At the beginning of the decade, Judy Garland was a teenager just coming into her own. By the end of the decade, she was on the brink of being fired by MGM. In between, audiences watched her grow up on film, listened to that amazingly distinctive voice and took her into their hearts.
Garland is one of the most endearing icons of the golden age of Hollywood. While her off-screen life has been chronicled in depth -- the pills that helped her sleep, perform and suppress her appetite; the multiple marriages; the erratic behavior -- it's her on-screen persona that I want to celebrate here, because her film work during the 1940s is much stronger than people may realize.
Coming off her personal triumph in "The Wizard of Oz," released in 1939, Garland was ready for bigger and better things, and you would think MGM would capitalize on it. However, the studio seemed to play it safe with her in 1940 and 1941, continuing to pair Garland with pal Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy series ("Andy Hardy Meets Debutante," "Life Begins for Andy Hardy") and the Busby Berkeley-directed musicals featuring Rooney and Garland ("Strike Up the Band," "Babes on Broadway"). There's nothing wrong with these films, and she's winning in them. But it also feels like a step backward after "Oz."
She starred in "Little Nellie Kelly" and the glittery "Ziegfeld Girl," and is perhaps the best part of both films. MGM clearly saw her value, but perhaps not as a leading lady at first.
But it slowly started to come together for Garland. "For Me and My Gal" (1942) paired her with Gene Kelly in his film debut about a vaudeville pair trying to play the big time. While the plot creaks, the stars shine, and their recording of the title song was a huge top-three national hit. In 1943, "Presenting Lily Mars" is an enjoyable if not classic musical that allowed Garland to shine as a woman trying to get to the Broadway stage. "Girl Crazy" paired her one last time with Rooney in a delightful film with great Gershwin music like "I Got Rhythm."
These were four busy years, but Garland desperately wanted to get away from that teenage image in "Crazy" and find better material.
Finally, in 1944, she earned a role in a top-notch MGM production, playing Esther Smith in "Meet Me in St. Louis." This colorful bon-bon of a movie allows Garland to shine in this episodic tale of a family in turn-of-the-century St. Louis. She sings not one, not two but three songs that became classics for her -- "The Boy Next Door" (above), "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The film was sumptuously directed by Vincente Minnelli, and the two would marry in 1946.
Minnelli would helm her next film as well, the underrated but lovely wartime romance "The Clock." This was a rare non-musical role for Garland during the 1940s (perhaps the only non-musical role?), as she plays a New York City woman wooed by country boy Robert Walker, who is in NYC for two days before being shipped overseas during WWII. The movie captured the need to connect during this time period and how people in love worried that they may never see their spouses again. Walker and Garland make an appealing pair, and this film delights in simple pleasures, such as the duo helping to deliver milk one evening. The film's a charmer, as is Garland.
The next year brought more music. "The Harvey Girls" is lightweight yet enjoyable, as Garland is one of many waitresses brought west to work in Fred Harvey's restaurants along the railway. The film's most memorable scene is Garland leading the cast in a giant production number of the Oscar-winning song "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."
"The Pirate" (1948) paired Garland with Kelly again, while the terrific "Easter Parade" co-starred Garland and Fred Astaire, who was a replacement for Kelly. The duo enjoyed working together so much that MGM was developing "The Barkleys of Broadway" for them, until Garland dropped out and was replaced by Ginger Rogers.
Despite her erratic behavior, Garland had one more winner at the end of the decade, 1949's "In the Good Old Summertime," a musical based upon the film "The Shop Around the Corner" about two pen pals who work in the same store without realizing who the other is. This film grows on me with each viewing, as Garland looks lovely once again in color and sings such songs as "I Don't Care" (above).
I know this summary rushes through her films from this era, but several things are clear. She worked steadily throughout the decade, and MGM -- the studio for musicals during this time -- had the good sense to put her in as many as possible. She employed the musical skills that she had honed since her toddler years to entertain millions. And, as demonstrated in "The Clock," she didn't need to sing at all to be winning on screen.
Frankly, she was winning on screen most of the time during the 1940s. And despite the turmoil in her personal life, Garland assembled a body of work during this decade that is hard to resist.