Listing Judy Garland’s movies “from worst to best” is tough. Even in the “worst” films of her career, Judy herself was still great. Judy Garland was an actress who was completely natural. Compare her to the more lauded dramatic film actresses of her era and Judy comes across as unaffected and artifice-free. It’s important to point this out, as it’s been pointed out before, that Judy’s natural acting is a bit deceiving because she is so natural and thus doesn’t seem to be “acting” which is why she was, and to a degree still is, underappreciated as an actress. This is understandable. Judy’s seen as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century so it’s natural that her other, equally brilliant talents, would not get the same attention as her incredible voice.
When I looked at the list of Judy’s films for this exercise I found that there were some that I wanted higher than where I put them simply because I personally liked the film although, in reality, I recognize that film might not be considered one of her best. I tried to be as objective and unbiased as possible. My personal opinions definitely played a large part in my decisions, how could they not?
Any list that purports to give the best and worst of any star’s films is subjective. Anyone who ranks Judy Garland’s films would place different films in different spots. That’s what’s fun about lists like these. We get to see the opinions of others and the reasons behind them. So, with that being said, enjoy the list and be sure to comment on what you agree or disagree with. There’s no right or wrong!
Pepe, Columbia, 1960 [voice only]
This really isn’t a “Judy Garland Film.” Judy provides one song, “The Faraway Part Of Town,” that plays while Shirley Jones and Dan Dailey are dancing. Judy’s not seen in the film at all. It’s listed here only because it’s always listed in every list of Judy’s films. The song was nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Song” but lost to “Never on Sunday” from the film of the same name.
Of note is the fact that when Judy pre-recorded the song in April of 1960, it was her first work after a long hospitalization. She was suffering from hepatitis and was overweight (twenty quarts of fluids were drained from her body). Doctors told her she’d never work again. Judy proved everyone wrong by entering into an incredible career renaissance over the next several years.
Listen to “The Faraway Part of Town” here:
Thousands Cheer, MGM, 1943 [as Herself]
Here’s another non-Garland film although this time she’s on-screen. Barely. Judy appears as herself in the big all-star finale which is the first of two times she played herself on the screen (the second is 1948’s Words and Music). She sings “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ Down At Carnegie Hall” with Jose Iturbi at the piano. This is also Judy’s first time in a Technicolor film since 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Judy is charming, the song is charming (she sings about the venue where she would have one of her greatest triumphs almost two decades later), but in the end, it’s an altogether unremarkable guest appearance mainly because there’s no encore. Whenever I watch this film I always expect an encore which I think would make the appearance much more effective.
My favorite number: Judy’s only number, “The Joint is Really Jumpin’ Down at Carnegie Hall.”
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, MGM, 1937 [as Cricket West]
Judy’s first pairing with frequent co-star and best friend Mickey Rooney. The duo have chemistry but you wouldn’t guess their future triumphs as a team based on this rather pedestrian film. This is definitely a “B” movie. Judy sings “Got A Pair of New Shoes” and she prerecorded another, “Sun Showers,” that was cut. She’s not given much to do in the plot aside from being an annoying girl who’s usually trying to get in on the fun the boys (Rooney and Ronald Sinclair) are having. They don’t want no dames around!
My favorite number: It’s the only one. “Got A Pair of New Shoes.”
Listen, Darling, MGM, 1938 [as Pinkie Wingate]
Listen, Darling, was rushed into production when the start date for The Wizard of Oz was delayed. Judy had just scored another triumph with her first appearance in the Andy Hardy series, Love Finds Andy Hardy, and had proven that she could carry a film with Everybody Sing. At this point, it was clear to anyone in Hollywood, and the moviegoing public in general, that Judy Garland was headed for stardom which was exactly MGM’s goal. Listen, Darling is notable because it’s the only time Judy sang “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart” on film. It was one of the songs that she sang at her fateful audition with MGM in 1935 and she kept it in her repertoire throughout the rest of her life. Unfortunately, the song was heavily edited before the film’s release. Luckily the pre-recordings sessions remain and we can hear the complete swing and ballad versions.
My favorite number: I personally think that Judy’s second song in the film, “Ten Pins In The Sky,” is the better of the two. She sings it (she also recorded a version for Decca Records) with amazing depth and soul.
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, MGM, 1940 [as Betsy Booth]
Judy’s second appearance in the Andy Hardy series. Her rendition of “I’m Nobody’s Baby” was an instant classic. Her Decca Records single version of the song peaked at #2 on the Hit Parade.
Judy again plays “Betsy Booth” who this time helps Andy Hardy meet a certain New York debutante whom Betsy just happens to be friends with. It’s another of the “plain Jane/girl next door” roles that MGM used to create the persona of Judy as the girl who’s always there to help out, a “good sport” who usually helps the main character out of a jam, proving she’s a “real pal.” These glamourless and sexless roles became old hat for Judy much earlier than the studio was willing to admit (they didn’t help her already fragile insecurities about her looks). Lucky for us she was able to break out into adult roles just a few years later.
My favorite number: “I’m Nobody’s Baby.” Judy knocks it out of the park (again!).
Little Nellie Kelly, MGM, 1940 [as Nellie Kelly and Little Nellie Kelly]
Here’s a film that succeeds in spite of its faults. The story is pure corn, there’s no doubt about that. But, MGM was so adept at presenting corn so perfectly that we, as viewers, can’t help but believe it all and enjoy it all. Factor in Judy’s subtle acting and you believe it even more.
