Perhaps one of, if not the most celebrated entertainer of the last 100 years, Judy Garland was loved by audiences and fans almost from the beginning. She was a favorite among many in her field and is thought of by many to have been one of the best pure entertainers in the history of show business. Yet, despite years of acclaim and showers of love, Judy's life was a portrait of tragedy and pain almost from the beginning. One of the first troubled child actors, her successes were a source of both pride and self doubt her whole life, ultimately leading to the addictions and mental issues that brought her life to a sudden and tragic end, far before her time.
Born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922, she was the daughter of Vaudevillian theater owners and was already taking up the family business at an early age. Along with her two sisters Susy and Dorothy, Judy performed in a singing trio called The Gumm Sisters starting when she was only 2. The next few years saw the trio's popularity and demand increase, giving Judy and her sisters the opportunity to tour and appear in a number of movies. By the mid 30s, the sisters changed their name to The Garland Sisters, at which time Frances began to call herself Judy and started to become the standout performer amidst her three sisters, enjoying numerous solos in their stage and screen performances. By 1935, Judy's sister Suzanne had left the trio to marry a band member and the trio was over. Yet, the seeds of Judy's future life were already sowed.
In 1935, legendary choreographer and director Busby Berkeley was asked by fellow cinema legend Louis. B Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame, to see a performance at the Orpheum Theater of the Gumm Sisters and report back on the potential of the trio for major motion pictures. In the end, only Judy made the cut and MGM soon signed Judy to a contract, supposedly without even screen testing her, which was an unusual move back in those days. While clearly in possession of some serious talent, MGM was not sure how to use their 13-year-old phenom. Too old to be a child star, yet too young for serious adult fare, Judy threatened to fall into the cracks. Her tiny frame and girl next door looks were charming, though not quite what the studios wanted. This was the era of glamorous, larger-than-life beauty queens, who it was thought made Judy look relatively plain in comparison. With classmates and fellow young actresses like Eva Gardner, Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor already making huge waves as Hollywood beauties, Judy felt herself the ugly duckling by comparison. She wasn't alone there, unfortunately. Many at MGM found Judy's singing skills to be her only bankable property, and that only middling at best.
This early lack of faith and outright criticism infused in Judy a severe self-confidence issue that plagued her for the rest of her life. Nicknaming her "little hunchback," Mayer resorted to numerous gimmicks and cruel measures in his attempt to find a niche for his new songbird. Judy was forced to wear frilly and frumpy garments to give her that "good girl" persona and often had to wear caps on her teeth and apply rubber disks to her nose to reshape it. For the next few years she suffered through this mistreatment, doing the occasional movie or studio function, but never really finding her place. Not until 1937, when she made her first movie alongside fellow teenage actor Mickey Rooney as supporting characters in the B-movie THOROUGHBREDS DON'T CRY. They later followed that up with the film LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY, followed by BABES IN ARMS. The two made 5 more movies together, eventually becoming the darling cinematic couple in the process. Finally the girl next door routine was paying off.
Superstardom arrived in 1939 with Judy's casting in the now immortal movie classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ. Casting her as Dorothy was actually a fallback position for MGM. Their ideal for the role was the then hugely popular Shirley Temple, despite the fact that Shirley was contracted with 20th Century Fox. When that studio refused to lend her out, MGM went with another teenage actress, Deanna Durbin. Once she rejected the opportunity, the studio finally settled on Judy. Of course, she was a perfect fit for the part, though that didn't stop the studio from subjecting her to mistreatment anyway. Her now legendary blue gingham dress was chosen for it's ability to hide her figure and her hair was changed color, initially to blonde, then later to red, so that it was more interesting and vibrant for the color scenes later in the movie. Despite the studio's wavering faith in their young talent, the film became a phenomenon almost from the start and earned young Judy huge acclaim and success. Whether they liked it or not, she was now MGM's most bankable star.
As fame and success accumulated for Judy, the foundations of her fall from grace were already being laid. It was standard procedure by many studios at this time to dose their performers with amphetamines and barbiturates, to help them cope with the frantic pace of movie making. This was long before the days of child labor laws in Hollywood and the general understanding of how drugs like these could harm those who took them. Ignorance aside, Judy still became addicted to these pills and also to alcohol most of her life - a problem that remained completely unknown by most of her fans for years. As the 1940s rolled around, Judy began to take on more mature roles. Cast in the film LITTLE NELLIE KELLY, this film presented her with her first kiss and the only death scene she ever did.
While Judy's so-called mature on screen moments were perhaps modest by modern standards, the sordid affairs of her private life around this time were much more controversial. Falling for band leader Artie Shaw, Judy was later devastated when he eloped with blonde bombshell actress Lana Turner in 1940. She later moved on to musician David Rose, who was taken enough with Judy to ask her for her hand in marriage on Judy's 18th birthday. Unfortunately his hand still technically belonged to his wife, actress and singer Martha Ray. Judy and Rose gave it year while his divorce was finalized and the two finally married in July of 1941. Things went downhill pretty quickly between them, and by 1944 Judy had not only aborted his baby, but also divorced him. This was the first of 5 marriages for Judy and a precedent-setter for how well each would work out for her and the men she took up with.
