How ‘Oz’ made Judy Garland a legend

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Judy Garland was born 100 years ago today and died more than half a century ago but her legend lives on. Mostly, that is thanks  to the enduring popularity of  ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the song ‘Over the Rainbow’.  If things had gone differently, Shirley Temple would have played Dorothy and even as it was, the picture was not a success when it first came out.

Garland had made six films, including the first two of nine with Mickey Rooney, when ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was cast. Studio executives wanted Shirley Temple – aged 10 and the top box office attraction in the country – to play the 12-year-old Dorothy. But producer Mervyn LeRoy wanted Garland. When Temple’s studio, 20th Century-Fox, refused to loan out their star, MGM strapped down 16-year-old Judy’s breasts and put her on the yellow brick road.

When it was released in 1939, the film was just another children’s musical. Critics dumped on it and it was a box-office flop. Written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, ‘Over the Rainbow’ won the Academy Award for best original song and that was that.

But 1939 was a highly competitive year with dozens of splendid pictures. Towering over everything was the blockbuster ‘Gone With the Wind’. Not until 1956 did ‘The Wizard of Oz’ escape from the Civil War epic’s shadow.

CBS offered to lease ‘Gone With the Wind’ from MGM for a TV showing for one million dollars. MGM said no. Half-heartedly, CBS offered $225,000 for ‘Oz’. MGM said yes and threw in an option for annual repeats. As a result, like Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the film became a Christmas perennial.

More than seventy years after its original release, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ still captivates movie lovers. Generations still fall for the little girl from Kansas who sings ‘Over the Rainbow’  and is swept away to Munchkinland.

Another important reason for that has been the general sympathy for the way Hollywood exploited Garland and the poignancy of her short life and death. Renee Zellweger captured it in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the singer in the 2019 film ‘Judy’.

In her exhaustive book, ‘The Making of the Wizard of Oz’, Aljean Harmetz cited the Oscar-winning music, the charm of the film’s depiction of Kansas, the enchanting fantasy of Frank L. Baum’s characters and the bravura vaudeville acting style of Jack Haley (Tin Woodsman), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow) and Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion).

Then she went to the heart of the matter: Judy Garland. ‘One could never watch the frenzied self-caricature of her last years without being reminded of a time when rainbows were possible for her,’ Harmetz wrote. ‘Without Garland’s unique voice and tragic future being tied to “Over the Rainbow”, the picture would never have taken on the qualities of poignancy, seriousness and irony.’  Her enduring appeal was explained by Spencer Tracy, who said, ‘Judy Garland audiences don’t listen. They feel. They have their arms around her.’

When she died, aged 47, of an accidental drug overdose in London on June 22, 1969, Time Magazine said, ‘Judy’s fans loved her for better or worse.’ Today, only four of her musicals are remembered – ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’, ‘Easter Parade’, ’A Star is Born’ and, of course, ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

Garland’s voice – distinctive and intense – was her ticket to movie stardom. She was born Francess Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922. Her parents, Frank and Ethel, reportedly had planned an abortion but were talked out of it by frieds. When she was 3, she became touring with her older sisters, Virginia and Mary Jane, on the vaudeville circuit. Her father died when she was 12 and she said later that her mother was ‘the real Wicked Witch of the West’. 

Louis B. Mayer gave her a contract without a screen test when she was 13. After that, she called MGM home although by all accounts it wasn’t a loving

In February 1937 at a studio party for Clark Gable, Garland sang a specially written song, ‘Dear Mr. Gable’. Executives were so bowled over that they put her and the song in ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’.

‘Judy was as light-hearted a person as I ever met in my life,’ Jack Haley said. ‘Her acting instinct was impeccable,’ said Ray Bolger. But there was an underlying tension and MGM’s executives imposed stern discipline.

In the film, the Lion shows he’s a coward by crying when Dorothy slaps him. When the scene was being shot, Bert Lahr’s reaction was so comical that Garland burst out laughing. In take after take, her laughing got worse and worse. Finally, she was in hysterics. At this point, Harmetz reported, director Victor Fleming went over, slapped her hard on the face and ordered her to her dressing room. After a few minutes, she returned and said, ‘Okay,’ and the scene was completed.