Little Nellie Kelly was made during Judy’s transition from teen roles to adult roles. At this time, in 1940, Judy had filmed Strike Up The Band (her second “Let’s put on a show!” musical with Mickey Rooney) and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante. Both presented Judy as an All-American teen and role model for young girls around the USA. In Little Nellie Kelly, Judy gets to play both mother and daughter, “Nellie Kelly” and “Little Nellie Kelly.” The role of the mother gave her a chance, albeit short, to play an actual adult. I
Judy has several moments to really shine in Little Nellie Kelly. “It’s A Great Day For The Irish” debuts here. Judy later recorded it for Capitol Records and sometimes sang it in concert and on TV. It’s become an unofficial anthem for St. Patrick’s Day. Her flawless rendition of “Singin’ In The Rain” is another Garland classic. Above all else, Judy performs her only death scene (the mother, “Nellie Kelly,” dies after giving birth to “Little Nellie Kelly”) so effectively that even some technicians on the set had to leave the soundstage out of fear their sobbing would ruin the take.
My favorite number: “Danny Boy.” This was cut from the film but the pre-recording survives and has been a part of compilations put out by MGM Records since the early 1960s. It’s gorgeous.
Listen to Take 6 of “Danny Boy” here:
Listen to Take 7 of “Danny Boy” here:
Babes in Arms, MGM, 1939 [as Patsy Barton]
The first in the wildly popular “Let’s put on a show!” series of musicals starring Judy and Mickey Rooney. Although a lot of critics and reviewers give this film four stars since it was the first and kicked off the series, I think it’s the weakest of the four. It’s not that it isn’t a good film or that Judy and Mickey aren’t amazing, I personally find it less enjoyable than the other three. The main reason for that is the presence of Betty Jaynes and Douglas McPhail. Every time the film focuses on them it slows down the momentum. MGM was obviously attempting to present a teen version of their wildly popular operatic stars Nelson Eddy and Janette MacDonald. Judy and June are paired in another “Opera vs. Jazz” theme that MGM seemed to love to use to showcase Judy’s talents and how she was “hep.” Preisser was no MacDonald and no match for Judy’s sizzling screen presence. Luckily this pairing of a contrasting duo to the stars was not repeated in the subsequent films.
The blackface numbers are problematic for today’s audiences but it must be remembered that in 1939 it was seen as an affectionate look back at a style of stage revue long since gone and not meant to be negative or making fun of any particular group of people. The whole theme of the film is the struggle of youth and their efforts to be taken seriously by the adults, represented here by the old Vaudeville style of those adults versus the more modern style of their kids. Having a minstrel show was a wink at the old style, sort of a “aren’t they cute doing that long-dead format?” Babes in Arms is nonetheless a fun film overall and filled with youthful energy circa 1939.
My favorite number: “Good Morning.” Judy and Mickey sparkle.
Words and Music, MGM, 1948 [as Herself]
Judy’s second and last appearance in an MGM musical as herself. The film is a fictionalized account of the collaboration between songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Judy’s previous co-star Mickey Rooney played Hart and Judy shows up as a guest in Hart’s Hollywood home during a party. Judy and Mickey Rooney pre-recorded their duet of “I Wish I Were In Love Again” on May 28, 1948, and filmed the sequence in a few days from June 1st to June 8th. The song was originally written for the Broadway show Babes In Arms, which became the first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Let’s Put On A Show” musical, but was deleted from the lineup of songs when the show was transferred to the screen because it was felt that it was too adult-themed for the teen duo.
Judy’s appearance here is legendary among Garland fans. She’s noticeably very thin in the short dialog scene just before, and also during, “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” It’s no wonder. She had just come off filming Easter Parade and the equally taxing The Pirate before that (with extensive retakes shot during the Easter Parade production). Judy was worn out but instead of getting much-needed rest she went right into rehearsals for the follow-up to Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway. Things didn’t go well. Judy was removed from that film and finally given a chance for some rest. In the interim, it was decided that just one Judy Garland number in Words and Music wasn’t enough. Judy was called back to record and film “Johnny One Note” which had also been left out of 1939’s Babes In Arms. The encore is supposed to have been performed at the same party and although the studio did a great job of reassembling the set and the extras, it was obvious to most viewers that Judy was heavier than just a few moments before. It didn’t matter. The rest and weight gain noticeably improved Judy’s health. Judy sparkles in both numbers, livening up an otherwise (save a couple of other musical high spots) boring and incredibly fictional biopic.
My favorite number: “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” Judy and Mickey prove that almost 10 years after Babes in Arms, they still sparkle like no one else.
A Child Is Waiting, UA, 1963 [as Jean Hansen]
Judy’s first strictly dramatic role since 1945’s The Clock. She’s as sensitive and convincing as she was in 1945 but there’s no denying that the film, in spite of treating the subject matter of children with special needs tenderly, is a huge downer. Judy’s co-starred with Burt Lancaster. The two make a good pair. But again, the film is a downer and for me, it confirms the fact that even in a film that doesn’t quite succeed, Judy manages to succeed and be great.
Strike Up the Band, MGM, 1940 [as Mary Holden]
MGM wasted no time in finding a way to follow up 1939’s hit, Babes in Arms. That film was so successful that Judy’s co-star, Mickey Rooney, snagged a “Best Actor” Oscar nomination. Judy was relegated to the “juvenile” award for her performance in The Wizard of Oz. It’s just as well. She wouldn’t have won up against Vivien Leigh’s astounding performance in Gone With The Wind. Side note: Producer David O. Selznick, wanted Judy for the role of “Colleen” in Gone With The Wind but she was too busy, so her Andy Hardy co-star Ann Rutherford got the role. I have always thought it would have been amazing if Judy were in both of the biggest and most enduring movies from 1939.
Strike Up The Band stuck close to the “Let’s put on a show!” theme which became a popular series that would never have worked had it not been for the supreme talents of Judy and Mickey. This time around they’re high school students trying to get Mickey’s swing band to a national teen band contest in Chicago. Naturally, life lessons are learned and love is lost and found again in time for the big patriotic finale. That famous shot of the American flag superimposed on the smiling all-American faces of Judy and Mickey is the film’s final shot.
When compared to Babes in Arms, I personally think that Strike Up The Band is the better of the two. Judy and Mickey had grown as performers and in spite of the lengthy “Gay 90s” sequence, the film breezes along. The big production number, “La Conga,” is electrifying to this day.
