Judy Garland would have turned 100 this year. We are honoring her incredible body of work to celebrate her legend and legacy. So much of Garland lore centers on her personal tragedies, and though one cannot separate the pain from her art, it would be reductive and dismissive to just focus on her travails. Although her best work is often laced with darkness and anguish, she has also shared her unerring sense of optimism and joy as well as her boisterous sense of humor. Garland went through a series of reinventions, as a movie star, concert performer, recording artist, and television personality, adapting to a new career whenever needed. She once was quoted as quipping, “If you sit down for twenty minutes in this business now, it’s a comeback.” She became so identified with the entertainment industry that she was dubbed Little Miss Show Business.
Initially, a vaudevillian, Garland performed as a child with her sisters, the Gumm Sisters, paying her dues as an entertainer, before catching the eye of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who signed the youngster to a contract. Toiling away as a contract player for the film studio, Garland did her bit, appearing in small parts in lower-rung films, before being cast in an Andy Hardy movie starring Mickey Rooney, 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy. Rooney and Garland proved to have wonderful chemistry and starred in a series of musical comedies.
Though she grew as a star, she became an icon when cast as Dorothy Gale in MGM’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s tale, The Wizard of Oz. The film capitalized on Garland’s heartbreaking vulnerability and her preternaturally mature voice. Garland followed up The Wizard of Oz with a string of hit musicals which saw her teamed up with fellow musical comedy geniuses like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ray Bolger. Garland became a box-office superstar and in-demand property for the studio and worked with esteemed directors like George Sidney, Busby Berkeley, Victor Fleming, and her second husband, Vincente Minnelli, the film director who, like Garland, would become synonymous with the movie musical.
For 13 years, Garland worked as an MGM player, one of its greatest and brightest stars. She was cast in nearly 30 films, endearing herself to audiences with her incredible talent. But personal and professional troubles meant that her legendary run with MGM ended ignominiously in 1950 when the studio fired her. More health issues followed, and her career was nearly written off, but she made the first of a series of fabled comebacks, recasting herself as a concert performer, returning to her vaudeville roots. Though her film career was over, she created a new identity for herself, becoming a concert diva, winning a Tony for her extraordinary run at the Palace Theatre in 1951.
Though no longer an MGM star, Garland returned to the screen in 1954 in George Cukor’s dark musical melodrama, A Star Is Born. Starring as Vickie Lester, Garland gave the performance of her career and made cinema history, creating an indelible mark; nominated for an Academy Award, Garland’s work in the film was acclaimed by critics. Unfortunately, the film’s financial fortunes did not match the rapturous critical response, and its failure further stalled Garland’s career. She wouldn’t be in another film until 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg (dir. Stanley Kramer), a film that won her a second Oscar nomination for her show-stopping cameo. This film comeback led to a few more roles, but her film career effectively ended in 1963 with the musical drama I Could Go on Singing.
Though the early 1960s saw Garland’s movie stardom come to an end, she continued with her concert career, most notably, performing in April of 1961 at Carnegie Hall, making show business history with that show, giving a brilliant performance that showed off her musical genius. That concert was made immortal with the soundtrack to the show, which went to number one on the Billboard album chart and won four Grammy Awards.
Garland’s celebrity meant that even if she wasn’t a movie star anymore, she was still wildly popular. That popularity made her a popular figure on television, headlining a string of successful TV specials before headlining her own variety show, The Judy Garland Show. Garland’s glittery celebrity and legend meant that Hollywood’s and Broadway’s biggest stars made appearances on the show, sharing the stage with her. Luminaries like Ethel Merman, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, and an up-and-coming Barbra Streisand joined Garland to create showbiz magic. Though the show was critically well-reviewed, it failed to find a viewing audience and was canceled after a season.
The Judy Garland Show was arguably the last moment of brilliance for the grand diva. After 1963, Garland had to return to touring, traveling the world, and giving sold-out performances in some of the most outstanding venues in the world. More health issues, personal problems, financial troubles, and professional setbacks meant that Garland’s final years were marked by struggle. In 1969, whilst living in London, she was found dead of an accidental overdose.
Judy Garland’s death was mourned by her fans and over 20,000 admirers attended her funeral in New York City. Her connection to her queer audiences meant that though her death had nothing to do with the Stonewall Riots, which followed soon after her passing, the two momentous moments in queer history are forever linked and have spurred legends and myths.
Below is a list of Garland’s greatest hits: film performances, cameo appearances, songs, albums, and concerts. Her output is exhaustively expansive and awesome to behold. Just her work with MGM has produced some of the greatest films in American cinema, and her Judy at Carnegie Hall album is one of the most important live albums released in the 20th-century. Though her movie stardom saw her through her teens and 20s, she became a complex and dazzling artist when music and live performance dominated her work. Her artistry became deeper even if her voice began to audibly fray; when she wasn’t performing in front of a camera, reciting lines, she was able to share her depthless resource of emotion with her audiences. This list isn’t ranked but a playlist of her best work which constitutes some of the greatest moments of film and music history.
“You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” (1937)
MGM churned out extravagant musical film reviews that featured a series of musical numbers, sometimes held together with a thin plot. In the 1937 film Broadway Melody of 1938, a young Garland steals the show with a beguiling version of the old chestnut, “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)”, which an adolescent Garland crooned sweetly to film megastar Clark Gable. The song would become a staple for Garland’s live shows, and it was a prime example of her ability to invest a song with sincerity and feeling.
The Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney collaborations (1938 – 1943)
Garland and Rooney starred in nine films together, essentially creating the “let’s put on a show” genre, in which their characters would face some obstacle they could solve by staging a musical review. Garland’s first pairing with Rooney was in the 1938 comedy Love Finds Andy Hardy, which was part of the Rooney series of Andy Hardy comedies. She would in other Andy Hardy films, starring as Betsy Booth. Rooney and Garland were a very popular pair and starred in other movies, as well, most notably, Babes in Arms (1939), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943).
These films were formulaic and predictable and didn’t work on challenging their audiences, but they also represented an idealized, rosy America during WWII and served as necessary escapist entertainment as well as operated as part of MGM’s Americana propaganda. Though these projects were family entertainment, Babes in Arms complicates Garland’s image – especially as a young movie star – because she appears in blackface. Garland and Rooney played fresh-faced kids who didn’t get into real trouble and faced their obstacles with verve, humor, and ebullient talent. Garland’s skills as a comedienne were aptly used in these films, and it’s a treat to see her mature from a juvenile performer into a lovely young woman.