Decades after Judy Garland’s untimely death, she remains one of America’s most beloved stars. Garland’s career was illustrious, too, with the star having won a Golden Globe, an Oscar and two Grammys as well as having appeared in some of the most popular films of the 20th century. But despite these successes, Garland’s personal life was incredibly troubled. And one of her last filmed performances was in fact cut from broadcast for being too dark…
How the actor got to that point, though, is a story in itself. And given that Garland was often bright, bubbly and charming on screen, it may be hard to imagine one of her performances as being anything but life-affirming. However, the star’s journey to the moment when a TV network decided that audiences couldn’t handle her started when she was very, very young.
Born in 1922, Garland was originally named Frances Gumm. Her parents, Frank and Ethel, had a link to show business, too – albeit a small one – as they managed a movie theater in Minnesota’s Grand Rapids. Before their little girl was even three years old, in fact, she was performing vaudeville numbers on the Gumms’ stage.
Garland and her two elder sisters subsequently formed their own girl group, with the siblings regularly performing at their parents’ venue. And after the Gumms moved to California, the trio added short movies to their repertoire.
The girls would perform at vaudeville venues around the country, too, until 1935. Along the way, they changed their name to the Garland Sisters on the advice of comedian George Jessel. In addition, Garland herself adopted a new forename after hearing the song “Judy” by Hoagy Carmichael.
After one of the Gumm sisters ran off to get married, however, the trio’s group was forced to split. Still, this setback didn’t stop Garland’s rise, as in 1935 – aged just 13 – she became contracted to MGM. Her first movie for the studio was a short musical, 1936’s Every Sunday, that showcased the singer’s incredible vocals.
During the early years of Garland’s MGM contract, she played the girl-next-door roles befitting her young age. She hit upon a winning partnership with comic actor Mickey Rooney, too, with the pair making 1939’s Babes in Arms and a series of Andy Hardy films together.
And in 1939 Garland became known for what is perhaps her most famous role: Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Rather incredibly, though, given how iconic her performance has become, the 17-year-old almost didn’t get the part. Indeed, the studio tried to get both Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple to play Dorothy before finally allowing Garland to start filming.
Both Babes in Arms and The Wizard of Oz were responsible for Garland’s only Oscar win, since the actor was given a special honor for those performances in 1939. And during the awards ceremony, she received a mini statue in recognition of her young age. The teenager’s career was going from strength to strength, it seemed.
Then, as Garland grew older, she made the move to more adult musical roles. She played a mom in 1940’s Little Nellie Kelly, for instance, while 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars saw her present a rather sophisticated and glamorous new image. Critics weren’t always convinced that Garland had completely grown up, however.
Still, the star pushed on with more mature roles nonetheless, leading to another iconic movie in 1944. And Meet Me in St. Louis – a musical set in the run-up to the 1904 World’s Fair – was a resounding success. Loved by critics and audiences alike, the film also spawned the all-time holiday classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Before production had begun, though, Garland had actually tried to get out of making Meet Me in St. Louis; she was also reportedly unhappy during filming. However, she must have had some fun on set, too, as she met future husband Vincente Minnelli while shooting the movie. And after the premiere of Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland admitted that her misgivings about the film had been misplaced. “Remind me not to tell you what kind of picture to make,” she told producer Arthur Freed, according to Judy: The Films and Career of Judy Garland by Joe Morella and Edward Epstein.
After marrying Minnelli in 1945, Garland attempted to move into non-musical roles – but sadly without enjoying great success. In fact, audiences were apparently disappointed when she didn’t sing at all in drama The Clock. So, despite the movie having been well-received by critics and profitable for the studio, Garland wouldn’t take another song-free role for several years.
Despite that setback, though, Garland continued to make successful musicals. Through the rest of the 1940s, movies such as 1946’s The Harvey Girls and Easter Parade two years later solidified her star status. And it wasn’t just a good decade for the actor professionally, as in 1946 she had her first daughter: future superstar Liza Minnelli.
In 1950, however, things were beginning to change for Garland. She was released from her MGM contract that year, and it would be almost half a decade before she made another movie. The star instead turned her focus to music, choosing to sing in front of packed theaters in Britain.
Garland spent a mammoth four weeks playing in the U.K. in 1951. And the shows were so successful that they practically rejuvenated the star’s career. According to the Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman-edited book Music and the Racial Imagination, the star proclaimed at the end of the run, “Hollywood thought I was through. Then came the opportunity to appear at the London Palladium, where I can truthfully say that Judy Garland was reborn.”
Following that, Garland returned to America, taking her stage show to New York’s Palace Theatre. Her record-breaking performances there even earned her a Tony Award. Later in 1951, she and Minnelli divorced, with Garland wedding producer Sid Luft the following year. And after the birth of daughter Lorna in 1952, Hollywood once again came calling.
Garland gave many incredible performances during her career – but perhaps none more so than in A Star Is Born. Released in 1954, the movie opened to huge acclaim. And it wasn’t just the critics who loved it; the picture made $6 million at the box office as well. So high was the praise for the star’s performance, in fact, that Time even called it “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.”
Garland’s stint in the role of Esther Blodgett was so universally loved, in fact, that it led to some controversy at that year’s Oscars. The star was deemed such a shoo-in to win Best Actress that when she couldn’t attend the ceremony due to giving birth to her son Joey, the Academy set up cameras in her room. This was so that she could give a live speech after her seemingly inevitable victory.
