By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The astonishing part is that her innocence projects past all the mimicry, as easily as it gets past the fancy-dress arrangements and those glutinous late-'40s medleys into which MGM crams enough songs for a dozen films. Let the orchestras whirl and the phrases attitudinize as they may, she is always there at the still center, simple, direct, present, and bright toned. The voice will not begin to show signs of wear till The Pirate in 1949, when a wobble and an occasional uncertainty of pitch become audible. (Even here there are exquisite moments, like the slow section near the end of "Mack the Black," that sound more like great lieder singing than movie pop.) When she leaves MGM, after three more films and the aborted Annie Get Your Gun, 28 is both her age and the number of movies she has made in 14 years. In the same period, she has recorded some 80 sides for Decca, and made countless stage and radio appearances. The studio has worked her to exhaustion, and into addiction. Far from being the tornado, she has been swept up by it; the house has collapsed on her instead of the Wicked Witch.
But not fatally: "The little girl with the leather lungs," as the publicists called Baby Gumm, is still alive, and performing is where vaudeville children escape the sordid miseries of backstage life. (As another child performer once said, "They can't hit you while you're onstage.") The leather has gotten blotchy and cracked, but the pure, presentational child is still there, with a remarkable gravity of presence; even in uptempo frenzies fueled by pills and liquor, her professionalism wins out. Three discs of the 32 set are taken up by post-MGM concert appearances and rehearsal or broadcast tracks from the weekly variety show she did for CBS in 1963 and '64, many previously unheard except by obsessives. Their musical unevenness is offset by a newly frank emotionality. Not that she shoves anything at you--Judy is never either "deep" nor "raw" in her exploration of a song--but the little girl's eyes have been opened wide. She has been through the mill, and she has no qualms about letting you know it.
This undegraded, unashamed new version of her childhood openness becomes her last extraordinary asset. Despite all the martyrologies heaped on her, she never appears onstage (with a few notorious exceptions) as a self-flaying victim. By now, her performance is about getting through the performance, with the maximum dignity and grace available, a trouper to the last. On some numbers from late episodes of the TV show, she sounds like a woman who has never suffered at all.
Collectors' Gems From the MGM Films
Judy in Hollywood: Her Greatest Hits
Judy Garland: A [Musical] Anthology Biography
Of course, this elegant disregard of her griefs only increases their pathos for her fans, who must juxtapose this grown-up innocent with the preternatural child imprinted on their eyes and ears by The Wizard of Oz. A suffering innocence that is never quite the same as "normal" innocence is one source of her appeal to gay men. Another is her directness, neither wallowing in nor attempting to conceal the suffering, which also explains why so many black singers reverence this "square" white girl from the movies. "Soul is sincerity, plain and simple," says Aretha Franklin, in the 32 booklet's most sensible essay, "This woman was soul personified." "Soul," she adds, "is breaking through the pretense and getting to the heart of the matter." Since there is no pretense for Judy--she is simply there, doing the next thing asked of her--"soul personified" is about as good as the explanations can get. Not the depths of an individual soul, not the soul of a people or a nation, just "soul" itself--the abstract, clarified essence of the thing.
From this, Judy derives her power as an icon, which gives certain songs and certain film roles an almost sacred attachment to her: Ella Fitzgerald, recording her Harold Arlen album, was genuinely upset when asked to include "Over the Rainbow." Wizard of Oz fetishists find the thought of any version of the story other than Judy's 1939 film untenable, although Oz had been viewable on stage and screen since the Baum-scripted operetta of 1903. (The phrase "friends of Dorothy" as a euphemism for gay men probably dates back to the operetta's lengthy tours.)
As an icon, she has permissions that few other singers could obtain. Her repertoire can not only borrow from Jolson and Etting (for the latter, contrast the Rhino and 32 versions of "I'm Nobody's Baby"), it can rifle vaudeville's cobwebby past, or attach without offense songs normally associated with singers of color. Very few white female vocalists could go from "Swanee" to "Come Rain or Come Shine" without causing raised eyebrows, and when you add "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the number comes down to exactly one. And even that has a topper. The Rhino single disc includes her triumphant rendition--innocence joyously cubed--of Harold Rome's "F. D. R. Jones." Originally introduced by bass-baritone Rex Ingram and an African American chorus in the 1939 Broadway revue Sing Out the News, the number celebrates the birth, and anticipated ascension to the presidency, of a black child. (One of its few pre-Judy recordings was by Ella, with Chick Webb's orchestra.) You can see Judy perform it, in the otherwise unstomachable minstrel-show finale of Babes on Broadway (1941), in blackface and male drag--as Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom. Strutting and belting out the tune, head high, she largely eschews the genre's racist mannerisms. It's just Judy, proud and happy, as a nonwhite male American, a role like other roles.