My favorite number: It’s a tie between “La Conga” and “Nobody.” The latter is a lovely ballad with a sentiment that if not in the hands of Judy’s expert interpretation, would be corny and trite. Instead, it’s more Galrand gold. The former, as noted above, is still amazing to watch.
Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, MGM, 1946 [as “The Star”]
Judy’s guest spot in this revue film is one of the highlights. She’s at her mid-1940s peak in both talent and looks. Judy filmed her sequence right after her superstar turn in Meet Me In St. Louis. Future husband Vincente Minnelli directed.
The number, “A Great Lady Has An Interview” (aka “Madame Crematante”) presents Judy as a great diva of a movie star being interviewed by the press and presenting her dilemma of always being the dramatic actress and never being able to show her fun and sexy side. It’s a brilliant satire that she plays perfectly. And, she raps! Part of the end sequence features an early “rap” segment.
The rest of the film has its ups and downs. It shines in the musical numbers but falls flat in most of the comedic routines, excepting Red Skelton’s always brilliant “Guzzler’s Gin.”
My favorite number: Judy’s, of course! Runner up: “Limehouse Blues” danced by Astaire and Lucille Bremer and gloriously directed by Minnelli. It’s amazing!
Babes on Broadway, MGM, 1941 [as Penny Morris]
The third of the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals finds Judy and Mickey Rooney as budding young actors (and singers and comedians and dancers and …) waiting for their big break on Broadway. Mickey’s a dynamic but undiscovered actor who happens to meet Judy in a Woolworth’s style lunch counter setting and is immediately smitten. She gets roped into his ambitious plans and promises to get the city kids of the settlement house (where she volunteers, of course) a trip to the country. Complications ensue, not least of which is Mickey’s ego and ambition which makes him a heel of the “Pal Joey” kind, sort of.
The big blackface minstrel sequence would never fly today, but in spite of its being un-PC in today’s world, it’s still a great feat of filmmaking. So is the “Hoe Down” number. All directed and choreographed in the typical outsized manner by Busby Berkeley.
This film is a little different from the others in the series in that Judy never gets her solo ballad of pining for romantic love. She does get the appropriately patriotic “Chin Up! Cheerio! Carry On!” number sung to a group of English refugee children and their parents listening in via overseas radio hookup. This was WWII after all and the patriotism is off the charts.
My favorite number: “Hoe Down.” I love Judy’s intro verse. “FDR Jones” is another great Garland belter and aurally it’s one of her best but visually it’s lacking not because Judy isn’t good but because she’s in blackface.
Broadway Melody of 1938, MGM, 1937 [as Betty Clayton]
This is Judy’s MGM feature film debut, and it’s one of the most famous of all MGM feature film debuts thanks to Judy’s “(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You” song. Judy plays the daughter of the owner of a boarding house for actors run by the brilliant Sophie Tucker. This was the first of their two pairings. Tucker was, in real life, impressed and awed by Judy’s talent which says a lot considering that Tucker was at this point already a legend as “The Red Hot Mama.” She dubbed Judy “The Next Red Hot Mama.”
Judy’s part is small, but she gets two songs, the aforementioned “Dear Mr. Gable” and “Everybody Sing.” The latter is the first one performed by her in the film and it’s a big brassy number meant to show off her voice. It succeeds. It’s important to note that at this point many moviegoers still had not heard of or seen Judy Garland. Imagine hearing that voice for the first time at the theater!
My favorite number: “Dear Mr. Gable.” The song features a spoken mid-section that everyone assumed was the brainchild of Judy’s musical mentor at MGM, Roger Edens. However, Judy’s mom, Ethel, had her doing the same thing with the song “Bill” (from “Show Boat”) with the spoken mid-section (listen to that here) which was not uncommon for the time. For me, her voice in “Dear Mr. Gable” is flawless and almost frightening in its maturity, especially when watching her this young (she was just 14 when she prerecorded the song) on a big screen.
Pigskin Parade, Fox, 1936 [as Sairy Dodd]
Judy’s feature film debut and the only time MGM loaned her to another studio. She hadn’t been at MGM for very long when Fox requested her services. MGM had been slowly grooming Judy by having her appear on radio broadcasts plus various parties and other industry functions around Hollywood, with the objective of getting the public used to that big voice coming out of this awkward young girl. At this point Judy was 13 years old (!), turning 14 during filming.
The film is thoroughly enjoyable even today. This is thanks to all the talent on display. Future “Tin Man” Jack Haley is the star, with support from Patsy Kelly, Arline Judge, Dixie Dunbar, Johnny Downs, and the pre-stardom Betty Grable and Tony Martin. Everyone is just marvelous.
Judy gets a generous three songs and she runs with them (the powerhouse “The Texas Tornado” is the highlight). Here we see Judy not quite as polished as she became, which is a refreshing revelation seeing her raw talent on display. She was so effective that one of the film’s stars, future Fox superstar Betty Grable, later told the story of how the cast and crew burst into spontaneous applause when Judy came on the set for the first time and lip-synced to her own voice. Grable became an instant lifelong fan and it’s said that her favorite film was Judy’s version of A Star Is Born (1954), which was allegedly screened for Grable before her death.
At this point in her career, the public wasn’t as aware of Judy as they soon would be. Because of this, audiences around the country were amazed that such a huge and distinctive voice was coming out of this little girl. She stole the film and most of the reviews. In spite of her success with the songs, Judy hated her performance in the film, saying she felt that she looked like a fat farm girl. The seeds of her self-image insecurities were already sewn.
My favorite number: “The Texas Tornado.” Judy ARRIVES! There’s no doubt that here was a girl who would be a big star. Even those watching her perform in the background look genuinely amazed. It’s no wonder.
Ziegfeld Girl, MGM, 1941 [as Susan Gallagher]
This film is a super-big, crazy, colossal extravaganza that they just don’t make anymore. That’s a pity. Ziegfeld Girl is the kind of film that requires you to leave reality outside and enjoy the melodrama and the spectacle. Naturally, with the name “Ziegfeld” in the title, you’re guaranteed big, brassy production numbers with tons of gorgeous girls and equally gorgeous costumes.
