JUDY AND JOE – A WINNING COMBINATION
When people talk about Judy Garland and the golden age of MGM musicals, they usually focus on the big musicals she starred in for the Arthur Freed Unit. But three of her most loved and most popular MGM musicals were not produced by the famed “Arthur Freed” unit but by Joe Pasternak. Those three are Presenting Lily Mars (1943), In The Good Old Summertime (1949), and Summer Stock (1950). Garland also had a quick one-solo guest spot in Pasternak’s Thousands Cheer (1943) playing herself.
When compared to the Freed Unit’s musicals, the Pasternak Unit’s musicals sort of flew under the radar. They were usually smaller in the sense that they were less about advancing the art of the movie musical and more about the presentation of simple stories usually with a more operetta and European flair. That doesn’t mean they were no less popular. They were incredibly popular and very profitable. These two “units” at MGM had a friendly rivalry that resulted in the production of many wonderful musicals that fans have enjoyed ever since.
Judy Garland was the crown jewel of the Freed Unit. In reality, she was a part of the unit before it was a unit. A “founding member” in a sense. Arthur Freed hitched his star to Garland’s wagon because he, like everyone else at MGM, knew that even at the age of thirteen she was a once-in-a-lifetime talent and destined for stardom. Freed did not hide the fact that he wanted to move from songwriting (he co-wrote some of MGM’s biggest song hits including “Singin’ In The Rain”) and become a producer. It’s alleged that he stated that he wanted “my own little Camelot.” A unit that specialized in producing musicals featuring the greatest musical talents of the era. He got his wish. He began his producing career as the uncredited co-producer on The Wizard of Oz. Before Oz was completed he was already planning his first credited production, Babes in Arms starring Garland and Mickey Rooney, effectively kicking off the wildly popular “Let’s Put On A Show” musical series.
While Garland’s career was on the rise at MGM, Joe Pasternak was at Universal. He had carved out a successful filmography of musicals mostly starring a teen sensation with many similarities to Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin. Durbin began her film career with Garland at MGM. The duo had famously co-starred in the short film Every Sunday in 1936. The formula of the short was “Opera vs. Jazz,” Garland sang jazz while Durbin sang opera. In other words, the two together had something for everyone. The short was the official film debut of both girls although Garland had already made several film shorts for Vitaphone in 1929/1930.
Pasternak saw Every Sunday, liked both girls, and decided to cast Garland in his upcoming production of Three Smart Girls at Universal. However, fate (and MGM) had other ideas. Garland wasn’t available but MGM had let Durbin’s contract lapse. Pasternak snatched her, the film became a big hit and Durbin became a big star, going on to star in several successive hit musicals produced by Pasternak and released by Universal. She is credited with saving Universal from imminent bankruptcy. Fans have wondered how Garland’s career would have progressed had she found the instant stardom that Durbin enjoyed in 1936. It took MGM a few years to groom Garland into stardom.
In 1941 Pasternak moved from Universal to MGM. Basically he was hired to turn their young singer Kathryn Grayson into another Deanna Durbin. Grayson was a similar singer to Durbin and fit perfectly in the kind of light, operetta style of musicals that were Pasternak’s forte. It’s worth pointing out here that Pasternak wasn’t confined to just operettas or musicals. He produced a variety of diverse films such as Destry Rides Again (1939) and Love Me Or Leave Me (1955).
Once he got to MGM, Pasternak finally got his chance to produce a Judy Garland film, Presenting Lily Mars (1943). On the surface, the film is little more than the kind of musical that would normally have starred Durbin. But with Garland, it became more. Garland was allowed to continue the process of growing up on the screen, a process that successfully began with For Me And My Gal (1942). At the time, and even today, it’s rare for a hugely successful child/teen star to make the transition to adult roles in the way that Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and a few others managed. Garland, of course, became a true Hollywood legend. At the time she made Presenting Lily Mars she was tired of the teen roles she had endured for the past few years. In Presenting Lily Mars she plays a stagestruck young lady, obviously out of high school, ready to conquer the Broadway stage but not another teen in the mode of her “Kids Musicals” as Freed termed them. “Lily” is a stagestruck girl who’s stuck in a small town that also happens to be the hometown of a big successful Broadway producer played by Van Heflin. When he comes to visit his mother, you can probably guess that Lily (Garland) tries everything to get his attention. He leaves town after brushing her off (but still showing some affection of course). She gets her chance to head to Broadway herself to further pester him in her quest to get a part in one of his shows and to become a big star. The plot is simple, but with the talents of Garland and Heflin, it’s elevated into a much better film than it might have been. Garland certainly gets the chance to sing some wonderful songs as only she could. Highlights are “When I Look At You” (with Bob Crosby & His Orchestra) and “Tom, The Piper’s Son.”
