One of the brightest, most tragic movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era. She was a much-loved character whose warmth and spirit, along with her rich and exuberant voice, kept us entertained with an array of delightful musicals.
The Big Revue
A Holiday in Storyland
The Wedding of Jack and Jill
La Fiesta de Santa Barbara
Broadway Melody of 1938
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante
Strike Up the Band
Little Nellie Kelly
Life Begins for Andy Hardy
Babes on Broadway
We Must Have Music
For Me and My Gal
Presenting Lily Mars
Words and Music
A Star Is Born
A Child Is Waiting
I Could Go On Singing
In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people. ~ Judy Garland
Garland was born Frances Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She was the youngest child of Ethel Marion (née Milne) and Francis Avent “Frank” Gumm. Her parents were vaudevillians who settled in Grand Rapids to run a movie theater that featured vaudeville acts.
“Baby” (as she was called by her parents and sisters) shared her family’s flair for song and dance. Her first appearance came at the age of two-and-a-half, when she joined her older sisters Mary Jane “Suzy/Suzanne” Gumm and Dorothy Virginia “Jimmie” Gumm on the stage of her father’s movie theater during a Christmas show and sang a chorus of “Jingle Bells”. The Gumm Sisters performed there for the next few years, accompanied by their mother on piano.
The family relocated to Lancaster, California, in June 1926, following rumors that her father had made sexual advances towards male ushers. Frank purchased and operated another theater in Lancaster, and Ethel began managing her daughters and working to get them into motion pictures. Garland attended Hollywood High School and later graduated from University High School.
In 1928, the Gumm Sisters enrolled in a dance school run by Ethel Meglin, proprietress of the Meglin Kiddies dance troupe. They appeared with the troupe at its annual Christmas show. Through the Meglin Kiddies, they made their film debut in a 1929 short subject called The Big Revue, where they performed a song-and-dance number called “That’s the good old sunny south”. This was followed by appearances in two Vitaphone shorts the following year: A Holiday in Storyland (featuring Garland’s first on-screen solo) and The Wedding of Jack and Jill. They next appeared together in Bubbles. Their final on-screen appearance came in 1935, in an MGM Technicolor short entitled La Fiesta de Santa Barbara.
The trio had been touring the vaudeville circuit as “The Gumm Sisters” for many years when they performed in Chicago at the Oriental Theater with George Jessel in 1934. He encouraged the group to choose a more appealing name after “Gumm” was met with laughter from the audience. According to theater legend, their act was once erroneously billed at a Chicago theater as “The Glum Sisters”.
By late 1934, the Gumm Sisters had changed their name to the Garland Sisters. Frances changed her name to “Judy” soon after, inspired by a popular Hoagy Carmichael song. The group broke up by August 1935, when Suzanne Garland flew to Reno, Nevada, and married musician Lee Kahn, a member of the Jimmy Davis orchestra playing at Cal-Neva Lodge, Lake Tahoe.
In September 1935, Louis B. Mayer asked songwriter Burton Lane to go to the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles to watch the Garland Sisters’ vaudeville act and to report to him. A few days later, Judy and her father were brought for an impromptu audition at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City. Garland performed “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Eli, Eli”, a Yiddish song written in 1896 and very popular in vaudeville. They immediately signed Garland to a contract with MGM, presumably without a screen test, though she had made a test for the studio several months earlier. The studio did not know what to do with her, as at age thirteen, she was older than the traditional child star, but too young for adult roles.
Her physical appearance was a dilemma for MGM. She was only 4 feet 11.5 inches (151.1 cm), and her “cute” or “girl-next-door” looks did not exemplify the most glamorous persona required of leading ladies of the time. She was self-conscious and anxious about her appearance.
During her early years at the studio, she was photographed and dressed in plain garments or frilly juvenile gowns and costumes to match the “girl-next-door” image created for her. They had her wear removable caps on her teeth and rubberized discs to reshape her nose.
Garland performed at various studio functions and was eventually cast opposite Deanna Durbin in the musical-short Every Sunday. The film contrasted her vocal range and swing style with Durbin’s operatic soprano and served as an extended screen test for the pair, as studio executives were questioning the wisdom of having two girl singers on the roster. Mayer finally decided to keep both actresses, but by that time, Durbin’s option had lapsed and she was signed by Universal Studios.
On November 16, 1935, Garland was in the midst of preparing for a radio performance on the Shell Chateau Hour when she learned that her father had been hospitalized with meningitis and had taken a turn for the worse. Frank Gumm died the following morning at age forty-nine, leaving her devastated at age thirteen. Her song for the Shell Chateau Hour was her first professional rendition of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart“, a song which became a standard in many of her concerts.
Garland came to the attention of studio executives when she sang a special arrangement of “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” to Clark Gable at a birthday party that the studio arranged for the actor. Her rendition was so well regarded that she performed the song in the all-star extravaganza Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), when she sang to a photograph of him.