to see how nimble, precise, and energetic she could be.
Summer Stock isn't a great film, but it's immensely entertaining and showcases everything we love about both Garland and Kelly. "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy," indeed!
The second of the four versions of A Star Is Born is without question the best, and that's all because of Garland's bravura performance. Upon the film's release in 1954, Time magazine called it "just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history," and to date it hasn't been topped. The oft-told Hollywood heartbreak story still resonates, and the striking parallels between Garland and the film's tragic hero, Norman Maine (James Mason), add extra potency, poignancy, and irony to the film. (The memorable, emotional scene at the Oscars that climaxes with a shocking slap used to seem a bit far-fetched until Will Smith made it oh-so-real at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.) Garland's rich, soaring vocals burst with soulful passion and continually take our breath away (her rendition of another future signature song, "The Man That Got Away," is arguably her most thrilling and magnetic movie musical performance), but her disarmingly raw dramatic portrayal infuses this A Star Is Born with a power and authenticity the other versions lack. Watch the dressing room scene below and be blown away. It's not only Garland's greatest dramatic screen moment, it's one of the most affecting and memorable turns by an actress in motion picture history.
When Garland lost the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly, Groucho Marx famously called it "the biggest robbery since Brink's," and few disagreed. A Star Is Born captures Garland's brilliance more completely than any other movie and remains the pinnacle of her film career. The Blu-ray is available in both standard and digibook editions. We can only hope a 4K UHD release is in the works.
Garland's role in director Stanley Kramer's searing, three-hour depiction of one of the post-World War II Nazi war crimes trials lasts less than 10 minutes, but her wrenching portrayal of a dowdy German hausfrau who's attacked on the witness stand by an overzealous German defense attorney (Maximillian Schell) makes a huge impression and earned Garland a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Rita Moreno in West Side Story.) Once again, Garland proves she can scale tremendous dramatic heights, and singing is not required to cast a riveting spell. Here is her devastating climactic scene:
Garland's final film, released just six years before her death, casts her as Jenny Bowman, a celebrated singer who inside and out bears an uncanny resemblance to Judy Garland. Jenny comes to London for a concert engagement and hopes to rekindle her relationships with a British doctor (Dirk Bogarde) and the son she gave up a dozen years earlier so she could pursue her career. As I wrote in my 2016 Blu-ray review, "Like Judy, Jenny is an über-talented, temperamental, demanding, vulnerable, and deeply beloved entertainer who gives her all on stage, but is needy, insecure, manipulative, and emotionally fragile in her private life. The two women are so similar, it's often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Add to the mix a handful of riveting concert sequences that showcase Garland's brilliance as a live performer, and you have a film that comes closer to capturing the essence of the real Judy Garland than any movie she ever made." Garland called the dated, melodramatic plot "rubbish," but the prophetically titled I Could Go On Singing contains one of her finest dramatic scenes, a seven-minute tour de force that encapsulates the struggles and stresses she felt in her turbulent life. Her four songs are master classes in the art of performance, but it's the final 90 seconds of "Hello, Bluebird," culminating in a euphoric explosion of Judy Garland joy, that bowl me over every time. I can't think of a better way to end this tribute to Garland the Great than by watching this rafter-raising clip.
Of course, a few other Garland films available on Blu-ray merit mention - and a viewing, too. Girl Crazy, the best of the four let's-put-on-a-show musicals she made with Mickey Rooney, is especially notable for its spectacular "I Got Rhythm" finale directed by Busby Berkeley. Garland also sings such standards as "Embraceable You," "But Not for Me," and "Bidin' My Time" in this delightful adaptation of the hit George & Ira Gershwin Broadway show. There's also The Pirate, which was a flop when first released but now enjoys a rabid cult following. Far too sophisticated for 1948 audiences, this lavish, broadly comic musical re-teams Garland with Kelly, whose acrobatic dancing steals the show, and features an underrated Cole Porter score. Another favorite is In the Good Old Summertime, a charming musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner that pairs Garland with Van Johnson and contains several lilting period tunes.
The only Garland film available in 4K UHD is The Wizard of Oz, but hopefully, Warner Home Video will release Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star Is Born in the format as well - and soon. Not only are they considered Garland's greatest films (along with Oz), but they are also without question two of the greatest musicals of all time, and their Technicolor photography and sumptuous production values make them a natural for 4K UHD. Hopefully, by Garland's 101st birthday, those two classics will be in our collection, too.
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