Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Comeback Kid

"Every time I go to the powder room," Judy Garland once quipped, "I have to make a comeback."

By 1955, the 33 year old legend had witnessed enough career ups and downs to fell a dozen other, lesser stars. A very public firing from MGM in 1950 after a dozen years, followed by a suicide attempt, caused nearly everyone to declare Judy Garland's career all but dead. Instead, she won some of the greatest reviews of her life by taking her show on the road and knocking 'em dead at the Palladium in London and the Palace in New York.

Program from the historic 1951 Palladium show

Judy was back at the top, professionally, and with husband Sid Luft, formed a production company with the intent of bringing a musical remake of the warhorse A Star is Born to fruition. Warner Brothers agreed to finance the film, and yet another comeback was underway. But, as with nearly everything in Judy Garland's life, nothing came easy, and certainly not without a price. A Star is Born (1954) earned Garland the finest acting reviews of her career, and despite its mammoth length (over three hours!), the film was doing excellent business. In an almost inexplicable move, then, Warners unceremoniously sliced and diced the film -- which had already been released and reviewed -- leaving gaping holes in the plot. Garland and director George Cukor were devastated; and in spite of her Oscar nomination for the film, Warners' essential disemboweling of Star almost guaranteed its ultimate financial failure. Yet, once again, Judy was handed most of the blame: she and Sid were reckless with money, Warners charged; Judy held up production with her illnesses and insecurities. But even with its infamously chaotic backstage dramas, A Star is Born could have been a profitable film for Warners, had it left well enough alone.

Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich at the premiere of A Star is Born (1954) -- one of the few times an audience saw the film as originally intended.

It was against this backdrop of uncertainty for the future that Judy Garland made her live television debut in 1955. (Technically, it was her second live appearance: the celebrity-studded premiere of A Star is Born had been broadcast live from Hollywood; Judy made a very quick appearance at the microphone to murmur her thanks and gratitude, her sweetly off-center behavior no doubt the result of the bottle of vodka hidden inside her fur muff -- which she had instructed designer Michael Woulfe to make big enough precisely for that purpose!) Judy didn't want to do live television; the idea terrified her. But when CBS offered $100,000 for a single special (the highest salary ever paid to a television performer to date), she and Sid couldn't turn it down. As she would be until the end of her life, Judy Garland was severely financially strapped, and CBS's virtual bag of gold was a godsend.

The Ford Star Jubilee was conceived as a monthly spectacular, featuring the biggest names in show business. Certainly, even with her controversies, there was no bigger name than Judy Garland; and it didn't hurt that Henry Ford, the sponsor, was such a huge fan, he would take his private jet around the country to see Judy's concerts. So it was only natural that Judy would inaugurate the 90 minute color extravaganza. It seemed simple enough: the script was based around Judy's famous concert at the Palace, with mostly-familiar songs from her repertoire, many of which she had just recorded for her debut album with Capitol, Miss Show Business. She would be supported by "Judy's Eight Boyfriends" (her male chorus), Broadway and Hollywood star David Wayne, and most bafflingly, a twelve year old Japanese singer, Mitsuko Sawamura, who guested here, and in MGM's Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), then all but vanished.

Judy Garland, David Wayne and Mitsuko Sawamura in rehearsals for the Ford Star Jubilee special

As so often happened in her life and career, though, Judy skirted dangerously on the precipice of disaster. Nervous about appearing live before millions of people, Judy was unable to sleep the night before taping. Desperate for rest, in the early morning hours of September 24, the day of the broadcast, Judy overdosed on sleeping pills. When she was finally revived, Judy was not only groggy, but devoid of voice. For the dress rehearsal, Judy hit her marks and went through her paces -- without once ever uttering a note. Cue music, raise the curtain: and, miraculously, as Ford Star Jubilee made its national debut, the famous Garland voice issued forth: admittedly raspy at times, but growing in strength, power and nuance with each number.

Viewing the surviving kinescope today, the flaws are glaringly obvious: Judy is clearly ill at ease in the beginning, and slightly lethargic; still carrying extra weight from giving birth to son Joe a few months earlier, her gowns are uniformly unflattering (one wonders what grudge designer Irene Sharaff was holding against her); appearing "boxed in" by the staging, and without her beloved microphone -- and cord! -- to keep her hands busy, Judy seems unsure of what to do with them: at one point, she starts whipping the panels and scarf on her gown in the same manner she would have with a microphone cord, if she'd had one. (Note: only 60 black and white minutes of the original 90 minute color production survive; according to Garland historian John Fricke, this constitutes all of Judy's musical numbers. What was lost is what Fricke refers to as "the dead weight": guest comedians and sketches.)

David Wayne, who had performed so brilliantly on stage (Mister Roberts) and in film (Adam's Rib), has the thankless job of acting as quasi-emcee for the evening; he's stiff and unprepared beyond belief. On the plus side, he's touchingly tender and gentle with Judy, and in their musical moments together, he shines. The other guest, Mitsuko Sawamura, performs an atonal Japanese folk song and, more humorously, a threeway rendition of "It's Delovely" with Judy and David Wayne. It's inconsequential, but charming, and at least Judy seems to be having a good time.