The story is nothing new. Three girls start their journey together as new “Ziegfeld Girls.” Hedy Lamarr is the beauty who only wants domestic bliss with her husband, Judy is the teen vaudevillian who wants to make it big in show biz, and Lana Turner is the beautiful blonde from a poor family who is seduced by the dark side of fame via the gifts of Stage Door Johnnies and more than a few bottles of booze. Judy is on hand to lend her voice and Vaudeville razzamatazz, but it’s Turner who gets the meatier role and she runs with it. James Stewart, fresh from his Oscar-winning role in The Philadelphia Story, is on hand as Turner’s hapless boyfriend who watches her succumb to that dark side. It’s a thankless role for Stewart but being the bigger star, he gets top billing. Judy is billed second.
But who cares about plot? We have big numbers with big costumes and big sets! “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” is the centerpiece and does it deliver? It sure does! Everyone’s in this number, from crooner Tony Martin to Turner, Lamarr, quite a few MGM “glamazons,” and Judy – who oddly is relegated to a cutesy bit and placed behind the Martin/Turner/Lamarr trio as if she’s not pretty enough to be included with those glamazons. No wonder Judy has self-esteem issues regarding her looks!
My favorite number: “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Judy gives the definitive rendition of this chestnut. This is the performance that allegedly prompted Turner to tell her “I’d give all my beauty for just half of your talent – the look in your face when you sing.”
Gay Purr-ee, Warner Bros/UPA, 1963 [as the voice of Mewsette]
Judy’s only animated film. She lends her voice to the lead character of “Mewsette.” In 1962/63 it was not the standard to use famous stars for the voices of characters in animated films. Doing so was seen by some as a step-down for someone of Judy’s stature. Nowadays a star’s presence is a big selling tool.
The score was written by the men who gave us the fabulous score for The Wizard of Oz, Harold Arlen, and E.Y. Harburg. The breakout song is “Little Drops of Rain” which became one of Judy’s favorites. It’s a lovely song and should have received more attention than it did.
My favorite number: “Little Drops of Rain.” This was also one of Judy’s favorite songs and at times she privately said it was her all-time favorite. Publicly, she always said that “Over the Rainbow” was her favorite so as not to disappoint her fans. She was a class act!
Till The Clouds Roll By, MGM, 1946 [as Marilyn Miller]
This is the second of Judy’s guest appearances in one of their big splashy all-star musicals. Till The Clouds Roll By is the very fictionalized story of composer Jerome Kern, who wrote the scores of many great musicals including “Show Boat.” Judy’s co-star in The Clock, Robert Walker, plays Kern. Judy plays the real-life Broadway legend, Marilyn Miller. Like Judy, Miller was a singer/dancer known for her charm and her stage presence. Judy gets two numbers and some backstage dramatic scenes, giving her the most screen time of all of her guest appearances in films. Judy’s songs are “Look For The Silver Lining” and “Who?” She pre-recorded and filmed “D’Ye Love Me?” but it was deleted. The surviving footage shows a rather flat number and it’s no wonder why the number was (thankfully) deleted. Judy walked away with critical raves that eclipsed those of the film’s leads.
My favorite number: “Who?” Filmed in the early months of her pregnancy with Liza, Judy positively glows. The production is flawless and Judy is presented as just what she was, the biggest female musical star in the movies. She’s at the top of her game. If you ever want to show someone how great Judy Garland was, show them this number.
Love Finds Andy Hardy, MGM, 1938 [as Betsy Booth]
This is the quintessential Andy Hardy film. It’s also Judy’s first, and best, appearance in the series. Her Betsy Booth is a prototype of the “gal pal” roles she would soon play in the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals with Mickey Rooney. Rooney is, of course, Andy Hardy. Betsy is visiting from New York City and helps Andy out of a jam (with girls, of course!) and ends up proving herself more than just some visiting little kid by literally singing her way into gaining Andy’s respect. Lana Turner makes her only appearance in the series as one of the girls Andy is having trouble with. Turner was, even at this point, far too mature physically to be a teen – her “oomph” is undeniable. Lana’s beauty was something that Judy envied in real life although the two remained lifelong friends. Ann Rutherford is the series regular as Andy’s hometown girlfriend.
Judy is at her pre-Oz best here and she gets two and a half songs, “In Between,” “It Never Rains But It Pours,” and the latter half of “Meet The Beat of My Heart” (the full pre-recording has been available since the 1970s). Judy and Mickey, (this is their second film together), have undeniable chemistry. It’s no wonder that year later they were paired together as co-stars in their first big musical, Babes in Arms.
My favorite number: “In Between.” It’s a typical lament that MGM (or rather Roger Edens) had Judy sing in one format or another (usually on the radio) but here we get to see her perform it as well as simply listening. Those eyes! Even at this young age, Judy is able to handle an on-screen ballad better than most singers twice her age. She gives the song a depth of pathos that belies her young age.
Everybody Sing, MGM, 1938 [as Judy Bellaire]
This is arguably the best of Judy’s pre-Oz musicals. It’s the first in which her character is the main focus and Judy proves herself capable of carrying a film as the lead. She’s given a lot of great help, too, from a dream of a supporting cast. In reality, although Judy is the central focus, the cast is more like a repertory company of actors rather than movie stars and supporting players.
Judy gets to show her budding comedic talents and musically she’s given lots of chances to show her vocal versatility. She even gets to duet with the great Fanny Brice in “Why? Because!” which is the only time that Fanny played her famous “Baby Snooks” character on screen. Despite her young age, Judy is able to keep up with Fanny – no small feat!
Judy’s also paired for the first time with future “Glinda, the Witch of the North” actress Billie Burke, who plays Judy’s mom as part of a family of zany actors. Actually, the whole household down to the staff is comprised of actors or wanna-be actors. Allan Jones is the romantic lead, not for Judy but for her sister as played by Lynne Carver.
