Judy Garland
Photo: Judy Garland in 'A Star Is Born' / Warner Bros. publicity still / Wikimedia Commons

A Celebration of Judy Garland’s Greatest Hits

A true legend of the 20th century, Judy Garland was born 100 years today. We offer a playlist of her best work with some of the greatest moments in film and music history.

“Get Happy” (1950)

Summer Stock 1950

By 1950, Garland’s relationship with MGM was strained as her health caused repeated problems on film sets. Summer Stock is Garland’s final film for MGM, and it’s a somewhat dispiriting ending to such a brilliant run of films. Its lean plot reunites Garland with Gene Kelly as they perform a variation on the Garland/Rooney musicals as the two mount a musical production in Garland’s barn. The film won’t be remembered as important cinema, except for the brilliant musical number “Get Happy” which is one of Garland’s best moments on film.

Wearing a tuxedo, black tights, and a fedora, Garland performs the pop standard with sheer showmanship. Walters, who directed the film, choreographed the rakishly stylish number, and Garland got to show off her shapely gams and a svelte figure. Though Summer Stock features some lovely musical moments – Kelly’s solo dance number with a newspaper is a minor classic – “Get Happy” outclasses and overshadows the film.

A Star Is Born (1954)

A Star is Born

The plot of A Star Is Born is so familiar it’s cliché: two stars fall in love, one on his way down, the other on her way up. When Garland teamed up with George Cukor and James Mason for this version, two earlier versions proceeded it. Conceived as a musical melodrama, Garland stars as Vickie Lester, a struggling aspiring singer who catches the eye of Norman Main (Mason), an alcoholic movie star who recognizes Vickie’s star quality. Impressed by her talent, he nurtures her career, and the two eventually fall in love. His lack of discipline and alcoholism plagues his career, and he sees his fortunes disappear as Vickie’s star rises. Though Garland is playing the performer on an ascent, it’s Norman Maine’s life that is more akin to Garland’s personal life. By 1954, her addiction issues derailed her movie career.

A Star Is Born was a crucial point in Garland’s career because it was her chance to make a comeback. The movie is the best way for audiences to witness her genius years after her death. Audiences today cannot enjoy her stage performances, but A Star Is Born is the closest thing to getting a glimpse of that particular gift. It’s an extravagant star vehicle in which Garland is given a role of a lifetime: she sings, dances, cries, and laughs. It’s tailored to win awards and Garland’s superb work was met with an Oscar nomination. Aside from her towering acting, she also does some magnificent singing. The torchy “The Man That Got Away” is a highlight, as is the wistful “A New World”. The centerpiece of A Star Is Born is the epic autobiographical number “Born in a Trunk”, which is a prime exhibition of her wide-ranging talents.

The Capitol Studio Albums (1955 – 1962)

judy garland Miss Show Business

Judy Garland’s music career was inextricably tied to her film career or concert work. Her recording material, for the most part, is either soundtracks to her films or live albums. For a talent like Garland, a studio LP isn’t necessarily the best way to capture the kind of brilliance she possesses. She’s a remarkable singer with a powerful voice and an unlimited emotional range. But a recording studio seems to shut out some of that sparkly magic that makes her such a magnetic and engaging performer. That’s not to say that her studio LPs aren’t worthy – some like 1955’s Miss Show Business and 1956’s Judy are top-shelf pre-rock pop albums that feature some excellent interpretations of the Great American Songbook.

One of the things about Garland’s studio work with Capitol is that she also leaned into the concept album trend that came about in the 1950s. For 1957’s Alone, Garland put together a collection of sad, bluesy torch songs about solitude. Meanwhile, 1959’s The Letter is even more eccentric-themed. It tells the story of a relationship – Garland sings the tunes while actor John Ireland read spoken word poetry. It’s a bold choice that doesn’t always come off but is so ambitious and interesting that it deserves attention. Most of Garland’s available music will be her movie work, so it’s worth looking into her studio work for more esoteric, niche material.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgment at Nuremberg

Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Abby Mann’s courtroom drama asks uncomfortable questions about collective guilt as it depicts the Nuremberg Military Tribunals in 1947. Spencer Tracy, the epitome of calm, graceful decency is Judge Dan Haywood leading a trial in which defendants are being accused of crimes against humanity, specifically their participation in Nazi war crimes. Kramer’s film is very somber, appropriately austere, with some powerful moments throughout the proceedings. The distracting all-star cast somewhat lessens the impact of the film. Along with Tracy, there are performances by Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell (who won an Oscar), Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Garland.

Playing against type, Garland plays Irene Hoffman, a victim of Nazi Germany who was arrested during the war for allegedly having relations with an older Jewish man (who perished in the concentration camps). Sporting a credible German accent, Garland steals the film with an emotionally-wrenching performance that stands out despite its brevity. Though it’s a stagey and laden with Hollywood trappings, it’s still a moving and unflinching look at the evils and horrors of the Holocaust that doesn’t offer easy, pat endings, nor does it allow for its audiences to feel smug or superior.

Judy at Carnegie Hall (1961)

Judy at Carnegie-Hall

For a career like Garland’s, there are so many highs that it’s remarkable that she can still pull out a brilliant work like Judy at Carnegie Hall, the recording of her legendary concert at Carnegie Hall. The double album is prime Garland at her near-vocal peak, with full possession of her superpowered talents. It works like a greatest hits record and a musical autobiography, as she powers through some of the greatest songs of American theater and Hollywood. The concert was seen as a religious experience for her audiences, and the record captures some of that fervent adulation.

The album also displays the generous performer Garland is – she gives her whole life on that stage. Though many of the songs on the album have been heard repeatedly throughout Garland’s career – “Over the Rainbow”, “The Man That Got Away”, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” – the context of this special night and this brilliant record makes these standards feel new and novel. The album was a triumph for the legendary diva, going to number one on the Billboard charts and garnering four Grammys. Though her movie career was somewhat behind her, Judy at Carnegie Hall proved that she was still a relevant and compelling performer.  

“Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” (1963)

Happy Days Are Here Again

When Garland headlined her variety show, she had the opportunity to work with some heavy hitters, many of whom were close friends. Barbra Streisand is a notable guest star of The Judy Garland Show, whose appearance has become the stuff of showbiz legend. By 1963, Barbra Streisand was a superstar. She was Tony-nominated for I Can Get It for You Wholesale and had a top-selling album. A prominent disciple of Garland’s, Streisand was brilliant. The two engaged in various onscreen patter – including belting “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with Garland’s close pal, Ethel Merman – but the show was elevated into something wonderful and new when Garland and Streisand sat together and simply sang. The mashup of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again” was inspired. Both singers were in top form, Streisand flush with youthful promise whilst Garland summoning up that ole Garland sorcery. Streisand would be dinged for her stiffness and self-possession throughout her career, but in this performance, she exudes warmth, and crooning with her idol was pure magic.