Actually, considering the near-disaster which preceded the broadcast, Judy is in remarkably high spirits. Overcoming her initial jitters and unease, she's loose and relaxed and displays her legendary sense of humor -- much of it self-deprecating. At one point in their scripted banter, the slightly-built Wayne says it's a relief to be performing with someone shorter than he; in what appears to be an ad-lib, judging by Wayne's delighted reaction, Judy wryly raises an eyebrow, slaps a slightly expanded waistline, and cracks, "I'm just glad you didn't say 'wider' than you!" And during a recreation of the "Get Happy" production number from Summer Stock (1950), Judy stumbles slightly as she dances over the prone body of one of her chorus boys. Seizing the comic moment, she grimaces and then makes an intentionally ungraceful leap over the next dancer.

Judy's voice also grows stronger throughout the program. Some of the numbers were pre-recorded because of the movement and dancing involved ("Get Happy," for instance), but the majority were performed live, and the improvement in Judy's instrument is noticeable, particularly in her rip-roaring rendition of "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." By the time she sat at the lip of the stage, still dressed in her hobo costume from "A Couple of Swells" (with David Wayne a more than passable replacement for Fred Astaire), and began to tremulously sing "Over the Rainbow," Judy had the audience where they always ended up: in the palm of her hand.

If, in 1939, a 16 year old Judy Garland sang "Over the Rainbow" with all the innocent, wistful yearning of a young girl, then her 1955 rendition could only be described as opera set to popular music. Hope, despair, rage, longing -- all of these emotions burst to the fore. It was, as one astute critic wrote, the blurring of the line between entertainment and fine art.

Ford Star Jubilee's debut with Judy Garland drew a whopping 40 million viewers. But, as other performers before and since have asked (or wailed), Who can follow Judy Garland? The next Ford Star Jubilee special, starring Mary Martin and Noel Coward, drew a significantly lower audience. After only a year, CBS decided not to go forward with the expensive show -- but they ended it the way they began, with Judy Garland: The Wizard of Oz had its first television airing on November 3, 1956. Who can follow Judy Garland? No one; except Judy Garland herself.

The Paley Center in New York City is hosting a month-long screening of Judy Garland television appearances. Ford Star Jubilee was one of the shows which opened the event on July 20. For a complete schedule, please click here.


  1. Marvellous! A Star Is Born is very special to me (as per my own tribute to it as a "Movie I Love") as it was one of the first movies I was taken to an 8 year old - the scope and the images were so amazing, even now that rich Warner color, Cukor & Hoyningen-Heune's contributions, Mason's is one of the greatest male performances in cinema, and then there is Judy. Thank goodness for those alternate takes of "The Man That Got Away" on the restored dvd, and all that premiere footage, as they all turned up to wish Judy well and wanted the film to be a success: Doris Day, Peggy Lee waiting to be recognised, Debbie and Eddie, Tony and Janet, Liz and Wilding, Joan Crawford joshing with old co-star Jack Carson who was MC, all the hollywood elite, Bacall lighting a cigarette next to Judy and Jack Warner, a bashful Raymond Burr "just back from Korea" with a cute marine in tow, etc. What an evening!
    Then there is Judy being Judy in "I Could Go On Singing" which captures her perfectly before those demons got too much, even if the filming of it was a nightmare, as per Dirk Bogarde's books.
    It is amazing too seeing those tv specials now and those duets, with Barbra, Lena, Peggy, young Jack Jones and others - and of course Mel Torme's spiteful book on it all!
    I was 23 when she died - we remember that day perfectly!

  2. Fantastic post, I need to see a star is born, I know, I know I already should have.

  3. That was a wonderful story, sweetheart. I have a tear in my eye after watching Judy sing "Over the Rainbow". I can only imagine the emotions she was going through during that performance.

    It's so nice to have you back where you belong.

    Hugs and kisses

  4. You're back! What a great early start to the weekend!

    Is there a director's cut of A Star is Born available? I've only seen the Janet Gaynor version.

  5. Good lord, you really went to town with this one! Wonderful!

  6. Thank you, everyone! And, Lauren: the original, unedited A Star is Born is lost -- that's the most criminal thing: after Warners made their cuts, the film was destroyed. But the DVD release is the partially "restored" edition which was unearthed in 1983: as many of the cut scenes were re-created using still photographs and the surviving audio tracks of the dialogue. It's not perfect, but it works: they did an excellent job of making what could have been an awkward mess as seamless as possible.

    Incidentally, I love the Janet Gaynor version which, truth be told, is better, more concise storytelling (hell, it gets the same point and story across in half the time!); but the Garland version must be seen just for the beauty of its production and the terrifying genius of its star. It could be argued that much of the '54 Star is overproduced and artificial, but Judy's performance ain't one of those things -- and that's what holds it together.

  7. What a comeback, indeed! Not Judy - you!! Jx

  8. Judy is so fabulous...and so are you, darling! Thank you for posting this!

  9. I have loved Judy since i was a kid..about 8 years at 45 i love her more than ever,she was so amazing and a real True Star in every part of the word,with more talent than most of the so called stars of today will ever Hope to muster.
    Judy was used by so many , and went through hell and always so underrated, but she made the masses happy and we will love her till the end of time for all the joy she gave to the world..thanks for your wonderful post..Garland FOREVER!

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