My favorite number: “Down on Melody Farm.” The song is a novelty song and on the surface, it’s a bit corny. But Judy rises above the material to give another powerhouse performance. The song showcases her versatility by going from balladic to jazzy to belting as many of her radio songs did at the time.
I Could Go On Singing, UA/Barbican, 1963 [as Jenny Bowman]
This was Judy’s final film. It’s a favorite of Garland fans chiefly because it’s the only film that shows Judy in concert as she was in real life and because Judy plays a character that is, basically, Judy Garland. Unfortunately, the story is melodrama at best. Judy plays “Jenny Bowman,” an American concert singer in London preparing for her opening at the Palladium. She attempts to reconnect with her ex-husband and the young son she never knew.
Even with the presence of Judy and legendary British actor Dirk Bogarde, the film is slow. It seems to meander and never really picks up steam. Still, there’s no denying Judy’s electricity in the on-stage sequences. The hospital scene alone (which Judy and Bogarde re-wrote and ad-libbed) is worth it. It’s Judy Garland speaking the painful truth about a part of her life experiences.
I put this film a little higher on the list than it probably should be based on those concert scenes and that hospital scene. Again, Judy’s electrifying.
My favorite number: “By Myself.” This ballad version of the song (Judy also recorded an upbeat version a few years prior) is nothing short of amazing.
Easter Parade, MGM, 1948 [as Hannah Brown]
Easter Parade was a blockbuster when it was released, and an instant classic. It was MGM’s biggest moneymaker of 1948 and has continued to be loved by audiences and lauded by critics. It’s also the last big-budget musical Judy starred in for the studio.
What’s interesting about Easter Parade is that it’s really less of a “Judy Garland” musical and more of an “MGM” musical. By that, I mean that her films of the mid-to-late 1940s featured her with one co-star. Here we have four stars, Judy’s co-star Fred Astaire, plus Ann Miller and Peter Lawford. Although they’re technically in supporting roles, Ann and Peter get almost equal time with Judy and Fred in the story, and with their own songs.
This film, in spite of its wonderful pleasures (“A Couple of Swells” and “Easter Parade”), sits a little further down on my list than it would on most other’s lists. In some scenes, Judy is very thin, drawn, and unhealthy looking more so than in her previous films, while in others she looks quite healthy and strong. This is due to the personal struggles she was dealing with at the time and also the double duty of extensive re-takes on The Pirate. Judy’s fast fluctuations between healthy and unhealthy looking would plague the rest of the films she completed for MGM. Vincente Minnelli was originally slated to direct the film and he probably would have been able to mask Judy’s appearance more than the film’s ultimate director, Charles Walters.
My favorite number: “A Couple of Swells.” Judy and Fred are obviously having a blast and their chemistry and sense of fun are infectious to the viewer. A close second would be the outtake “Mr. Monotony” which features Judy in the original version of her “Get Happy” outfit seen two years later in Summer Stock (see below).
Summer Stock, MGM, 1950 [as Jane Falbury]
Judy’s last film for MGM was completed under great duress. The prior two years had been turbulent ones for Judy at MGM. She had been fired from The Barkleys of Broadway and Annie Get Your Gun due to her breakdowns which were the result of her addiction to prescription medicines and the overwork. Judy returned to MGM after a stay at the Peter Bent Brigham but instead of going into a splashy big musical with the studio’s Arthur Freed Unit but instead, she went into Summer Stock with the less stressful Joe Pasternak Unit. Pasternak had produced two of Judy’s previous films, including the recent hit In The Good Old Summertime just a year prior.
Production on Summer Stock seemed to limp along. Insiders at the studio thought it would never be completed. But in spite of the troubles, the film was completed and turned out to be a delight! In fact, it’s aged quite well and to this day is a joy to watch. Judy was not required to be “camera thin” and her extra weight gives her a very healthy look. She’s gorgeous.
Judy and co-star Gene Kelly, in their third and final film together, proved that they still had that special chemistry they shared. The plot is simple. It’s a throwback to the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals that Judy and Mickey Rooney had made in the early 1940s. It’s really beneath the titanic talents of Judy and Gene but they and the expert supporting cast (including the marvelous Eddie Bracken and Phil Silvers) raise the film to “A” picture status. The legend is that Gene only accepted the role as a favor to Judy, knowing her current troubles and remembering how much she helped him in his film debut opposite her in For Me And My Gal (below).
My favorite number: “Get Happy.” Yes, the legendary, almost mythical musical number filmed after primary photography had been completed and featuring a noticeably thinner and sexier Judy than what’s seen in the rest of the film. It’s the highlight of the film and is one of Judy’s very best performances – ever. A close second for me is “Friendly Star.” Judy’s gut-wrenching performance of this ballad gives her audience the first listen of her newly matured and very powerful voice. It’s closer to her voice in A Star Is Born rather than her previous MGM musicals (in which she generally sang with a “sweeter” voice).
Presenting Lily Mars, MGM, 1943 [as Lily Mars]
If For Me And My Gal (below) was Judy’s first adult role (not counting her adult scenes in the early segment of Little Nellie Kelly) then Presenting Lily Mars is the film that completed her emergence as a leading lady of the movie musical. This is all the more remarkable considering that Presenting Lily Mars is really a “B” musical. It’s the first Garland film produced by Joe Pasternak. Pasternak had joined MGM after a successful run at Universal producing a string of hit teen musicals starring Deanna Durbin (he originally wanted Judy but MGM wouldn’t loan her out). Pasternak had great respect for Judy’s talents and worked with her every chance he got.
Presenting Lily Mars is a transition film for Judy. For most of the film, Judy’s character is that of the stagestruck young woman who leaves her small-town life for a chance at the big time on Broadway. She’s a slightly older version of the teen characters she had been playing in the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals with Mickey Rooney. Judy’s character, the Lily Mars of the film’s title, finally hits it big in the film’s elaborate finale sequence. In the sequence Judy is given the full glamour treatment for the first time. She’s gorgeous with her hair up wearing a glamorous gown and dancing up a storm with future director Charles Walters. The promotional photos taken of Judy and used in the promotion of the film finally presented Judy to the public as what she was, a lovely adult star.
