Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball and Yorkshire’s Marti Caine and Music Hall star Vesta Tilley. This month I have chosen to focus on the movie star and legend Judy Garland.
"People always thought I was funny. I was never funny. You know who was truly funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was funny. She made me look like a mortician." Lucille Ball
I feel slightly biased as I start to write this column. Judy Garland has been a massive part of my life ever since I used to watch her and Mickey Rooney doing the ‘show right here!’ as a small child. In later years I wrote and performed in not one, but two shows about her early years at MGM studios and, in my opinion, there has never been a greater performer (her, not me, much like Streisand in 'Yentl' I was a bit too old for the role). So is it a little self-indulgent to add this singer and movie star into my mix of comic legends? Perhaps so, but I hope I will win you round.
Everyone thinks of Judy Garland as a tragic figure but when I was researching for my first show I read a tonne of autobiographies from stars of the ‘Golden Age’ (as well as the brilliant ‘Me and My Shadows’ written by her daughter) and every single person states she was the funniest person in Hollywood – the life and soul of every party.
Judy Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm 10th June 1922. Her family were vaudevillian performers and she made her first stage appearance aged 2 singing ‘Jingle Bells’ at her father’s movie theatre. She, along with her elder sisters, formed the musical group ‘The Gumm Sisters’ and toured the Vaudeville circuit as well as appearing in a small selection of movie ‘shorts’. In 1934 it was suggested to them that they changed their name to something more appealing and ‘The Garland Sisters’ were born; Frances also changed her name first name to Judy after a famous song of the day by Hoagy Carmichael. In August 1935 ‘The Garland Sisters’ split when eldest sister, Suzanne/Mary-Jane, eloped with a big band musician.
Luckily before they ended the famous director/choreographer Busby Berkley had watched the sisters perform and brought Judy in to audition for Louis B. Mayer and she subsequently signed to MGM studios. At 13 she was older than their child stars and too young for adult roles so they didn’t know what to do with her. MGM famously made her feel like an ugly duckling with Louis B. Mayer himself referring to her as his "little hunchback". She was put on diets, had her chest bound, given removable caps for her teeth and little discs were placed in her nose to create an upturn.
Judy appeared initially on radio before making guest appearances to sing in several films. She was then paired up with Mickey Rooney for a string of ‘backyard musicals’ including ‘Love Finds Andy Hardy’ and ‘Babes in Arms’. At 16 years old she landed the role of Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the studio doctor prescribed her Benzedrine, an amphetamine with then unknown addictive properties which was freely prescribed. When combined with Phenobarbital, it would curb your appetite and fill you with energy – a wonder of the diet industry and it kept actors and film productions on schedule. However, taking them did mean that Judy had trouble sleeping…so she was given more pills to cure that and thus began a life-long dependency.
The films she then went onto make are legendary. I have included below a few of my favourite comic moments to add to my argument for Judy Garland being the greatest Vintage Funny Woman, The first is from ‘Easter Parade’ 1948 and Garland’s character has to stand in for Fred Astaire’s dance partner – a classic ‘bad dancing’ scene performed with the skill that only a real dancer could possess:
‘A Couple of Swells’ with Fred Astaire from ‘Easter Parade’ 1948
‘A Great Lady has an Interview’ from ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ 1945
‘Be a Clown’ with Gene Kelly from ‘The Pirate’ 1948
During this time she continued with her radio appearances and here is a comic opera spoof with the great Danny Kaye:
All accounts state she was funny in real life as well as on screen. One of my favourite stories of her love of practical jokes was told by her youngest daughter Lorna Luft during her show ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ when I saw her several years ago at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls. For a while Garland was living at the Savoy Theatre in London with her children, and one evening Lorna had noticed shoes had been left outside each room. Judy explained that they were there to be shined ready for the morning but then had the idea to swap all the shoes – over three floors! When Lorna expressed concern that they would get caught and people would be mad Judy replied with: "do you honestly think they’ll believe Judy Garland did this?".
In her later years Judy gave up her movie career and focused on her TV and concert appearances – there are so many but here are some of my favourite funny moments:
In her later years Judy famously appeared at concert venues including Carnegie Hall, London’s Talk of the Town and at the London Palladium but her health was deteriorating and she was found dead from an unintentional over-dose on 22nd June 1969 in her London rented home by her fifth husband Mickey Deans.
There is so much more to Judy’s story than I have listed here but I don’t think one column could cover it – she is so well documented on the internet I urge you to seek more information out and read Lorna Luft’s book, ‘Me and My Shadows’ or even watch the mini-series of the same name where the actress Judy Davis gives a stunning performance. Judy Garland’s humour was witty, good-hearted and very naughty and I think she is a definite candidate for our Vintage Funny Women Awards.
Contact me with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe