A Legend Remembered
Publicized Early In Her Career As “Little Girl With A Great Big Voice,” The Hollywood Icon Developed Into One Of The Most Beloved Entertainers That Ever Graced The Silver Screen
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
June 9, 2014 — Perhaps never in film history has one actress embodied the hope and ambition of a single studio more than Judy Garland did in the mid-1930s – and at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Hollywood’s biggest and richest studio, no less.
MGM, thanks in no small measure to Judy’s dewy Midwestern innocence and a rich contralto singing voice that belied her age, put a unique stamp on its musical films; a trademark that became the sine qua non to which every other studio measured itself from the 1930s to 1950s (coincidentally, right up until around the time Judy left Metro in 1950).
Billed as, “the little girl with the big voice” when she toured the vaudeville circuit with her two older sisters, Judy really earned that stripe singing (and often introducing) cherished standards from the great American songbook during a career that featured indelible performances in more than 30 musical films, including The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis.
Songwriter Burton Lane (“Finian’s Rainbow,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”) personally helped deliver Judy Garland to the world by championing her second MGM screen test.
In 1935, Lane had heard Judy perform with her sisters on the stage of New York’s Paramount Theater and quickly arranged an audition for her.
“I introduced Judy to the folks at MGM where she sang for the top studio brass for hours,” said Lane in a 1981 interview we had with him in his Manhattan home. “In the crush and confusion of that memorable day, no one thanked me, including Judy.
“Flash forward six years later,” he continued, “and I was assigned to write the score for Babes on Broadway, co-starring Mickey Rooney and Judy. I was told by producer Arthur Freed to walk over to the sound stage and help the kids go through some of the songs. As we neared the rehearsal area, a little girl came running up and threw her arms around me. It was Judy. She apologized for not thanking me that day. ‘I was so confused by all the attention,’ she said. ‘I can’t thank you enough for what you did for me.’”
In 1944, Judy was cast in Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minnelli, the man who would become her second husband the following year.
In an interview with Minnelli in his Beverly Hills home, he said that Garland was initially reticent to take on the lead role of “Esther Smith” in the movie.
“Judy didn’t want to make that film, she wanted to do more sophisticated parts,” he told us. “She thought the teenage role of Esther Smith would set her career back 20 years. She asked Louis B. Mayer and Arthur Freed (the producer) to intercede for her but she couldn’t get anywhere, so she came to the set the first day of rehearsal secure in the knowledge that she would at least make life miserable for, ‘this squirt director Minnelli from New York.’”
Although Garland may have harbored initial misgivings about starring in St. Louis, for Margaret O’Brien who played Judy’s kid sister “Tootie,” the movie was an unalloyed joy from start to finish.
“Judy was just lovely to work with,” O’Brien told us over drinks at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. “People think of her as being kind of sad. She jumped rope with me and played hop-scotch between takes. She was kind of a kid herself. She knew who she was. She was Judy Garland for goodness sake!”
“Wonderful, wonderful Judy, she was the greatest,” Gene Kelly said in our 1978 interview with him. “She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was such a hard worker. We did a number in Summer Stock in a barn called ‘The Portland Fancy.’ She was terrific, picked up the steps so quickly. And it wasn’t an easy dance to do.”
Summer Stock proved to be Judy’s last film at MGM. There would be other intervening triumphs (Garland’s 1954 Academy Award-nominated performance in A Star is Born and her legendary live concert appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1961) amid corresponding lows. But they would come later, away from the only studio she had ever known.
Judy Garland would’ve been 92 on June 10th.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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