Judy Garland was 16 when she filmed the most beloved movie of her career and first sang the song that would become her signature.
One reason she made such an impact in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz,” a mega-budget production released in 1939, was simple: her voice.
She might have been made up and costumed to look like a little girl, but she didn’t sing like one. That powerful contralto commanded attention. And her performance early in the film of “Over the Rainbow,” a song that was almost cut, froze her in time.
She made other movies — some pretty good, some not so good — but “Wizard” was the one that achieved immortality. Her career would remain inextricably linked to the unforgettable song by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg for the rest of her life.
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Once, when she was on tour in Australia in 1964, a reporter asked her to name her favorite song of all she had recorded.
“I’m afraid it’s ‘Over the Rainbow,’” she said without hesitating.
When she appeared on television, the orchestra often played “Over the Rainbow” as her entrance music. It was the same in her concerts.
And naturally a question lingers: What if Judy had not played Dorothy? Would “Over the Rainbow” loom so large in popular culture? Would it have been written at all?
At one point Shirley Temple, then Hollywood’s leading female child star known for her little-girl voice and her dance routines with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, was considered for Dorothy. From our present perspective, we can only scratch our heads and wonder what on earth the producers had in mind. Imagining “Wizard” with Temple is virtually impossible.
“Shirley would have ended up being the leader of the Munchkins,” said veteran musical director Anthony Edwards. “She wouldn’t even have gone to Oz.”
Frances Gumm arrived with her parents and sisters in Los Angeles in 1926. Driven by their mother, a classic stage mom, the Gumm Sisters performed as a trio in vaudeville.
“We were terrible,” she told TV show host Jack Paar in 1962.
But newspaper reviewers had already taken note of the little girl with the big voice before her mother gave her the stage name of Judy Garland. In 1935, she was signed to MGM.
Garland led a strange life on the MGM lot. She and her frequent co-star Mickey Rooney were emerging stars, but they were also expected to hit the books four hours a day at a little schoolhouse on the studio lot. At one point, Garland’s classmates included Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Deanna Durbin, Freddie Bartholomew and Lana Turner.
“It was a terrible classroom, if you think of us all in one group,” Garland told Paar. “Lana kept excusing herself every five minutes by having to raise her hand in school to go out and smoke.”
Garland’s problems then and later in life have been well-documented. It was at MGM that she supposedly began taking uppers and downers to keep pace with the grueling production schedule. To disguise her physical maturity during the filming of “Wizard,” her breasts were bound tightly to make her seem more childlike.
A few years later she suffered a nervous breakdown. She slashed her wrists at one point. She was married and divorced multiple times.
She once described the bizarre experience of seeing a psychiatrist while working for MGM.
“No wonder I was strange,” she once wrote, according to her 1969 obit in the New York Times. (She died from an overdose of barbiturates at the age of 47.) “Imagine whipping out of bed, dashing over to the doctor’s office, lying down on a torn leather couch, telling my troubles to an old man who couldn’t hear, who answered with an accent I couldn’t understand, and then dashing to Metro to make movie love to Mickey Rooney.”
But when you load “The Wizard of Oz” into the DVD player, none of that seems to matter. As Dorothy, Garland is a rare gem, frozen in amber.
But it wasn’t just her voice that fixed her permanently in the collective memory.
A rare quality
Donna Thomason, a veteran musical-theater actress and director who produced the recent Starlight Theatre production of “The Sound of Music,” said Garland was able to do what all musical theater actors are supposed to do: make the singing voice a natural extension of the speaking voice.
“When you can assimilate the spoken word and go into a song without stopping talking and start singing, that’s what we really try to do,” Thomason said. “It bridges the gap between it being spoken and developing into a song. It makes it seamless. It continues the storytelling. And that’s one of the reasons she was effective.”
In short, Garland’s singing voice sounded utterly natural. It never seemed forced or overly trained.
“That’s the glory of it,” Thomason said. “It seemed effortless at the time. It was just a big voice. To have that kind of resonance when you’re 16 years old just doesn’t happen. Part of the reason that ‘Over the Rainbow’ is nationally ranked No. 1 of the most beloved songs is because in our heads we hear Garland’s voice.”
Edwards, who was the musical director on “The Sound of Music,” said Garland’s innate talent extended beyond her vocal abilities.
“She had those big, wonderful, open eyes,” he said. “So when you had that warm, inviting tone with the innocent wide-eyed look, that compelled people to her. (The filmmakers) didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the songs with wide shots. They were zeroing in on Judy’s face and letting the lyric emanate from her eyes. She could tell the whole story with a look. And she could do that throughout her career, no matter what kind of shape she was in. She just lived for the lyric.”
J. Kent Barnhart, executive director of Quality Hill Playhouse, said Garland’s enduring performance in “Wizard” was inherently ironic. On paper, Garland seemed all wrong for Dorothy.
“I think her voice is like her body — it was too old for the part, too mature for the part,” Barnhart said. “And I think that ‘Over the Rainbow’ is wrong for the show in so many ways. She’s too old. They had to bind her breasts but you can’t really bind the voice, and there’s a maturity there. I guess what I’m saying is that it seems wrong theatrically but it works perfectly in the movie.”
Theatrical versions of “Wizard” are staged often — one was seen at Starlight earlier this summer — but Barnhart said every stage version is modeled on the images of the film, because in people’s minds Judy Garland in 1939 is Dorothy.
“I’ve always said that writers don’t have as much control as they think they have over their characters,” he said. “It’s whoever plays it first. I’m sorry, but if you do Dorothy, you damn well put her in a blue checkered dress, and she better have pigtails. (Garland) is the reason you see live productions of the musical in which Dorothy is always played by adults.”
But Barnhart said Garland seemed mature because of her emotional quality, not just her voice.
“One thing that comes through is that there’s never really any joy in Garland’s voice,” he said. “There’s longing, there’s angst. There’s a little bit of ‘The Man That Got Away’ (from ‘A Star Is Born’) in every song she sings. There’s always that loss there. It’s definitely a voice that’s much more mature than the part demanded. But I don’t think we’d be watching it today if it weren’t for that maturity — because it’s not really a children’s film.”
By Garland’s own account, it was dumb luck as much as talent that allowed her to play Dorothy. But that big voice certainly helped. The studio, she said, didn’t know what to do with girls who weren’t children but weren’t adults. She realized that when MGM terminated Deanna Durbin’s contract.
“They fired her and they were gonna fire me because they didn’t know what to do, actually, with 13-year-old- girls,” she said in the ’60s. “There was no such thing. You either had to be a Munchkin or you had to be 18 or something. No in-between.”
One thing seems clear: With “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland established a connection with a mass audience that never diminished.
“There’s a kind of a marriage maybe between the audience and myself,” she once told an Australian interviewer. She joked that she had made 185 comebacks “up to now.”
Her interviewer then asked her why she wanted to continue the grind of performing.
“Because I was born to do that,” she said. “To work and try to entertain, (to) take people’s minds off their troubles for a while, if I can.”
The Wizard of August
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of“The Wizard of Oz” movie, we’re writing a story a day this month. To read previous stories, go to KansasCity.com.
Coming Monday in FYI: Where are those ruby slippers?
Send us your “Oz” memories
Share a personal anecdote about the movie. As a kid did you flee the living room when the flying monkeys attacked? Did your family watch it on TV every year? Email your story (no more than 150 words, please), along with your name, phone number and city, to email@example.com. Put “Oz memory” in the subject line. Deadline for submissions: 11:59 p.m. Monday.