Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What If: Judy Garland and the Fifties Musical

I like to play little what if? games sometimes with classic films and filmmakers, asking myself what would have happened if X Y or Z had occurred. It's fun (at least I think it's fun) to contemplate the different ways film history might have changed. I was thinking about one of these what ifs last night, and I thought I'd share it. (Maybe I'll make this a semi-regular feature on the blog. We'll see.)

This what if concerns Judy Garland. Before I get to the question itself, let's set it up. In the mid-1930s, while she was barely a teenager, Judy did her apprenticeship at MGM. She was most successful playing the female sidekick to Mickey Rooney. By the time she made THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939, however, the studio was already wondering if Judy could start carrying movies by herself. Although OZ wasn't an immediate hit (it did good box office but cost a lot to make and didn't turn a profit until it was rereleased a few years later), it did establish that Judy was worthy of the spotlight. The studio kept her paired with Rooney for a few more years to squeeze out as many "Mickey and Judy" dollars as possible, but it also began easing Garland into her own star vehicles like FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942) and PRESENTING LILY MARS (1943). When she struck box office gold with MEET ME IN ST LOUIS in 1944, Judy Garland was officially a star in her own right. For the next six years she enjoyed hits like THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946), EASTER PARADE (1948) and SUMMER STOCK (1950). 

As her star rose, however, Judy began to be a problem on set. She had crippling stage fright which, when combined with deepening drug abuse, made her steadily more difficult to work with. In practical terms that meant that some days it was impossible to get her in front of a camera, costing the studio thousands of dollars for every minute the crew stood around waiting. Finally, after she completed SUMMER STOCK in 1950, MGM did the previously unthinkable and fired Judy.

Now, this is where we might do a what if? What if Judy had somehow pulled herself together and didn't get fired from MGM in 1950? It's interesting to consider, though I think the answer isn't as simple as 'we would have gotten more great Judy MGM musicals.' Yes, we would have gotten her in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, which she'd already begun shooting when she was fired. (She was replaced by Betty Hutton.) Yes, she probably would have starred in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN with Gene Kelly, which is what he wanted. That would have been interesting.

But by 1950, Judy was burned out doing the whole 'happy and I know it' song and dance routine at MGM. What happened to her when she got fired was that she was forced to go and become Judy Garland the singer, to tour and record fulltime, rather than being Judy Garland the singing movie star. And this is the key, because it was only at this point in her career that Judy really became the auteur of her own career. While she had been one of the greatest and most iconic of movie stars, she'd also been a cog in the machine, a commodity for the studio to shape and distribute as it saw fit.  On her own, however, she shaped her art to her own will. She became a legendary live performer with historic runs in London and New York, culminating in her smash hit album JUDY AT CARNEGIE HALL in 1961. What's notable is that her studio albums and live recordings have more of an edge to them than her previous work for MGM. Their pathos is deeper, their wit is sharper.

In the sixties, she returned to movies, making a handful of films, but it's notable that she mostly made dramas like JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and A CHILD IS WAITING. Her only film role in the 1950s was her triumphant performance in George Cukor's A STAR IS BORN (1954).

And it's A STAR IS BORN that leads us to our big what if. Although the film was heralded as a masterpiece and a great comeback for Judy, it failed to make money. I won't get into the details of why this happened (it has a lot to do with Warner Brothers, the studio that released it), but it will suffice to say that Judy took a lot of blame that she didn't deserve. But what if the film had been a success? What if Judy could have set up her shingle at Warner Brothers and made two or three (of more) musicals for them?

Because one thing that is fascinating about A STAR IS BORN is that it's more of a Judy Garland joint that any other film she made. She and her husband Sid Luft were the primary movers and shakers on the production. The entire film was geared toward being a showcase for the talents of Judy Garland: belting out up-tempo tunes, crooning slow torch songs, and displaying her acting chops. (She lost Best Actress to Grace Kelly that year, and I'd say that time has offered a different verdict except that even at the time it was obvious that Garland should have won.) More tellingly, the movie was dark. This wasn't a musical comedy like all those smiley pictures she made for MGM. This story ends with a suicide. This is a musical drama.

What if Judy had been able to make more musical dramas in the 50s? Her drinking buddy Humphrey Bogart took on darker and darker roles in the 50s, deepening the meaning of his onscreen persona. What if Garland had been allowed to do that with the musical? Listen to her song "Me and My Shadow" off her 1957 studio album masterpiece ALONE, and ask yourself what kind of film that song would have fit into. I want to see that film. I bet it would have been great. 

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