By Leon Nock
Over the years I have marked the centenaries of several performers in Jazz Journal but I can honestly say that this is the very first - and, of course, by definition only - time that the performer in question has been an undisputed icon, a performer indeed who was with us for only 47 years yet was active for forty-five of them.
Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and into a vastly different world than the one that I myself and the readers of this article call home. One example should suffice; at the exact mid-point of the twentieth century, when Garland had just been fired by her principal employer, MGM (perhaps by nothing more than pure coincidence, another icon-in-waiting, Frank Sinatra, had also been fired recently not just by MGM but also by his record company, Columbia and couldn’t get arrested), biographies and autobiographies of performers, writers, directors in both Theatre and Cinema were thin on the ground. They did exist but barely reached double figures. Yet by the time Garland died in 1969, most major cities could boast at least one ‘Theatre’ and/or ‘Cinema’ Book Shop, wherein both professions and their leading lights were dissected from soup to nuts. I would argue that one definition of ‘icon’ is the number of books devoted to them available in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic, and whilst many major performers boast only one or two titles, the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart are virtually a cottage industry and as I write there are some 30 plus titles on Judy Garland alone. So now our task is to get from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to Icon, International, in ten moves or less.
She was born into a family on speaking terms with show business; father Francis Avent ‘Frank’ Gumm, managed a movie theatre that featured vaudeville acts, mother Ethel Marion played the piano, whilst elder sisters Mary Jane (‘Suzanne’) and Dorothy Virginia (‘Jimmie’) were a ‘sister’ singing act, supplemented, when she reached the ripe old age of two in 1924, by ‘Baby’ Gumm. With Ethel on piano and acting as manager the three sisters toured in vaudeville successfully for an entire decade with things coming to a head in 1934/5. By 1934 the Gumm sisters had become the Garland Sisters; that same year Hoagy Carmichael and Sammy Lerner enjoyed a modest success with their song ‘Judy’ and the youngest Gumm sister decided that Judy had more cachet than either ‘Baby’ or Frances, and the following year Suzanne flew to Las Vegas to get married, more or less breaking up the act. Judy and father Frank were auditioned by MGM where Judy would remain for fifteen years. 1935 was still – albeit the tail-end – the era of the ‘child star’ and Fox had made a fortune out of Shirley Temple. Arguably Louis B. Mayer thought he'd go one better and usher in the era of the teenager notwithstanding the word did not exist until the 1950s; nevertheless he signed two adolescents, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin and had them duke it out in the 1936 short Every Sunday. Judy won going away and Durbin was cut loose just in time to save Universal from bankruptcy. If Judy won the battle Deanna won the war; one year older than Judy, she retired in 1948 and lived quietly out of the spotlight in France to age 91.
L. Frank Baum released The Wizard Of Oz into the wild and on a future collision course with Judy Garland in 1900, but it wasn’t until 1939 that that their pre-destined meeting occurred. It’s like that sometimes; Hamlet was born circa 1600, Jack Barrymore some 282 years later and they met unforgettably on November 16, 1922 at the Sam H. Harris Theatre. Similarly Marguerite Gautier came into this world in 1848, Greta Gustafson in 1905, and their own life-changing meeting – also in Culver City, courtesy of MGM – took place in 1936. Chronologically, therefore, Oz was the runt of the litter but arguably it put more bums on seats than the other two combined, and it’s still shown internationally on television at Christmas 80 plus years later.
Judy Garland is still Dorothy Gale to millions of kids who weren’t even born when she took her first skipping steps down the Yellow Brick Road, and although she made at least two more iconic films – Meet Me In St Louis and A Star Is Born – both containing songs that went straight into the Great American Songbook, only one made it all the way ‘Over The Rainbow.’ It’s possible, if not perhaps probable, that the seventeen-year-old who journeyed to the Emerald City only to realise that there’s no place like home, was still a relatively innocent child, not yet fully addicted to the toxins they were pumping into her to help her sleep and then help her wake, but we can’t say the same about the other memorable movies she churned out for the studio, The Harvey Girls, Presenting Lily Mars, Easter Parade and the last film she made for the studio, If You Feel Like Singing (U.S. title, Summer Stock).
She played her first non-singing role in 1945. The Clock (aka as Under The Clock) was based on a short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico and was directed by Vincente Minnelli. It spans 48 hours in which a lonely soldier on leave in New York meets a girl in Penn Station, they fall in love, marry, and he goes back to the war. Put simply, it’s a beautiful film which still holds up today. Judy Garland and Robert Walker are outstanding as the principals, and there is strong support from James Gleason and Keenan Wynn. Garland proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was as fine an actress as she was a singer, but it was only towards the end of her career that she displayed her acting chops once more in Judgment At Nuremburg and A Child Is Waiting, both of which featured Burt Lancaster.
Louis B. Mayer may have thought he was cutting his losses by cutting her loose in 1950 but boy, did he get a wrong number--he merely freed her to enjoy four of her greatest triumphs, strike that, make that four of anyone’s greatest triumphs. It began fairly modestly in 1951, with a month-long sell-out tour of the UK, including, of course, the Palladium, then, later that same year another smash at the American Palladium aka The Palace. In 1954 she unleashed her acting, singing and dancing chops in the finest version by a country mile of A Star Is Born, arguably her greatest film, in which she was a shoo-in for Best Actress Oscar; incredibly she lost to Grace Kelly in what was the greatest robbery since the Brink’s job. She had one more mega triumph to come; on April 23, 1961 – St George’s Day in England, St Judy’s everywhere else – she played Carnegie Hall in front of everyone from Richard Burton to Marilyn Monroe and tore the place apart. The double album recorded live spent 73 weeks on the Billboard Charts, including 15 at No.1, and won five Grammys.
She was 38 that night and nine years later she was dead. I was seriously fortunate to witness one of her very last live appearances at the old Talk Of The Town in London, at Leicester Square. It was January, 1969, and she had less than six months to live. It was a five-week engagement and she was consistently late, turning up close to midnight for a nine p.m. spot. The philistines were throwing bread rolls and yelling cat calls but she was magic and arguably better in live performance than Mr. Sinatra. She’s been dead for fifty years plus but still generates love, admiration, and respect from people of discernment. I doubt if I will ever celebrate any performer with more talent and charisma.
London-based Leon Nock became enamored of Cinema, Popular Song, and Theater in early childhood, and has written both for and about all three. He worked for many years in the British Film Industry and is a member of the writers section of A.C.T.T. (now BECTU). He is also a member of ASCAP and his lyrics have been performed at Birdland, Tavern On The Green, Ronnie Scott’s and The Stables, among other venues. He has written Libretti and Lyrics for eight musicals, in addition to straight plays, novels, and short stories. He began writing for Jazz Journal, the UK’s oldest jazz magazine, when it was still a monthly print publication, and since it went online his byline has appeared some 130 times above Profiles, Interviews, and Reviews of Films, Books, Plays and CDs.