Today is a very special day: the 90th anniversary of Frances Ethel Gumm’s birth. Most people would probably, upon reading that sentence, think “Franches Ethel who?,” but we classic film fans know that she later became the legendary actress and singer Judy Garland. Frances (nicknamed “Baby”) was born on June 10, 1922, to a Minnesota family that managed the town’s little theater. The family was full of talented performers, and it didn’t take this little girl long to catch on to the family business.
In a 1937 issue of Movie Mirror, Judy discussed her progression into show business, starting with her youngest memories of falling in love with the stage:
“We were crazy about the stage, and my sisters got up a little act and the two of them used to put it on in the theater. They sang and danced, and I would cry because they wouldn’t let me be in it, too, so when I was four years old I just determined to get up there anyhow. I got to the stage during their act and interrupted proceedings to give my version of a nursery song. I wasn’t very good but, boy, it was plenty loud.”
I think I can speak for all Judy fans when I say that we’re very glad she made that first interrupting performance and stuck with it! She later began performing song-and-dance routines with her sisters, and as a trio they became known as “The Gumm Sisters,” eventually moving to California, where Baby Gumm became Judy Garland and found great success in film, television and music over the next decades.
Judy went on to accomplish such feats as landing starring roles in grand musicals, showing off her acting talents in dramatic films and recording a great number of songs (beginning with her signing with Decca at age 13, making her one of the youngest artists to be signed to a major record label). Her film, television and soundtrack credits easily surpass 100. She performed at Carnegie Hall. She was nominated for two Oscars, and won five GRAMMY awards and a Tony.
My own love for Judy began at a very early age, as you may remember from my shoe-tying tale of watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid. As the years have passed, I’ve had the opportunity to see most of her films and have grown to respect her both as an actress and as a recording artist. The following are some of my favorite films that I’ve discovered along the way, in random order:
Ziegfeld Girl (1941) – Judy stars alongside Jimmy Stewart, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner in this fabulous spectacle of a musical. Judy portrays Susan Gallagher, the daughter of an aging vaudeville performer (a case of art imitating life, as Judy’s father in real life was also a performer). Susan scores a role in the Follies, but must leave her father behind in order to take the job. Judy both acts and sings beautifully in this film, with my favorite song of hers being “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” which can be viewed on the TCM website.
The Clock (1945) – Judy is the leading lady opposite Robert Walker in this romantic World War II drama. She portrays Alice Maybery, a young girl working in New York City who meets and falls in love with Joe Allen, a solider on two-day leave from the Army. This is a terribly sweet film, and Judy’s fantastic performance really draws the viewer into her budding feelings for Joe. While the romance is certainly a joy to watch as it grows, the film remains anchored in reality because the expressions on Judy and Robert’s faces show that they know very well he may not survive the war, and that even if he does it’s improbable that things will work out perfectly for them. Even though Judy doesn’t get the chance to show off her amazing voice in this one, it’s one of my favorite films of hers. It’s the type of film that you can endlessly re-watch and still get completely absorbed in every time.
A Star is Born (1954) – While A Star is Born is not my number one favorite Judy film, this is absolutely my favorite performance from her. Judy portrays a showgirl named Esther Blodgett who develops a friendship (and later a romance) with fading film star Norman Maine (James Mason). Her performances, both in acting and in her musical numbers, are absolutely charged with emotion. Aurora of The Cinementals and Once Upon a Screen sums up my feelings on this film pretty perfectly in her blog post titled “Judy’s greatest performance.”
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) – This is the quintessential Judy musical in my mind. Her voice is flawless, she looks absolutely stunning and her talents as an actress shine. She gets the chance to perform a couple of really fun songs here, such as “Under the Bamboo Tree” (performed alongside Margaret O’Brien in a simple but delightful song-and-dance routine) while also performing charming, endearing numbers such as “Over the Banister” and “The Boy Next Door.” This musical is nearly flawless as a whole, but Judy in particular really shines in it.
It’s been impossible for me to watch Judy’s films without developing a few favorite co-stars as well…
My favorite leading man in Judy’s films would have to be none other than Gene Kelly. The two starred alongside each other in three lovely musicals: For Me and My Gal (1942), The Pirate (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). And in each film they play off of each other perfectly. The chemistry between these two is fantastic. It’s quite obvious, seeing them together on screen, that they had a strong mutual respect for each other. For Me and My Gal was Gene’s first film, and I can only imagine how reassuring it must have been for him to have an experienced screen performer that he respected and trusted to help him along. (They had met a few years earlier while he was working on Broadway.)
Though I love all three of the Judy/Gene films, my favorite is The Pirate. I know some fans (and critics) regard it as Judy’s worst film, and it is a film that caused a lot of problems for the studio: they lost money on it after it flopped in the box office, created controversy in the South over the inclusion of The Nicholas Brothers, and Judy missed a lot of days on set due to illness. But despite all of its production problems, “the worst Judy film” is a title far unfitting to this film. It’s extremely fun to watch and always gets me laughing, with fantastic songs written by Cole Porter to give it even more of a boost.
Gene may be my favorite leading man for Judy, but he isn’t the only actor who made a great addition to Judy’s films. Margaret O’Brien made the perfect Tootie, the little sister of Judy’s character Esther in Meet Me in St. Louis. Angela Lansbury’s character of Em in The Harvey Girls (1946) proves a formidable rival and great contrast to Judy’s character of Susan Bradley. And who could forget Dorothy’s brainless, cowardly and heartless sidekicks in The Wizard of Oz (1939)? Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley are fantastic as the scarecrow, the cowardly lion and the tin man who help Dorothy on her journey along the yellow brick road. Judy was such a strong performer and had great screen presence that she probably could’ve carried any of these films on her own, but I always enjoy watching her alongside these co-stars.
So happy 90th birthday, Judy! You were and still are the true definition of a legend.
Feel free to share your own favorite Judy films, songs or memories in the comments!