Old Hollywood Part One – Judy Garland

We hear a lot of people talking about the golden age of Hollywood, where actors and actresses were glamorous, mysterious and seemingly perfect. On the surface it appears to be superior to modern Hollywood in every way; performers were dignified, we never saw them in their pajamas at the supermarket but instead dressed in lavish outfits on a red carpet or sipping cocktails in an exclusive bar. But the truth is that Old Hollywood was a dark, abusive, narcissistic machine that took advantage of everyone and anyone who entered into its world. And so we are going to write a series of pieces on this sinister beast and the people whose lives were made and then destroyed by its insatiable appetite, and we begin with one of the most tragic tales of them all; Judy Garland.

“I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.” – Judy Garland

Garland was born Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids Minnesota in 1922 where her parents ran a small theatre. Due to some accusations made against her father by ushers in their business the family was forced to relocate to California; where they purchased and ran another theatre. In 1928 Judy and her two sisters formed a dance troupe known as “The Gumm Sisters.” Over the following years these three sisters would have their first film debut and tour the Vaudeville circuit together performing songs and dancing across the country. During their success the troupe changed their name from Gumm to Garland and little Frances became Judy.

Gumm Sisters 02

In September 1935 thirteen year old Judy was brought into MGM studios for an audition by her father and she was immediately signed into a contract with the studio. Compared to the beautiful women in Hollywood at the time (think Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner) Judy was described as “the ugly duckling” and “the little hunchback” by the then studio chief Louis B Mayer.

Over the following years Judy was teamed up with Mickey Rooney in a series of buddy style films. To keep up with production schedules teenage Judy was prescribed  amphetamines to stay awake for the long shoots and also barbiturates to be able to sleep at night. MGM also demanded that their ugly duckling be kept on a strict diet, which consisted of only a bowl of soup and a plate of lettuce on most filming days. In an interview later in Judy’s life she was asked what she thought she missed out on most as a teenager, and her response was simply “eating.”

In 1938 at the age of 16 Garland was cast in undoubtedly her most famous role; Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. This film was met with critical acclaim and earned her the Oscar in 1940 for the Juvenile Award Category and is still remembered now as one of the greatest films to come out of this era. Judy’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was named the greatest movie song of all time by the American Film Institute and in 1981 her performance of the song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Today when people think of Judy Garland, they no doubt think of this beautiful performance.

1940 was a huge year for Judy, she won her Juvenile Oscar Award for Oz and also acted in three new films for MGM, this was also the year she got engaged to her first husband at 18 years old. Her marriage to David Rose was short, they were wed in July 1941, Separated in January 1942 and sadly divorced by January 1943.

By 1944 Judy had earned herself top billing in films made by MGM, she was even billed before Gene Kelly in their film “For me and My Girl.” This year also produced another huge hit for Garland in the musical “Meet Me in St Louis.” The musical soundtrack performed by Garland for this film was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005 and four songs from the soundtrack were also included on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Song of all time list. An affair with Orson Welles also occurred in 1944 who was married at the time to fellow superstar Rita Hayworth.

In 1945 Judy married Vincente Minnelli and the following year gave birth to her first child Liza at the age of twenty four. Liza herself would go on to become an infamous performer in her own right.

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Judy with sweet baby Liza in 1947

In 1947 things started to become difficult for Garland. While shooting “The Pirate” she had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a private sanitarium away from her daughter. The same year also included Garland’s first suicide attempt, rumoured to have taken place on the actual set of The Pirate; Judy slit her wrists with shards of broken glass. She was one again committed to a psychiatric hospital and “The Pirate” became Garland’s first film with MGM to actually lose money.

Judy soon returned to work with MGM for “Easter Parade” with Fred Astaire which was released in 1948 and became her top grossing film of all time. Because of the huge success of the film MGM paired these two up numerous times over the following years and Garland’s schedule became busier than it had ever been. During the filming of “Barkleys of Broadway” Garland was still being prescribed sleeping pills and was also using illegally purchased morphine, she also began to develop a dependence on alcohol. In 1948 a doctor declared that Garland should not be working as much as she currently was with MGM and they immediately suspended her contract completely, replacing her in all films with Ginger Rogers.

Yes the studio that introduced Garland to amphetamines and barbiturates was now suspending her career because she had developed an addiction to those very same drugs. Later in 1948 she returned to MGM and her daughter Liza made her film debut at the age of two and half.

Shortly after her return to MGM Garland was set to star in “Annie Get Your Gun” directed by Busby Berkeley. Busby and Garland clashed dramatically and she was once again suspended by MGM. During production of this film Garland was also undergoing electric shock therapy for her depression and drug addiction. This led to an extended stay a Boston hospital to try and get clean, eat and sleep normally (as she was still barely eating due to her strict diets) and gain some weight.

Garland Summer Stock

Garland on the set of Summer Stock 1949

In 1949 Garland would star in her final released film for MGM; “Summer Stock” with Gene Kelly. To lose weight for the role Judy tragically went back to taking pills and dieting, undoing all her progress from her recent hospital stay. It is rumoured that she would turn up late or not at all for filming throughout the entire production.

