When people talk or write about Judy Garland, there’s almost always an undertone of “Poor Judy.” It’s not undeserved. Garland was most likely started on pills by her iron-willed stage mother in order to keep her daughter going through grueling classes, rehearsals, and training. She suffered severe addiction before people even widely talked about addiction as a thing. She suffered depression before we had medication for it, which she almost certainly desperately needed. Although she was beautiful and of a healthy weight, she was constantly berated for her weight, and was jokingly referred to by Mayer as his “little hunchback.”
It is hard not to think of Garland as a victim, but it also makes me uncomfortable to do so. Yes, she suffered. Yes, she faced difficulties that were unfair, and that ultimately led to her death. But I think it’s also important to talk about her resilience. Even in her films when she was at her worst mentally and physically, she’s incredibly vibrant. There is such pure emotion in her voice when she sings that I’m convinced it’s impossible to listen and remain unmoved. And while not many people talk about this, she was hilarious. Just watch her, especially when she’s singing and dancing. She’s got a great physical comedy ability that makes her dancing even more of a pleasure to watch. And if you don’t think of Garland as a dancer, watch any of the movies in which she co-stars with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire---she’s amazing. And she was truly a triple threat, because she was no slouch in the acting department, either. She had so much talent, which is what makes her trials and early death so tragic to so many. But instead of saying “Poor Judy,” maybe, just for now, let’s think about how she overcame everything to share herself with the world. I spent the better part of a long weekend watching and re-watching many of her movies. Here are some brief thoughts on some of her most well-known movies.
The Wizard of Oz 
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It’s a classic for a reason. If you haven't already seen it, then, in the words of Dorothy Gale, “Shame on you!”
Ziegfeld Girl 
Here, in MGM’s first of many attempts to glamour her up, Garland plays a singer who joins the Ziegfeld Follies. She plays the chaste good girl alongside bombshells Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr. It’s a good movie, even if Garland’s role is bland.
For Me and My Gal 
It’s a sappy wartime drama, but it’s a good sappy wartime drama. She plays an struggling-to-make-it performer alongside Gene Kelly, whose success is stopped in its tracks by the arrival of World War I. It’s worth seeing, if only for the spectacular dance numbers.
Meet Me in St Louis 
Garland didn’t want to do this film, because she thought it kept her locked in the little girl role she was so desperately trying to get away from. MGM didn’t want to make it because it doesn’t really have much of a plot. But they did, and Garland agreed to star. It’s also where she met second husband Vincente Minnelli, and she later said it was the first film she ever felt really beautiful in. It’s a nice feel-good film, and features the now iconic Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The Harvey Girls 
This film was well received when it came out, as were pretty much all Garland films. But it’s not very good. It’s about a girl who goes to the wild west to get married, finds out her to-be husband is ugly and didn’t write those letters to her anyway, so she becomes a waitress in a squeeky-clean establishment across the street from a sin-filled saloon. It’s colorful and lively, but not very interesting.
The Pirate 
This one, the second film she and Minnelli worked on together, did not do well at the box office and for good reason. It’s probably the only really terrible movie Garland ever did. She was at a low point during the filming, and so created a lot of trouble on set, and it comes through in her performance. Sometimes she manages to be energetic, but Gene Kelly overshadows her and at some point it becomes uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be a fun fantasy about mistaken identity, but it’s just a long, boring movie.
Easter Parade 
Garland had gotten some psychiatric help before filming this, and was in a much better place. It shows. This is a fun, colorful film. Gene Kelly was supposed to star, but Fred Astaire replaced him when he injured his ankle. Astaire and Garland got along well, and their chemistry shows.
Summer Stock 
When people talk about this movie, what they most often talk about is Garland’s weight discrepancy from her now iconic performance of “Get Happy” to the rest of the movie. Throughout her life, Garland’s weight went up and down, and “Get Happy” was filmed later than the rest of the movie. She lost weight, and it shows. Garland plays a bumpkin farmer who is surprised by a theatre troupe who wants to perform a show in her barn. She [of course] gets involved with the show and falls in love with Gene Kelly’s character in the process. The movie is obviously a showcase for Garland and Kelly, and it’s because of their talent that it’s watchable. Or you could just watch “Get Happy” on YouTube and call it a day.