As you may have guessed, though, Garland didn’t win. Instead, the award went to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl. But the star didn’t go completely unrewarded: at that year’s Golden Globes, she won Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
After A Star Is Born, however, Garland made just three more live-action movies. One of them, 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, even earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The post-World War Two courtroom drama saw the star deliver a performance as strong as any in which she showcased her voice, but once more she was defeated at the Academy Awards.
At this point, Garland returned again to the theater, with her 1961 concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall ultimately going down in the history books. That show produced the best-selling album Judy at Carnegie Hall, which stayed on the charts for a remarkable 18 months. The recording even made the National Recording Registry, a list of culturally significant works, in 2003.
But it wasn’t just the theater that benefited from Garland’s move away from Hollywood; television was also graced by an increasing number of appearances from the singing superstar. These included a series of specials with guests including Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
However, while Garland’s career was hitting yet another high, her personal life was seemingly in free fall. Filing for divorce from Luft in 1963, the star claimed that her husband had behaved abusively towards her. But Garland’s troubles didn’t stop – or, indeed, start – with her second marriage.
As far back as the 1930s, Garland had struggled with her self-image – a battle perhaps made worse by MGM’s treatment of her. Louis B. Mayer, the head of the studio, had even once described her as a “little hunchback,” according to Jane Ellen Wayne’s The Golden Girls of MGM. In addition, the studio had forced the young actress to have her teeth capped and wear rubber prosthetics to change the appearance of her nose.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, MGM also forced Garland to diet, despite her already being a healthy weight for her 4 foot 11 inch frame. But that wasn’t even the worst studio-enforced rule. The star later claimed that in order to keep up with her hectic work schedule, she was given amphetamines by day and barbiturates to help her sleep at night. This was the start of a battle with drug addiction that would plague the performer for the rest of her life.
In 1947, too, Garland was hospitalized following a nervous breakdown. After undergoing treatment, however, she began taking sleeping pills and morphine tablets. In addition, Garland also started to have issues with alcohol abuse. Her issues with substance abuse led to her being replaced mid-shoot on more than one occasion.
Another spell in hospital ensued for Garland in 1949, during which period she managed to stop taking the pills. However, her recuperation ultimately led to weight gain. When she took a role in Summer Stock, then, she returned to using tablets in order to slim down.
And by the time that Summer Stock came out in 1950, Garland’s mental health had again begun to visibly deteriorate. This eventually led to the termination of her MGM contract, and the star reportedly nicked her throat with a piece of glass upon hearing the news. According to Photoplay, Garland would eventually admit that at the time she’d “wanted to hurt herself and everyone who had hurt me.”
But despite the great success of A Star in Born in 1954, Garland would not make another film until the 1960s. And in 1959 the star was again hospitalized – this time due to an inflamed liver. At that point, in fact, she was informed that she only had a few more years left.
It’s perhaps a clue to Garland’s state of mind that the diagnosis apparently left her relieved. Nonetheless, she did make a good recovery, and her career continued. By this point, though, the star owed a large sum of money to the IRS. Compelled to continue working as often as she could to pay off the debt, Garland agreed to star in a weekly TV show on CBS.
Then, following hot on the heels of two TV specials, The Judy Garland Show debuted in September 1963. The superstar had been given a massive $24 million contract for the series. Despite high hopes, though, the show never really took off and was canceled after a single season.
Still, the show was at least permitted to complete its initial 26-episode run. And during that period, the format of the series changed several times – as did its production staff. To begin with, The Judy Garland Show was a variety vehicle, in which its star would sing and interview guests while comedian Jerry Van Dyke generated the laughs.
The series was then modified, introducing comedy sketches that poked fun at Garland’s career in order to make her more accessible to the audience. Then, by the time that The Judy Garland Show’s third producer had come on board, Van Dyke had been fired. The new focus was now the star’s voice, with the comedy element having been reduced.
And after the show’s official cancelation due to low ratings in January 1964, it once again changed tack. For the final handful of episodes, the series focused exclusively on Garland’s considerable vocal talents. Taken together, those episodes essentially comprise a series of concerts – a TV version of her successful theatrical runs. And it was one of the performances contained on the show that upset the network.
Despite Garland’s turbulent personal life, musically she was often upbeat. But it was perhaps her emotional connection to her audiences, regardless of what she was singing, that marked out her performances. And it may have been this talent that caused CBS to cut one of her songs from the series finale.
During the recording of The Judy Garland Show’s last ever episode, Garland performed the song “By Myself.” But her deeply emotional interpretation of the number led network execs to deem it too dark for broadcast. The rendition was consequently cut and not seen by the public for more than 50 years.
However, the lost footage of Garland’s dark performance eventually resurfaced in 2016. And in it, the deep sadness and gritty sense of determination the star appears to have felt during the song clearly comes through, showing as a result the raw emotional power that the Oscar winner possessed.
Seeing Garland’s last TV appearance in ghostly black and white in no way diminishes the power of her performance, either; if anything, it shows her incredible talent off perfectly. How it could be deemed too dark for anyone is a question that modern audiences will perhaps never be able to answer.
Sadly, Garland died in 1969 at the age of just 47 after having taken an accidental overdose of barbiturates. As Frank Sinatra predicted, though, the iconic star will never truly be gone. “She will have a mystical survival,” he said, according to Stephen MacLean’s Peter Allen: The Boy From Oz. “The rest of us will be forgotten, but never Judy.” With Garland having left such an incredibly rich legacy, Sinatra definitely had a point…