“Royal Wedding” was another MGM film to be made in 1950 which signed Garland but from which she was again suspended. It was shortly after her suspension that Judy once again attempted to end her life, she was only in her late twenties. Upon reflection of this time Garland was quoted as feeling “I wanted to black out the future as well as the past.

With her contract at MGM now over Judy had to find other ways to keep an income coming in, and other ways to keep performing. At the time Bing Crosby was host of the television variety show; “Kraft Music Hall.” Crosby had heard that Garland was struggling financially as well as battling depression once again and wanted to help his friend. Between 1950 and 1951 Garland made eight appearances on his show.

Judy an Bing

Garland with her dear friend Bing Crosby

In 1951 Judy put on a show at The Palace Theatre in New York City which was described as “one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history.” It broke all previous ticket sales records for the theatre and earned Judy a Special Tony Award for her contributions to Vaudeville. But unfortunately at this same time her relationship with Minnelli was deteriorating, and by the end of 1951 the pair had divorced. However it wasn’t long before Garland married for a third time in 1952 to the manager of her tours; Sid Luft.

The musical remake of “A Star is Born” was released in 1954 to “tremendous” critical acclaim and launched Judy Garland back into cinemas around the world. Garland was nominated for and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a comedy or musical. She was tipped to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film and everyone felt confident she had the award in the bag. On the night of the Oscars Judy could not attend as she had just given birth to her second child with Luft, the awards had sent a camera crew to her hospital room so that she could accept her award, but to everyone’s surprise, she did not win.

In the mid 1950s Judy did a string of TV specials and performances on the Vegas strip until unfortunately in 1959 she was hospitalised with acute hepatitis. She stayed in the hospital until 1960 and when she was released she was told that she had only five years to live, she was 38 years old.

Garland’s performance at Carnegie hall in 1961 was once of the most triumphant and successful events of her career. A two record album of the performance was released and quickly earned certified gold status, it spent thirteen weeks at number one and also won four Grammys including Album of the Year and Best Solo Female Vocal Performance. The following year she would also be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Golden Globes.


Judy with her children Liza, Lorna and Joey onstage at her legendary Carnegie Hall Performance.

Despite the success of “Judy at Carnegie Hall” the performer was still hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt by the 1960s. Garland was desperately in need of a steady income so she agreed to do “The Judy Garland” show in 1962 which would involve a new show taped and aired each week. Despite the fact she was now a mother of three and suffering an incurable disease that would kill her within a matter of years, Judy in her true fighting spirit said on with the show.

It was on this show that Judy gave (in my opinion) the single most soul crushing and heartbreaking performance of all time. It was later reveled by Garland that her husband  (Luft) had been abusive. She had lived through addiction, hospitalisations, abuse, electric shock therapy and the news of her impending death when she gave this performance and you can see every painful moment of her life on her face.

In 1963 she divorced Luft and in 1964 despite receiving three Emmy nominations The Judy Garland show was cancelled, an emotionally and financially crushing blow to Garland. Throughout the 1960s Judy performed in a number of shows, including one with her then 18 year old daughter Liza Minnelli and an Australian tour. During this time Garland was recording notes to herself in hopes of writing an autobiography and in these tapes she said; ‘When you have lived the life I’ve lived, when you’ve loved and suffered, and been madly happy and desperately sad, well, that’s when you realize you’ll never be able to set it all down. Maybe you’d rather die first.’

Judy Garland’s final performance was at the New York City Palace theatre in 1967. Two years later she married her fifth and final husband Mickey Deans, with whom we hope she found some happiness. In June of 1969 Garland was found dead at the age of 47 from an overdose of barbiturates, the coroner stated it was accidental and not a suicide. At her memorial in New York City over twenty thousand people lined up and filled the streets to pay respects to her body.

People Outside Funeral of Judy Garland

The crowd of people paying respects to Judy at her funeral in 1969 Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Since her death Judy has had six separate records inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and every year her hometown of Grand Rapids Minnesota holds a Judy Garland festival in the month of June to commemorate and celebrate her life.

Judy was a talent and beauty that the world was lucky to know, but unfortunately her life was riddled with tragedy and heartbreak. She hated Hollywood and made it known in numerous interviews, she believed that MGM was responsible for her addiction and turning her down the dark path of depression an dependency. Judy was more than just a performer, she was a human being who was used and abused by people and an industry that didn’t give a shit about her but only her profits.

So I will end this short summation of her beautiful yet tragic life with a quote of her own words…

‘There is something besides ‘The Man That Got Away’ or ‘Over the Rainbow’ or ‘The Trolley Songs’. There’s a woman. There are three children. There’s me! There’s a lot of life going on here.’

‘I wanted to believe and I tried my damnedest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and I couldn’t. SO WHAT!’


Judy Garland with her three beautiful children. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS