Pure Presentation

Judy the artist, Judy the icon, Judy the obsession: Trying to tell them apart can seem an uphill struggle. The eternal little girl who was born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922 would have been 76 this year, and the obsession is in fuller bloom than ever. A biopic is in the works (from Steven Spielberg, no less), and there is a new flowering of CD reissues, some with video or CD-ROM appendages. The hagiography she summons up, even when ludicrous, is creepier than the Haunted Forest of Oz: The 100-page booklet accompanying the 32 Records box includes a hilariously lamebrained essay by Camille Paglia on "Judy Garland as a Force of Nature." Opening line: "Divas are the tornadoes of the performing arts."

Certainly there's no disputing Judy's gifts. The little girl who grew up to be a perpetual survivor of her own shipwreck had talent, will, and enormous innate musicality. You can hear them emerge on the first disc of the box--an obsessive product, full of the revelations such thoroughness always provides. The full-toned middle register, the assured phrasing, and the crystalline diction that make Judy a joy to professional musicians of every stripe are all there at age seven, embedded in the weirdly self-conscious cutesy-poo of four numbers gleaned from the soundtrack discs of two 1929 Vitaphone shorts.

By age 13--three weeks into her MGM contract--she has perfected the buttery technical ease that still makes vocalists with troublesome register breaks weep with envy. A year later, having added a Decca recording contract to her responsibilities, she already seems at her artistic peak, belting out "Stompin' at the Savoy" with the warm insouciance of Etta Moten and chirruping her first hit, "Everybody Sing," with the energetic purity of a peaches-and-cream Ethel Merman. Nothing, apparently, fazes her; her emotional directness sends every song straight to you, no matter how many obstacles the ornate arrangements drop in its path. She will stay at this summit, a songbird trapped in a gilded cage of mock adolescence, till the breakdowns begin.

In Babes on Broadway: Even here Judy can find a reserve of dignity, and not be brought down.
Archive Photos
In Babes on Broadway: Even here Judy can find a reserve of dignity, and not be brought down.

Details

Judy Garland
Judy: The Definitive Judy Garland
32 Records

Collectors' Gems From the MGM Films
Rhino

Judy in Hollywood: Her Greatest Hits
Rhino

Judy Garland: A [Musical] Anthology Biography
EMI

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Most commentators have viewed Judy as either a case history (broken home, stage mother, amphetamines) or an artist modeling herself consciously on this or that precursor (Al Jolson is the current favorite). Both notions miss the central point. The youngest of a song-and-dance team's three daughters, "Baby" Gumm spent her childhood in vaudeville. In other words, she was never a child, but a person trained from infancy in the art of imitating a child. She was already a virtual adult by the time MGM retrained her to imitate an adolescent; they kept her in the role till she could no longer stand to play it, after which they bowed to her plea for romantic leads with For Me and My Galin 1942.

Even here, of course, the romance is that of a vaudeville team. With the exceptions of Meet Me in St. Louis(1944) and The Clock(1945), Garland rarely escaped showbiz roles until her postrehab comeback in Judgment at Nuremberg(1961). At MGM, she is either an innocent to whom showbiz things happen (The Wizard of Oz, The Pirate) or a trouper pure and simple. The Andy Hardy films, seeming exceptions, in effect merge the two paradigms: They are extended showbiz fantasies, complete with numbers, of small-town adolescence.

What we hear of vaudeville today mostly centers on its seedier or odder corners. In fact, it was a grueling, highly professionalized, mainstream system. Children born to ride this vast conveyor belt of variety entertainment were like acolytes inducted from infancy into a priestly cult, innocent co-conspirators with their parents in dodging child labor laws. Isolated from everyday reality by their performers' consciousness, they grew up with the audience their only god and "the show must go on" their only commandment. Pretty much anything else was allowable, the view from backstage having taught them that everything but the performance was an illusion anyhow. In this respect, a good analogue for Judy would be Buster Keaton, who went through a similar childhood of abusive enchantment 20 years before her, and emerged with a similar adult persona: ready for any task, impeccably single-minded about getting through it, and able to bounce back from any disaster.

The vaudeville child's willingness to try anything is the source of puzzlement about Judy's vocal artistry; critics don't know how to "place" her. Will Friedwald's intelligent but oddly defensive essay in the 32 booklet, for instance, makes an apologetic case for her as someone jazz musicians ought to like. She does use some jazz tactics--bent notes, rhythmic stretches--and now and then she phrases like some jazz vocalists. She can swing, just as she can warble near-operatically, croon an Irish folk song, or recite Sarah Bernhardt's death speech from L'Aiglon.

This isn't to say she had no models, but that anyone great was her model. As actors say about life, "It's all material." She picks up Jolson's phrasing and repertoire, but not his mannerisms or his audience-wooing brashness; she learns shading (but not ornamentation) from Ruth Etting, and an extended legato line from Kate Smith. There are even a few "hot" moments--listen to the early air check of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" on 32--in which she sounds uncannily like Mildred Bailey.

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