Presenting Lily Mars is also notable, almost legendary to Garland fans, as MGM’s first presentation of Garland as a sexy and glamorous star in the film’s finale sequence, “Where There’s Music/Broadway Rhythm.” The sequence was a replacement for the original finale, “Paging Mr. Greenback,” which was a great topical patriotic song but just didn’t show the Lily Mars character as a big enough star in the end, at least not by MGM’s standards. After it was prerecorded and filmed, “Paging Mr. Greenback” deleted (the footage no longer exists but the stereo audio does) and replaced with a long sequence that lasted just under ten minutes and was a medley of a variety of songs climaxing with “Broadway Rhythm” (Garland was backed by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra). That was trimmed down to six minutes for the final cut of the film. That cut footage also no longer exists but the audio does, also in stereo. In the plot, the finale presents Lily Mars to the world while in the real world it was MGM’s way of presenting Judy Garland to the moviegoing public as an adult. She’s seen with her hair up in a mature style with a glamorous gown and a dashing dance partner, future director Charles Walters. Garland and Walters dance up a storm and there isn’t any doubt left as to whether Judy Garland would make the transition to adult roles. The adult Judy Garland had arrived.
After Presenting Lily Mars, Garland and Pasternak went their separate ways, so to speak. She continued her ascent to becoming the undisputed queen of the MGM musical and for a few years, the studio’s biggest moneymaker and one of the few stars who could successfully be billed solo above the title. Pasternak continued producing musicals usually starring Kathryn Grayson, June Allyson, and later Jane Powell and Mario Lanza. He also began a hugely successful series of musicals featuring the studio’s swimming star, Esther Williams, with water ballets created by Busby Berkeley that still dazzle the eyes. At times Pasternak snatched at Arthur Freed’s laurels with films such as Anchors Aweigh (1945) but for the most part, his musicals were fun frothy (usually) Technicolor fantasies that let moviegoers leave the theater happy and humming a catchy tune or two. Simple magic.
It was five years after Presenting Lily Mars that Garland and Pasternak got the chance to work together again. This time things were different. Although Garland was the studio’s biggest star she was also the star with the biggest personal problems. Between the filming of Presenting Lily Mars and her next venture with Pasternak, In The Good Old Summertime (begun in 1948, released in 1949) Garland had divorced her first husband David Rose, and married director Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli guided her through her biggest hit since The Wizard of Oz, the masterpiece Meet Me In St. Louis (1944 – for the Freed Unit). The two fell in love, married, and had a daughter, future legend Liza Minnelli. After a much-needed break (maternity leave) that lasted almost a full year, the studio was ready for Garland to come back. She had wanted to let her contract expire and go freelance, maybe do a Broadway show. MGM had other ideas, of course, and dangled an offer in front of her that even by today’s standards would be hard to resist. The offer included a weekly salary of $5,619.23 with a guarantee of $300k per year (in 1946 dollars!), she would only need to make two films a year (one could be a guest spot), she would get top billing, and she could continue working with her husband. She signed the new contract and immediately regretted her decision. In the meantime, the studio had purchased the Lunt/Fontanne play, “The Pirate” for Garland to star in with Gene Kelly as her co-star and Minnelli directing. It was set to be a big Technicolor mega-musical and her triumphant return to the screen. The thought of going back to that studio grind, with the dieting and the pressures of a huge production on her shoulders, was more than Garland could take. To make matters worse she was suffering from postpartum depression. But ever the professional she tried. Unfortunately this time she barely got through the filming. She was bone thin and suffering from the effects of her addiction to prescription medicines – an addiction that she had quit while pregnant with Liza but resorted to as her security blanket to get her through this new film.
