A Centennial Celebration (with a little sadness)

Judy Garland would have turned 100 on June 10 … if she had lived. She died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 47.

I adored Garland from the time I saw The Wizard of Oz when I was four. As Dorothy she was everything I wanted to be—spirited, brave yet vulnerable, and gifted with a singing voice that could melt the hardest heart. Over the years, I have seen just about every film she made and have heard most of her recordings.

To this day, when I’m learning a new song and haven’t achieved the resonance I want in my voice, I tell myself, “Judy.” It’s a reminder emulate a performance that always seemed heartfelt and honest.

One of Garland’s most memorable performances comes toward the end of the 1950 film Summer Stock. It’s a fantastic, peppy number, and Garland looks like a million dollars.

She wears a fedora angled over her face, a short black suit that shows off her remarkable legs, and high heels that step all over the male chorus around her. In the rest of the film, she has been slightly plump and has worn remarkably dowdy dresses. Suddenly, in one number, she transforms from Plain Jane to Femme Fatale.

And therein lies the rub. Apparently, “Get Happy” was shot weeks after the rest of Summer Stock. In the intervening time, Garland followed a lifelong pattern and crash dieted, aided by the pills Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been feeding her since putting her under contract in 1935.

It’s hard to enjoy that wonderful performance and not acknowledge that her appearance reflects the emotional fragility and dependence on drugs that eventually killed her.

In fact, it’s hard to appreciate her entire career—and all of classic Hollywood—without being aware of the ways in which the studios exploited workers like Garland. Hollywood was called “The Dream Factory.” A factory that makes dreams is still a factory.

Still, I choose to follow Judy Garland’s daughters in celebrating their mother’s resilience, humor, and willingness to invite the world to share her emotions and musical gifts. I’ll smile as I sing “Get Happy” on Friday night even as my heart breaks a little for a woman who should have lived longer.

To hear me read this essay on our local public-radio station, click here.

2 comments on “A Centennial Celebration (with a little sadness)

  1. E R Spruill says:

    Thank you for keeping me on your email list!

    • LaTinque says:

      Thank you for reading! I know I don’t post very often, but I do love this forum and my readers.

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