My favorite number: “Tom, the Piper’s Son.” This fun novelty number is given the Garland treatment. It’s delightful and shows off her vocal abilities. Judy had the rare ability to perform seemingly simple, but really difficult, vocal transitions and “gymnastics” with ease.
Girl Crazy, MGM, 1943 [as Ginger Gray]
The last of the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals Judy made with Mickey Rooney. It’s also the best. This is also the only film in the series in which Mickey chases Judy, another indication of her new status as a leading lady. What makes this the best in the series for me is the Gershwin music as performed by Judy. Judy sings “Embraceable You,” “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me?” (with Mickey), “I Got Rhythm” (also with Mickey), and the brilliant “But Not For Me.” Who could ask for anything more?
My favorite number: “But Not For Me.” This is the definitive version of the song, in my opinion. Sure, I’m biased, but Judy performs it with amazing heartbreak and also hope. It’s one of the best ballads she ever performed on film.
The Pirate, MGM, 1948 [as Manuela Alva]
Judy Garland fans are divided on this one. Some think it’s overdone and that Judy and co-star Gene Kelly are over the top in their acting. Others think that it’s a sophisticated comedy that was ahead of its time when it was released in 1948. I think it’s the latter and an underrated classic deserving of more than the cult status that it has today.
This was the last film in which Judy was directed by her husband, Vincente Minnelli. It was Minnelli who, more than anyone else, helped shepherd her into her status as MGM’s biggest female musical star. By 1947/48 when The Pirate was made, Judy was struggling with her addictions and insecurities and severe postpartum depression. The film itself struggled with plot issues and a subpar (for him) Cole Porter score. In spite of the problems and the extensive retakes, the film has endured as one of Judy’s best (for some if not all) and is a unique musical, unlike any musical of the time. Easter Parade was released not long after The Pirate and both played at the same time in many cities and towns across the U.S. and the two couldn’t be more different. If any film is overdue for the “Ultra-Resolution Process” remastering, it’s this one. Minnelli’s use of color and costumes would look amazing.
My favorite number: “Mack the Black.” This song was originally meant to open the film (a short clip of it survives in the trailer) but was moved to later in the film in the spot where the deleted “Voodoo” had been. Judy’s sexy and sizzling!
The Clock, MGM, 1945 [as Alice Mayberry]
Judy’s first straight dramatic role is also one of her best. It was a nice break for Judy after filming the musicals Girl Crazy (1943), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), and her guest spot in Ziegfeld Follies (filmed in 1944, released in 1946). Judy plays Alice Newberry, a New York office worker who bumps into Joe Allen in Grand Central Station. They end up spending his 48-hour leave together with Alice showing Joe the city. They fall in love and decide to get married.
The plot might seem slight on the surface, but as filmed by Vincente Minnelli (taking over for Fred Zinneman) and as beautifully acted by both Judy and Robert, the film turned out to be one of the best of the wartime romances made at the time. It also holds up today better than most. There are no schmaltzy or overly patriotic scenes. It’s simply the simple story of a young man and woman who fatefully meet and fall in love.
For Judy, as noted, this was her dramatic debut and she, naturally, succeeds. It’s also nice to see her in her prime in contemporary clothing rather than period costumes. Her natural beauty is matched by her natural acting which creates a believable character that carries the film. Judy married Minnelli not long after the film was completed. His love for her shines through in every shot. This is a must-see Judy Garland film.
My favorite number: None. Judy doesn’t sing. However, the song “If I Had You” was used in some of the underscoring and Judy recorded it for release as a single for Decca Records.
Listen to that recording here:
Listen to the alternate take here:
The Harvey Girls, MGM, 1946 [as Susan Bradley]
After filming her first dramatic role in The Clock, Judy returned to the musical genre with The Harvey Girls. And what a return it is! The Harvey Girls is a classic MGM Musical and one of the very best. It’s an original (not an adaptation of a Broadway show or previous film) that showcases Judy at her peak. The Freed Unit (the unit at MGM that specialized in musicals produced by Arthur Freed) hit its stride here. Judy was one of the driving forces of the unit. In fact, Freed hitched his star to Judy’s wagon when he was jockeying to move into producing after having been a successful songwriter (he co-wrote “Singin’ In The Rain”). Without Judy Garland, there might not have been a “Freed Unit.”
The Harvey Girls tells a fictionalized version of the true story of the waitresses who helped settle the western United States (“Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee”) as part of the Fred Harvey chain of restaurants along the famed Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad line.
The centerpiece of the film is the massive “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” production number that takes place early in the film. When the camera pans back to reveal the train arriving in the fictional town of Sandrock, New Mexico, it’s nothing short of amazing, especially on the big screen. That must have been some big crane to lift up the big, bulky Technicolor camera. Judy midway through the number and stops the show with her brilliance. Director George Sidney later explained that he and the cast and the crew had been rehearsing the number on MGM’s backlot all day. Judy came on the set, watched a “dance-in” go through her placement and movements in the complicated routine just once and said, “I’m ready.” She then filmed her segment in one long continuous take, perfectly matching the nuances of her voice in the prerecording and her movements with the rhythm of the number. Brilliant! The sequence is still thrilling to watch today.
A very young Angela Lansbury co-stars as “Em” the “bad dance hall” girl (with the heart of gold, of course) who represents what the Harvey Girls are there fighting against. It’s the basic good girls vs. bad girls in the wild west story, but with wonderful music and bright colors. Lansbury had nothing but praise for Judy years later and much like Janet Leigh a couple of years later said she learned so much about film acting from watching Judy’s genius.