Beginning with The Pirate, the yo-yo of the late 1940s ups and downs for Garland began. She rallied for Easter Parade (1948) co-starring Fred Astaire with minimal setbacks (enduring extensive retakes on The Pirate at the same time). That wore her down even more. She then rehearsed, prerecorded, and filmed her duet with Mickey Rooney (their last time in a film together) for her guest spot in Words and Music (1948). She’s even more painfully thin in the sequence than she had been in parts of The Pirate and Easter Parade, and obviously not well but when she and Rooney perform their duet she sparkles. At this point, Garland should have had a rest but instead, she was put in The Barkleys of Broadway. This time she faltered and had to be removed from the film, replaced by Ginger Rogers. Garland finally got a rest, gained weight, and again was able to successfully withdrawal from her medications. In the interim, preview audiences for Words and Music indicated that they wanted a Garland encore so MGM called Judy back to the studio to record and film “Johnny One Note.” In the finished film both her duet with Rooney and her encore solo are portrayed as being performed back to back at a party. Garland’s weight gain between the two was noticeable but no one cared. That was part of her magic. Once she begins to sing we as the audience could care less if she looks different than moments before. That voice, face, and personality blend together to create that special and sometimes indefinable Garland magic.
All of the musicals that Garland was cast in from 1947 to 1949 (and before In The Good Old Summertime) were big-budget musical extravaganzas. Making these big musicals was backbreaking work. Because they were Freed Unit musicals they were also heavy on dance. That meant even more weeks of strenuous rehearsals before filming even began. During rehearsals (and sometimes into filming) the music pre-recordings also took place. It’s criminal that MGM would expect her to film, back to back, The Pirate, Easter Parade, her guest spot in Words and Music, and The Barkleys of Broadway all in the span of just twenty-one months. Each of those musicals was an “A” production with huge expectations. It’s no wonder that the already frail Garland fell apart. That fact that she had substance abuse issues that were completely misunderstood at the time only made things worse. The blame for this callous treatment and unreal expectations lies at the feet of the studio. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was one of the few sympathetic executives at MGM, even loaning money to Garland at one point. But apparently Freed was apathetic or just didn’t want to be involved. There’s no noted record of him offering any help. She was expected to deliver and when she didn’t, few were sympathetic, and to further rub salt in the wound, her salary was put on hold during the times she was unable to work.
Enter Joe Pasternak, again. Pasternak adored Judy and her talent. He also seemed to understand (as much as anyone did back then) her troubles and how to address them. In 1948, he was producing a musical remake of 1940s comedy hit The Shop Around The Corner re-titled as The Girl from Chicago. The film was to star June Allyson and Frank Sinatra but that pairing never got past the early planning stages. Pasternak (probably with all fingers and toes crossed) requested Garland. To the studio’s surprise, she got herself together and almost sailed through the filming without a hitch. Retitled In The Good Old Summertime, it was just the right kind of film for Garland at this time. Garland responded by giving one of her best and most underrated performances. Her comedic talents were also given a chance to shine. Vocally she is at her late-40s peak.
In The Good Old Summertime is one of those classic musicals that still holds up well today. Set in Victorian-era Chicago, and actually taking place mainly during the Christmas season and not in the summertime, the film hasn’t lost any of its charms. It moves along at a pleasant pace with just the right amount of comedy, music, and drama. The songs are organic to the plot and with Garland’s smooth-as-chocolate vocals, each one is memorable. She and Johnson do a well underplayed comic bit during “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey.” “Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland” is Garland’s first solo, gorgeously sung. “Play That Barbershop Chord” is a fun novelty song featuring Garland and the King’s Men doing a take on a barbershop quartet number. The Vaudeville star Eva Tanguay’s hit “I Don’t Care” was resurrected for Garland to sing and she makes it her own. It became a part of her “Judy at the Palace” medley during her concert years. “Merry Christmas” was the new song of the score. While not as big a hit as Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), it has become a standard nonetheless being covered by singers from Johnny Mathis to Bette Midler. The haunting 1935 Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song “Last Night When We Were Young” was recorded and filmed. It was cut before the film’s release but luckily the footage survives. It’s emotionally sung by Garland so effectively that while brilliant it’s out of place with the rest of the otherwise breezy film. Garland recorded it for her 1956 Capitol album “Judy,” and performed it on her TV series in the early 60s. The MGM pre-recording popped up on MGM Records compilation, “Judy Garland Sings” before it was added to reissues of the soundtrack album in the 1950s but without any explanation that it was an outtake. That probably confused some fans at the time!
Joe Pasternak was a kind of savior for Garland at the time In The Good Old Summertime was made. Although it wasn’t a big “prestige” type of film that Garland was known for it was still one of her most successful. The public had been getting reports of Judy’s ups and downs and to see her looking sturdy (Pasternak didn’t require her to starve herself to be “camera thin”) and doing what she did best (singing beautifully) was all they wanted. The public really didn’t care as much about her weight as the columnists did. The experience also restored, however temporarily, her confidence. After the hard work on the Freed musicals and the failed re-teaming with Astaire, Garland’s self-esteem was no doubt very low. The fact that Pasternak and the rest of the cast and crew created a positive, loving atmosphere to help Garland speaks volumes about the kind of person Pasternak was. He exhibited integrity and empathy – and patience. He knew Garland’s magic and understood that it was worth a little extra effort to make her feel good to get that magic on the screen. Johnson later told the story of how MGM boss Mayer asked him how they managed to get Judy through the film without any headaches. He told Mayer, “We made her feel loved.”
Sadly the bliss wasn’t to last. After a short few weeks off in February of 1949, Garland was called back to the studio to begin work on Annie Get Your Gun. To say that the experience was soul-crushing is putting it mildly. Garland pre-recorded the score and began filming. The show was songwriter Irving Berlin’s huge Broadway hit that had been purchased at a great cost specifically for Garland. It was intended to be the crowning achievement of her MGM career up to that point. This no doubt created even more stress and angst for her. What little traction she gained by making it through In The Good Old Summertime dissipated when she began work on Annie Get Your Gun. Part of Garland’s turmoil was possibly the fear of being worn out yet again on another high profile Freed Unit musical with everything riding on her shoulders. She certainly wasn’t up to being subjected to Busby Berkeley as her director due to his sadistic treatment of her on the films they made in the early 40s. She hadn’t had to endure his treatment since that time and she had an intense (and very valid) dislike of him. It’s still a head-scratcher as to why MGM thought it was a good idea to pair the two because their animosity was no secret at the studio. Garland hobbled along for several months but it was too much. For the second time, Garland was fired from an MGM film.
This time, she was sent to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston to get real rest and to once again cure her dependencies on prescription medicines. After about three months she returned to Los Angeles in much better shape. She was also much heavier. But instead of going on another crash diet for a film, which resulted in the use of those prescription medicines and that downward spiral, Pasternak again came to the rescue by casting her in Summer Stock. Because she played a farm girl her weight wasn’t a problem and although she had more issues with this than her previous Pasternak musicals, she completed the film which ended up being her last for MGM.
As noted above, “Smart ol’ Joe Pasternak” (as Esther Williams called him), was indeed Judy Garland’s savior at the times when she needed one the most. His unit became what we would call today a “safe space” for her. She wasn’t required to be anything than what she was, a brilliant performer. Although she only made three films for Pasternak (and that quickie guest spot), all three are wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable musicals that even though they don’t make ’em like they used to, they still hold up today. That’s thanks to what happened when the genius of Judy Garland collaborated with the magic of Joe Pasternak.
For more detail about the films mentioned here, check out The Judy Room’s Filmography Pages:
The Wizard of Oz
Babes in Arms
For Me And My Gal
Presenting Lily Mars
Meet Me In St. Louis
Words and Music
The Barkleys of Broadway
In The Good Old Summertime
Annie Get Your Gun