The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Victor Fleming’s interpretation of the L. Frank Baum children’s novel is obviously a film classic. Its popularity and ubiquity haven’t dulled its impact, despite its familiarity. A number of the film’s lines have become catchphrases – “I’ll get you my pretty, and you’re little dog, too!”, “There’s no place like home”, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” – and it’s become an annual watching experience for American families. Garland’s soulful performance as Dorothy Gale, the young Kansas girl swept away by a tornado to the magical land of Oz, has entered the American pop culture canon.
She anchors the film with a tremendous vulnerability. When she sings the film’s theme, “Over the Rainbow”, she pierces the hearts of audiences. The Wizard of Oz made Garland a legend and had she not made any other films after it, Garland would still have become iconic due to the impact of her performance.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Liza Minnelli rates Meet Me in St. Louis as her favorite film, not just because it was the first collaboration between her parents, but because it married the aggressively mainstream Americana tone of MGM with Vincente Minnelli’s artful take on film directing. Based on the writings of Sally Benson, Meet Me in St. Louis is a slice-of-life tale of the Smith family, a wealthy, turn-of-the-century Missouri family looking forward to the World’s Fair. Garland is daughter Esther, a lively and spirited young lady who catches the eye of the handsome boy next door.
Vincente Minnelli employs some brilliant camera work in the film, particularly in how he captures his star. Garland is often presented in frames, especially when she’s about to launch into a musical number. He also captures beauty in Garland – she never looked lovelier. The songs run the gamut from cheery sing-a-longs (like the title tune) to the heartbreaking “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, which Garland performs with understated intensity. Garland reportedly approached the role with her comedic irony, but Minnelli quickly stopped that, directing her to give a sincere performance and her commitment to the character and the action elevated the film’s prosaic plot.
The Clock (1945)
Hollywood operated as a propaganda machine during World War II, affirming an image of stoicism and bravery. While heroic young men went off to war, their equally brave sweethearts stayed behind, keeping the home fires burning. The World War II weepie was an artifact of the cinema of the time, a moment in American cinema when films reflected a romanticized ideal of patriotism. In The Clock, Minnelli again applies his genius to complicate the genre by making this intriguing curio of a movie rarely brought up when assessing his body of work or that of Garland.
A rare, non-singing role for Garland, The Clock allows the actress to show off her acting chops without relying on her musical talents. The story is a deceptively simple story of a soldier, Joe Allen (Robert Walker), on a two-day leave in New York City. He meets pretty secretary Alice Mayberry (Garland) in a classic meet-cute (she trips on his foot and breaks the heel of her shoe). The two then embark on a romantic field trip to the city, enjoying the beauty of New York City, eventually falling in love and getting married in a slapdash wedding. It’s a fascinating character study that is just eccentric enough to be far more interesting than the standard World War II melodrama.
“The Great Lady Has an Interview” (1945)
Garland’s highly-manicured and controlled image was of a friendly girl next door. She was very pretty but not intimidatingly glamorous. Though she possessed a genius, her aw-shucks friendliness made her very relatable, despite her brilliance. So it’s essential in Garland’s history to look at “The Great Lady Has an Interview” from the 1945 musical review Ziegfeld Follies. Garland’s musical number – directed by Vincente Minnelli – is a highlight of the film and a high point in Garland’s career. It’s a rare moment in her MGM career that allowed Garland’s satirical comedy to shine through. Written by Kay Thompson (the woman who persona), the arch and fey number centers on a stuffy, pretentious actress who is holding court in front of a phalanx of reporters.
Garland’s delightfully brittle performance is hilarious as she spoofs leading ladies like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Greer Garson. Legendary choreography Charles Waters creates the dance for the bit, and Garland does some fantastic hoofing as she speaks-sings the nonsensical comedy tune that details the story of Madame Cremantante, the creator of the safety pin. Garland rarely got to be a wry comedienne. Her roles were often sugary sweet, so it’s a significant departure for her and a fabulous peek into what kind of funny actress she was.
The Pirate (1948)
The talent behind The Pirate is staggering: Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Cole Porter, yet this film was a rare flop for the director and the two movie stars. Like Minnelli’s other films, The Pirate is a strange, indulgent film with moments of sheer cinematic genius. The film was a sarcastic, sophisticated affair that boasted ironic and sarcastic performances by Kelly and Garland, both of whom do great work. As with her sly work on Ziegfeld Follies, Garland’s pointed comedic performance in The Pirate is hilarious and smart. Garland and Kelly are a great match, their respective brilliance complementing each other, and Minnelli creates a visual spectacle that becomes camp. The Cole Porter songs are also elegant, witty, and well-performed by the cast. Though the film was a failure when it came out, it deservedly found an audience decades later and has enjoyed a cult following, as film critics have revised its reputation, seeing the sharp comedy and satire lost at its release.
Easter Parade (1948)
Watching Judy Garland and Gene Kelly dance together is an incredible joy. His athletic dance approach matched Garland’s more instinctive, less-formed skills. Kelly was a dance master, and Garland could hold her own. On Charles Walters’ Easter Parade, Garland is paired with Fred Astaire. Instead of the muscular style of Kelly, Garland adapts to Astaire’s elegance. Easter Parade is another showbiz story in which Garland stars as an aspiring entertainer – this time a singer-dancer in 1910s America who is struggling to transcend the looming shadow of her predecessor played by the dancing virtuoso Ann Miller (who is gifted with a fantastic dance number “Shakin’ the Blues Away”).
Astaire is the mentoring dancer who takes Garland under his wing to show up Miller, who breaks up their duo for solo stardom. Astaire is superb in this film, gliding through the film with his effortless grace. The two share a funny number, “We’re a Couple of Swells”, with the two stars dressed as vaudevillian hobos. It’s yet another winning film during Garland’s movie career.