Hailed as one of the most iconic actresses of all time, Judy Garland is synonymous with Hollywood’s Golden Era. Starting out as a child vaudeville performer named Frances Gumm, Garland’s expressive, wide-eyed face has since appeared in everything from romantic dramas to high-energy musicals, including frequent collaborations with Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly.
While The Wizard of Oz launched Garland into superstardom as a teenager, true fans know some of her most lauded performances came later in life. She received two Academy Award nominations, for A Star is Born (1954) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). In honor of Garland’s 100th birthday, A.frame is revisiting some of the icon's best work.
At just 14 years old, Garland made her film debut in football musical Pigskin Parade, starring as the hillbilly quarterback’s little sister, Sairy, who’s eager to show off her musical talents. Though she doesn’t appear until 42 minutes into the film, Garland steals the show with three numbers, displaying a mature singing voice far beyond her years. At the time, most of the reviews of Pigskin Parade singled her out to praise her performance.
Garland’s most renowned film, The Wizard of Oz, came early in her career, catapulting Garland to the ranks of film legends. Playing Dorothy Gale, the teenager whisked away from rural Kansas into the mythical land of Oz, Garland nails her first feature with a wide-eyed innocence while leading a cast that’s much older than her. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two: Best Original Song for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as well as Best Original Score by Herbert Stothart. But it’s Garland’s innate sense of empathy and curiosity that imbues The Wizard of Oz with a sense of child-like wonder that remains to this day.
Garland’s first major role as an adult, For Me and My Gal also features the screen debut of Gene Kelly — the first of many collaborations between the two actors. A film built around Garland’s vaudeville origins, the musical follows two actors, Jo and Harry (Garland and Kelly), who dream of playing the Palace Theatre on Broadway and getting married. But, on the verge of World War I, their plans are dashed when Harry receives a draft notice. In 1951, Garland would go on to live the dream of her character Jo, performing vaudeville at the Palace Theatre in “Judy at the Palace” (for which she would eventually receive a special Tony Award).
The last of Garland’s many on-screen collaborations with Mickey Rooney, Garland is once again the musical’s muse in this adaptation of the 1930 Gershwin musical of the same name. She stars as Ginger Gray, the local Western postmistress who is the object of prep school philanderer Danny Churchill (Mickey Rooney)’s affections; the two must eventually put on an Old West show to save their college from closure. Despite a rocky environment on-set, Garland is in her element in Girl Crazy, gracefully square dancing with cowboys in between singing standards like “But Not For Me.”
Christmas carolers have Garland to thank for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which was introduced to the world in Meet Me in St. Louis. The film’s set was also the meeting place for Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, who later got married and had daughter Liza Minnelli, a star in her own right. But Meet Me in St. Louis is a holiday classic, focusing on the Smith family, who are all dealing with their own troubles ahead of Christmas. Garland stars as daughter Esther, pining for “The Boy Next Door” as she delivers hit songs with a wistfulness and innocence only accentuated by her signature red lipstick and defined eyebrows.
Garland’s first starring nonmusical role, The Clock proves that she’s more than just a singer. Another Minnelli collaboration, Garland plays New York office worker Alice who meets a soldier Joe (Robert Walker) in Penn Station. The only problem? He’s on just 48 hours of leave in the city. Garland’s emotional moment of silence during the film, trying to enjoy a world in which she could be married to her love, is a poignant scene for an actress that had previously been thought of as just a voice.
In MGM’s Technicolor follow-up to Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland plays an Ohioan who goes out West and joins a group of Harvey Girl waitresses, showing off her comedic chops along the way. The Harvey Girls features a stacked cast — the enemy “dance hall girls” are led by Angela Lansbury — and the film won an Academy Award for the classic song “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and it’s some of Garland at her best.
Fans either love or hate The Pirate, the troubled-yet-gaudy musical where Garland, playing a girl set to marry the cruel town mayor, dreams of being swept away by a legendary pirate. But Gene Kelly, playing an actor in town with the traveling circus, pretends to be exactly that. Once Garland figures him out, the two basically compete to out-act each other for the rest of the film. With songs by Cole Porter and Minnelli directing once again, controversial or not, The Pirate is a must-watch for any Garland fan.
Featuring Garland’s only filmed collaboration with Fred Astaire, Easter Parade was a huge commercial and critical success, winning an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. Originally, the part of Don was supposed to go to Gene Kelly, but he broke his ankle; the part was then offered to Astaire, who despite retiring two years earlier was ready to get back in the business. Astaire’s Don bets his friends he can make a star out of anyone, stumbling across Garland’s Hannah. Though Astaire and Garland’s other collaborations failed to work out due to her declining health, the duo’s chemistry made for some of their most iconic songs
Production of Summer Stock, Garland’s final role with MGM, was complicated by the star’s struggles with mental health and addiction. But Garland, playing a farmer with a knack for theatrics, still manages to summon up her signature flair, nailing complex routines alongside Gene Kelly like “The Portland Fancy.” While screening the film, audiences even clapped for Garland’s numbers as if they were watching a live show.
After four years away from film, Garland returns to the screen with one of her greatest performances of all time in A Star is Born, the first of three remakes of the classic 1937 musical. Working with then-husband Sid Luft, Garland co-produced the project through the couple’s own production company. Playing Esther Blodgett, an aspiring singer plucked from the masses by Norman Maine (James Mason), Garland explores semi-biographical numbers like “Swanee” alongside the career-defining “The Man that Got Away.” Through a confrontation with her own Hollywood trauma, Garland delivers an acting tour-de-force that nabs her an Academy Award nomination—her first.
Garland is only on-screen for 18 minutes in Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer’s three-hour courtroom drama about the Nazi war crime trials. But, playing Irene Hoffman, a woman terrified to testify against the Nazis, Garland breaks down on the stand in a powerful performance that marked her first all-dramatic role since The Clock. In quite a different role from her typical fare, Garland earned her second and final Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actress, but ultimately lost to Rita Moreno in West Side Story.
Garland’s final film, released six years before her death, has since turned out to be a somewhat-meta swan song. Her character, Jenny Bowman, isn’t such a stretch for the actress; she’s a popular singer dealing with intense problems off the stage. But her titular number, “I Could Go On Singing,” gives Garland the chance to do what she’s best at: over-the-top comedy mixed with real emotion, emphasizing her powerful stage presence. It’s a chance to see Garland in concert, one last time.