Even as her relationships tanked, Judy's remaining time at MGM proved very successful for the young talent. 1942's FOR ME AND MY GAL give her top billing over co-star Gene Kelly and represented her rise from child star to adult actress. 1943's PRESENTING LILY MARS was one of Judy's first truly adult showings. She was given a full makeover for the role, with costumes and hair more fitting for the era. She followed that up with the huge hit MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS in 1944, where she was further made over in a more glamorous fashion. These measures did much to wipe away Judy's little girl persona, but she never got past the severe self-confidence issues she suffered from her time as a child star. Around this time Judy married again to her ST. LOUIS director Vincente Minnelli. Their marriage lasted all of 5 years, though it did produce her daughter and fellow famous performer Liza Minnelli. By 1947, years of almost constant performing and film making had taken their toll.
While filming THE PIRATE for MGM, Judy suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted into a sanitarium. She later attempted suicide, managing only minor cuts to her wrists with a piece of broken glass. Judy eventually completed THE PIRATE as well as 3 more movies for MGM, all of them song and dance numbers. She also started taking heavy doses of prescription sleeping pills as well as illegally obtained morphine tablets, not to mention large quantities of alcohol. This poisonous blend made it near impossible for her to appear in any films. Multiple suspensions from studio work transpired, as well as more roles in other movies which Judy was unable to complete. By the early 1950s, her contract with MGM was suspended forever. Another aborted suicide ensued, resulting in little more than a nick to her throat. Judy later said of this incident "I wanted to black out the future as well as the past. I wanted to hurt myself and everyone who had hurt me."
Her movie career on the rocks, Judy went back to her roots with a vaudeville-style, 19-week Broadway show. Shattering records for attendance, her run was hailed as "one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history" and even earned Judy a special Tony award for her performance. Needless to say, such acclaim soon reminded Hollywood of Judy's enduring bankability. Thus her return to the big screen in 1954 with A STAR IS BORN. However, the same production issues that had ruined her MGM contract continued on the set of her so-called comeback movie, with Judy claiming health issues for her numerous absences from the set. These absences made the studio understandably nervous, as did the film's rather long running time. A STAR IS BORN was eventually released to huge acclaim, but the studio was unsatisfied, due to the length of the movie limiting daily screenings to only 3 or 4, instead of the normal 5 or 6. A cut of the film was later released with 30 minutes lopped off, outraging filmgoers and critics alike.
Nonetheless, Judy's performance was good enough to earn her an Oscar nod that year and she was seen by many as a shoe in for the prize, though she was unable to attend the ceremony, having just given birth to a son by her third husband. A TV crew was set up in the maternity ward for Judy to give her acceptance speech. When Grace Kelly's name was called instead, the camera crew was gone before Kelly even got to the podium. Many lambasted the Academy for overlooking what some described as the "greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." Judy did win the Golden Globe for her performance in the film.
The ups and downs continued into the 1950s. Returning to the stage with several sold-out performances all over the world, she was always a massive success, earning praise, monies and awards unheard of up to that point. Judy also made her way into television with numerous specials, all achieving huge Neilson ratings. Gushing praise and adoration were widespread for Judy's abilities as a performer, despite the fact that her personal life was a complete mess. Diagnosed with acute hepatitis in 1959, resulting from years of heavy alcohol and drug abuse, Judy spent weeks having quarts of fluid drained from her body. It was the opinion of her doctors that she had about 5 years of life left and virtually no chance of performing again. She proved them wrong by returning to the stage just two years later with her 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall - a performance generally thought of as "the greatest night in show business history." A recording of this performance remains a huge seller to this day. Two years later she filed for divorce from her 3rd husband, manager Sid Luft.
Even though successes continued into the 1960s, 30 years of performing and the constant mistreatment of her body with drugs and alcohol began to take it's toll. She began to lose her ability to perform, even on the stage. Judy was only cast in one more movie, 1967's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, from which she was fired for missing several rehearsals. Judy married twice more in this time, once to tour promoter Mark Herron for all of six months, then another marriage to musician Mickey Deans in 1969. Their marriage lasted all of 3 months before tragedy struck. In June of 1969, Judy was found dead on the floor of her house in London, the cause of death later determined to be "an incautious self-overdose" of barbiturates. It was an accidental death but an inevitable death anyway. at least according to her doctors, who felt she had "been living on borrowed time" thanks to acute cirrhosis of the liver and numerous other health issues resulting from her years of addiction. As her costar, Ray Bolger said of her at her funeral, she "just plain wore out." Judy had just turned 47 a few days before her death.
It's difficult to call Judy Garland's life a tragedy, for how could someone so beloved and praised for almost all her career be seen as anything but a success? However, hers was anything but a happy existence. Hopelessly addicted to numerous substances and always tormented by a lack of self-esteem and self confidence, her only reprieve from a personal life filled with pain and loss were the blessings of the stage and her innate talents as a performer. Though many tried to bring her down, Judy always managed to come back bigger and better than ever. 44 years after her death, she still shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.