What medicine restored her composure went unnoticed. Concerned about her weight, MGM imposed a rigid diet and a doctor prescribed pills for her to sleep at night and more pills to go to work in the morning.

Teamed with Mickey Rooney, she became a major star with such hits as ‘Babes in Arms’ (1939), ‘Strike Up the Band’ (1940) and ‘Babes on Broadway’ along with episodes of Rooney’s ‘Andy Hardy’ series. In 1942, she got top billing over Gene Kelly and George Murphy in ‘For Me and My Gal’. She also was seeing a psychiatrist five times a week.

In 1944, she gave MGM its biggest hit since ‘Gone With the Wind’, the splendid musical titled ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’. The Gallup Poll listed her as one of the five most popular actresses in America. 1946, married to director Vincente Minnelli, she gave birth to a girl and called her Liza because ‘Liaz Minnelli will look so good on a marquee.’ She was right about that.

More hits followed including ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ (1946) and ‘Easter Parade’ (1948) with Fred Astaire. By then, Garland had been married and divorced twice and was nearly out of control. She weighed less than one hundred pounds and began not showing up for work. Still, MGM gave her a new five-year contract – at $5,600 per week – and announced that she would star in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.

Then came the total breakdown.

‘We started the picture,’ Garland said later. ‘We did a couple of scenes and I knew I wasn’t good. My head wouldn’t stop aching.’ In his book ‘City of Nets – A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s’, Otto Friedrich painted a sorry picture: ‘She would lie awake all night telephoning people to ask questions like, “What kind of a day do you think it will be?” She took pills. Her skin broke out in rashes. Her hair began to fall out. Yet another new doctor had her undergo six electric shock treatments.’

In the spring of 1949, after an investment of one million dollars with no return, MGM hired Betty Hutton to star in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and suspended Garland. In the summer of 1950, they tore up her contract. Garland attempted suicide in 1950 by breaking a glass bottle and running the sharp edge across her throat. But two years later, she had a record-breaking nineteen-week run at the RKO Palace Theater in New York.

Over the next eleven years, she would appear in only two films – as the lead in ‘A Star is Born’ (1954) with James Mason and in a supporting performance in the drama ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ (1961). She was nominated for an Academy Award each time but failed to add to the special Oscar she had been awarded for ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

While her career effectively was over, Judy still had that voice. Her records and concerts were hugely successful. Gradually, however, her drinking, drastic changes in weight and her chronic drug use got the best of her. Two more marriages ended in divorce and she married a fifth time. She was plagued by lawsuits – by and against her – involving husbands, agents and theatres. Six months before she died, a three-week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town cabaret venue turned into a disaster.

‘One night, she appeared one hour late,’ reported Time . ‘At first, the audience booed and jeered at her, then threw bread, cigarette packages abd butts onto the stage. Judy tripped over the microphone lead, struggled with a shoulder strap and looked, as one London reporter put it, like “a walking casualty”.’

Ray Bolger said, ‘Judy didn’t die of anything except wearing out. She just plain wore out.’

Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, recalled for Aljean Harmetz a conversation she had with Judy Garland in the spring of 1939. The 16-year-old said she missed many of the things that little girls did. 

‘When I was little,’ she said. ‘I never had a birthday party, never had a best friend, never belonged to a little girls’ club.’ Hamilton asked her why not.

‘Well,’ Garland told her, ‘I was going on funny little trains to funny little towns. I didn’t even play with dolls because I never had very much time. I do remember several times stopping at a little town on the train and pressing my nose against the window and seeing little girls pushing baby buggies with dolls in them. They seemed to be having fun and that made me feel like I was missing something.’

Hamilton asked her what she did do and Garland said, ‘Well, I sang and danced with my sisters and my mother. We were cute and they thought that was the way to make money.’

Garland made millions but she died one million dollars in debt. In the end, she had only her voice. ‘What do I do when I’m down?’ she said. ‘I put on my lipstick, see my stockings are straight and go out there and sing “Over the Rainbow”.’

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