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.
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 Gal in 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.
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.
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.
The sequence builds to a climactic crane shot: Encircled by the shadows of the chorus, Americans on the march, she is a tiny but enthralling vortex of energy, her race and gender barely discernible till the camera swoops down again, closing in on her grotesquely painted face. Distressing as the sequence is, Judy’s spirit gets past it. She does not seem to be playing to the blackface, as Jolson does in similar numbers; what stays in the memory is her vocal clarity (the crane shot climbs over a single bell-toned long note), not the horrific racist cartoon. It’s the ultimate indication of her power to transcend: There’s very little uglier than this in American pop culture, yet even here Judy can find a reserve of dignity, and not be brought down. She does not “sell” racism; at her bosses’ behest, she merely wears its costumes.
In fact, she doesn’t sell anything. It’s impossible to imagine her doing a commercial or endorsing a product. She sings. When necessary, between songs, she speaks dialogue, chats with the audience, or introduces another artist. That’s it. Such independence, astonishing in a child force-fed through the corporate system as she was, is another proof of her iconic status. How many American artists in any field have attained that degree of freedom? The greatest thing to be said about her is that she deserves it. No wonder they obsess over her, enshrine her, mimic her. The desire to capture such an elusive spirit is natural. But her simplicity keeps a discreet distance. Tied down and overworked,
broken-down and dead before she was 50, on disc she is still alive and free, as unclassifiable and democratically accessible as America itself.