Also in the film is Judy’s “Scarecrow” Ray Bolger who has a hinted-at romance with the equally marvelous Virginia O’Brien. That romance doesn’t play out because O’Brien became pregnant during production so she simply disappears from the latter half of the film. But not until after she performs “The Wild, Wild West” in her usual deadpan style.
The Harvey Girls was on Variety’s list of all-time box office champions for decades. It remains one of Judy’s most popular films, deservedly so.
My favorite number: The big production number “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” It’s an all-time classic MGM production number.
In the Good Old Summertime, MGM, 1949 [as Veronica Fisher]
Judy was all set to star in The Barkleys of Broadway as the follow-up to the stellar pairing of her and Fred Astaire after the mega-success of Easter Parade. Unfortunately, she was physically and mentally exhausted and was removed from the film. After a short rest, she returned to the studio to record and film her encore, “Johnny One Note,” for Words and Music. Instead of going back into the stress and rigors of a dance-heavy Freed Unit musical, she was assigned to the more modest Joe Pasternak Unit and the musical remake of The Shop Around The Corner, retitled In The Good Old Summertime (originally The Girl from Chicago). Instead of requiring Judy to go on a crash diet, Pasternak took her as she was and wisely (and lovingly) ensured a warm environment during the filming.
Judy breezed through the filming and turned in one of her best and most understated film performances. She and co-star Van Johnson have real chemistry. MGM studio boss asked Johnson how they got drama-free filming out of Judy to which Johnson said they simply made her feel loved.
Disclaimer, although the film is titled In the Good Old Summertime, most of it takes place during the December holiday season. It’s really a Christmas film so be sure to watch it during the holidays.
My favorite number: “I Don’t Care.” Judy takes Broadway and Vaudeville star Eva Tanguay’s hit song and makes it her own. And she looks fabulous in that red dress! A close runner-up for me is “Merry Christmas.” It’s another classic Christmas song written for Judy that is usually overshadowed by “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me In St. Louis although it’s gotten more attention in the last few decades and has been covered by several singers from Johnny Mathis to Bette Midler.
For Me and My Gal, MGM, 1942 [as Jo Hayden]
For me, For Me And My Gal features one of Judy’s greatest film performances. It’s also her first real adult role. She’s away from Mickey Rooney and she gets a real romantic lead in newcomer Gene Kelly. Judy does it all here: Sing, dance, act, some light comedy. If anyone had any doubt as to whether she would make the transition from kid/teen roles to adult those doubts should have been dashed by this film. Judy was a mere 19 years old during filming which makes her performance that must more astounding. She’s the epitome of a young woman finding love (and success) for the first time.
The plot is basic backstage stuff. Jo Hayden (Judy) is a vaudevillian during the golden age of Vaudeville. She’s touring with an act headed by Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who also has a crush on her. As fate would have it, they play on the same bill as Harry Palmer (Kelly), an egotistical ham singer-dancer who will stoop to any level to get ahead. He recognizes Jo’s talents right away. After initially resisting his obnoxiousness, Jo agrees to have coffee with him. The two end up performing a song Harry purchased titled “For Me And My Gal” at the piano in that coffeeshop. The number is a classic. Judy and Gene are magic together. The duo decides to team up (leaving Murphy out in the cold), with the goal of playing The Palace in New York. Harry’s ego and WWI temporarily get in the way but it’s all resolved in the final few minutes with an appropriately patriotic finale (the film was made and released in the early years of WWII).
The plot is standard backstage musical fodder, but it’s presented in such a way that it’s completely believable. The film also gives us an idea of what life was like in the heyday of Vaudeville as no other film has. Busby Berkeley is the director and while he’s more known for his kaleidoscopic musical numbers (and harassment of Judy), here he’s subdued and actually directs a film with real drama and feeling. It’s said that this was his favorite of all the films he directed.
As mentioned, Judy is at the top of her game here. Her performance in this film is often overlooked in critical overviews of her movie career. It shouldn’t be. She displays a maturity and depth of feeling that far exceeds the dialog and even the talents of her co-stars. She’s 100% believable at all times. If this movie were made at, say, Fox or Warner Bros., none of their stars could have pulled it off. This is a true classic and if anyone asks you what made Judy Garland so great, have them watch it and they’ll see just how talented she really was.
My favorite number: It’s a tie. Judy and Gene sing and dance the title tune to perfection. It’s another one-of-a-kind slice of movie magic. Tied with it is “After You’ve Gone.” This is one of Judy’s best on-screen ballads. She kept the song in her repertoire throughout her life, recording it for Capitol Records and famously performing it in concerts and on TV.
Judgment at Nuremberg, UA, 1961 [as Irene Hoffman]
Judy received her second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actress, for her brilliant performances as Nazi victim Irene Hoffman in this all-star film. Judy’s part is relatively small but effective. In performing the dialogue detailing Hoffman’s friendship with an older Jewish man, it’s alleged that Judy said she thought about her relationship with her late father. If true, it sure worked. Judy’s performance is riveting.
Judy lost the Oscar to Rita Moreno’s performance in West Side Story. No slight to Ms. Moreno, but I’ve never understood that (aside from the overall popularity of the film). Moreno is a highlight of West Side Story but she’s playing herself. She’s not playing a shaded character that requires real acting other than, again, just being herself.
A Star Is Born, Warner Bros, 1954 [as Esther Blodgett]
Now we’re getting into the top three Judy Garland films. Many people would place A Star Is Born at the very top. In many respects, it should be there. But, for reasons stated in the next two films below, I place it in a very close third place.
A Star Is Born was Judy’s big film comeback after being off-screen for four years. During that interim, she began her legendary stage career and rose from the ashes of having been fired from Hollywood’s biggest studio, MGM. Most people assumed her career was over. It wasn’t.
Based on the 1937 original drama, A Star Is Born is expanded and musicalized. The script, by Moss Hart, is perfect. In fact, everything about this film is perfect or near perfect. James Mason is supremely perfect as Norman Maine to Judy’s portrayal of Vicki Lester (Esther Blodgett). The supporting cast is perfect. And the songs! Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin created a perfect score including the immortal “The Man That Got Away.”
Unfortunately, and now famously, Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner had the film edited after the premieres, bowing to complaints from theater owners that due to the film’s length they couldn’t get as many showings in per day. Director Cukor was out of town so Warner simply chopped chunks of out which ruined the film and therefore the public’s response was indifference. The film was restored in 1983 with almost all of the cut scenes (and the two cut musical numbers) put back in. These cuts and Warner’s refusal to support the film during the Oscar season cost Judy the well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.
To date, this is still the best version of the story that now has had five different versions filmed if one includes the original source, What Price Hollywood? The recent Lady Gaga version, for me, is second only to this supreme Garland version. However, they’re so different (yet the basic story is the same) that it’s really unfair to compare them just as it’s unfair to compare the Barbra Streisand version to Garland’s.
One of the main reasons that I love this film, and that I think is a major key to its success, is that it has its own singular pallette. If you compare it to the other musicals released in 1954, A Star Is Born looks, and feels, as though it’s from another time and place. Cukor’s use of color and shadows (allegedly some of that was due to working in the new Cinemascope ratio) subtly enhance the scenes while creating its own unique world. It works thanks to the added layers of the set design, the costumes, props, cinematography and above all, the expert performances of Garland, Mason, and the rest of the supporting cast (Jack Carson is the standout). Everything is as perfect as it could be.
My favorite number: I would love to say all of them since every number in the film is great, but I’ll have to settle for “The Man That Got Away.” This is another definitive Garland performance that never fails to make my spine tingle. The song unbelievably lost the Oscar for Best Song to the corny, bland (and now largely forgotten) “Three Coins in the Fountain” from the film of the same name. Truly unbelievable!
Meet Me in St. Louis, MGM, 1944 [as Esther Smith]
A magical masterpiece. That’s Meet Me In St. Louis. Much like A Star Is Born (noted above), the film creates its own world and creates it perfectly. All of the talent that producer Arthur Freed had gathered over the previous several years for his “Freed Unit” came together to create the unit’s first masterpiece – Meet Me In St. Louis.
Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minnelli, directed. It was his second full-length film directorial assignment and his first in color. His impeccable taste permeates everything. The sets (MGM build the entire “St. Louis Street” on their backlot for the film), the costumes, the cinematography, the lighting, all of it gelled thanks to the brilliant staff behind the scenes under Minnelli’s guidance. Other studios would try to emulate the film but in spite of those films being mediocre to quite good none of them come close to the magic of Meet Me In St. Louis.
The music is another example of the film’s brilliance. Gone are the huge production numbers and endless chorus lines that were the standard of musicals of the time. There’s no backstage plot. The songs are organic to the story and help to advance the story forward. This was relatively new in major film musicals. It had been done before, most notably by Rouben Mamoulian in the early 1930s. These are called “integrated musicals.” Meet Me In St. Louis was the first successful major integrated musical in Technicolor. The songs (see the extensive post about The Music of Meet Me In St. Louis here), written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, are all great. Three new standards (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) are peppered in the narrative alongside songs from the era portrayed in the film (1903/1904 St. Louis, Missouri). They’re all exactly the right songs in the right spots.
Meet Me In St. Louis became MGM’s biggest moneymaker for several years. The reviews and the response from audiences was an instant embrace and love. Even those who don’t care for Judy Garland (yes, they’re out there!) enjoy this film. For me, it’s right up there with Singin’ In The Rain as one of the greatest movie musicals ever made.
My favorite number: “The Trolley Song.” It’s sheer joy. The lyric is brilliant, the orchestration is brilliant, and Judy’s vocal? Well, she’s brilliance on steroids. Even at the high standard of any Judy Garland vocal, this one is crazy great. There’s no other way to say it. To top it off, when she performed the number on film later, she’s equally brilliant. As one author noted, it’s five of the most magical minutes in the history of the Hollywood musical.
A close second is Judy’s amazing performance of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s perfection.
The Wizard of Oz, MGM, 1939 [as Dorothy Gale] AA
How could I not put The Wizard of Oz in the Number One spot? Other people might put A Star Is Born in the top spot, or maybe Meet Me In St. Louis, but for me, The Wizard of Oz will always be Judy’s greatest film. At this point, the film is almost mythic but also accessible and beloved. It’s without a doubt the greatest musical fantasy that Hollywood ever produced. Everything pertaining to the production came together (whether on purpose or by accident) to create real movie magic.
There isn’t much I can say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t been said before by someone somewhere. It’s been covered and analyzed in every which way possible. As has been noted, Judy’s performance is perfect and is underrated more often than not. This is because everyone in the film is so perfect in their roles that they work as a whole, together, without the viewer realizing it. That’s part of the reason for the film’s special charm and its enduring appeal. Her gift for natural acting makes the film believable. If she had been allowed to continue acting in a “fairy tale princess” manner as originally directed, but thankfully abandoned, the film wouldn’t work.
The Wizard of Oz is the “gateway drug” (so to speak) to Judy Garland fandom for the greater percentage of Garland fans. This is every child’s first exposure to her since the film (of course) is a staple of childhood. Even people who don’t know much about Judy Garland know who “Dorothy” is. The characters in the film have passed beyond simple actor recognition to become true cultural icons. Many might not know the names of the actors, but they know who the characters are on sight alone. I doubt any film will ever achieve that kind of iconic status. The original Star Wars film characters come close when talking about similar character recognition and adoration as do a few others but The Wizard of Oz will always be the most beloved and, I might add, the most-watched (thank you, television!) film of all time.
My favorite number: “Over the Rainbow.” The #1 song ever written for the movies. The song, much like the film itself, has taken on its own life as the perfect song of yearning, hope, and beauty. Judy sang it many times throughout her life, but this version will always be my favorite. As with the rest of the film, she performs the song perfectly. I never tire of watching and hearing this original version of the song. I think it will forever weave its magical spell on audiences.