ByAllanah Faherty, writer at
Senior staff writer | Twitter: @allanahfaherty | Email: [email protected]
Allanah Faherty

In 1939 Judy Garland earned her place as a cinema icon when she appeared as Dorothy Gale in the L. Frank Baum classic The Wizard of Oz. After catapulting into stardom, Garland enjoyed a long and illustrious career which sounds to most like the ultimate dream. Unfortunately, what many people don't know is that behind her rosy cheeks, Judy Garland suffered so badly for her Hollywood career that it ultimately destroyed her.

Early showbiz sensation

The Gumm Sisters with Judy Garland in the middle
The Gumm Sisters with Judy Garland in the middle

Judy Garland was born Francis Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922 to vaudevillian parents. Garland's first on stage appearance came at just 2-and-a-half-years-old when she joined her older sisters, Suzanne and Jimmie on stage at her parents movie theater.

Along with her sisters, Judy appeared as part of The Gumm Sisters (which was later changed to The Garland Sisters), touring and appearing in films until 1935 when Suzanne was married. It was in 1935 that Garland was brought in for an interview at MGM, and the 13-year-old signed on with the studio.

The girl-next-door with body image issues

Garland in 1935/ Source: International Garland Club
Garland in 1935/ Source: International Garland Club

At 13-years-old Garland was a puzzle for the studio who found her too old for child roles, and too young for adult ones. Her tiny 4'11" stature also meant that next to stars like Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, she was destined for 'cute' roles, rather than becoming the glamorous leading lady.

The studio forced her into a girl-next-door image, always photographed in either plain clothing or adorable but juvenile frilly gowns. She was also made to wear caps on her teeth and a rubberized disk to reshape her nose. In voice recordings made before Garland died, she remembered how Louis B. Mayer used to call her "his little hunchback" due to her slightly curved spine, and remark that she looked like "a fat monster."

Beginning of dependence

Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1941
Garland and Mickey Rooney in 1941

In 1937 Garland was paired with a then-17 Mickey Rooney. The pair appeared onscreen in a string of films over the next 11 years. However, throughout this period Judy Garland, and other younger performers, were given uppers and downers to cope with the filming schedule. Writing her memoirs (which she sadly never finished), Garland wrote about how her drug dependence began at the hands of MGM:

"They'd give us pep pills. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills. After four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep pills again. That's the way we worked, and that's the way we got thin. That's the way we got mixed up. And that's the way we lost contact."

MGM's ruthless approach to getting the most out of their young actors was extremely damaging to Garland, something which director Charles Walters certainly agrees with, saying:

"I think it had a very damaging effect on her emotionally for a long time. I think it lasted forever, really."

Despite appearing in her most famous role in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, even this experience was marred with mortifying memories.

If MGM only had a heart

Over 70 years later, The Wizard of Oz is still a much beloved film by children and adults alike. However Judy Garland's role in the film was a struggle for the crew who needed the then-16-year-old to appear as though she were 12. As a result, Garland was given diet pills, her chest was bound, and she was put in a corset to appear smaller. Dorothy Gale's famous gingham dress was chosen specifically for the blurring effect it had on her figure, making her look smaller.

In addition to all of the things changed about Garland's appearance, it's alleged that Louis B. Mayer would also insist the 16-year-old sit on his lap during meetings and would openly fondle her breasts. Sadly, the sexual harassment even spilled on to set, where Garland was propositioned and inappropriately touched by drunk Munchkin actors.

From girl-next-door to leading lady

Following The Wizard of Oz, Garland appeared in more MGM films such as Andy Hardy Meets Debutante and Little Nellie Kelly. She was married for the first time in 1941 at age 19 to David Rose, who was 12 years her senior. She would go on to marry four more times in her short lifetime, and have three children, including Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft.

At age 21, Garland finally began to get more adult and glamorous roles, beginning with the film Presenting Lily Mars, and in 1944 appeared in the wildly successful Meet Me in St. Louis.

A star becomes a supernova

Judy Garland with husband Vincente & daughter Liza
Judy Garland with husband Vincente & daughter Liza

Despite Garland's transition to leading lady, in April 1947 while filming The Pirate, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Judy was placed in a sanitarium, but in July 1947 she made her first suicide attempt.

Later, while filming The Barkleys of Broadway with Fred Astaire in 1948, she began teaming her sleeping medication with pills containing morphine, as well as drinking heavily. After suffering from migraines and being advised to work shorter hours, she was suspended from MGM and replaced by Ginger Rogers. She was suspended again in 1949 while filming Annie Get Your Gun after raising concerns about the harsh director, Busby Berkeley.

After her second suspension, she went back to the hospital and was weaned off her medication, though her dependence pattern soon resurfaced while filming her last film for MGM, Summer Stock. In September 1950, Garland and MGM parted ways after she was suspended for a third time and replaced in the film Royal Wedding.

Post-MGM life

Garland in 1957
Garland in 1957

In 1951 Garland toured Britain and Ireland, singing and reviving the vaudevillian tradition for which she was honored with a Special Tony Award. In 1954 she made a film comeback starring in A Star Is Born for Warner Bros., however her old issues resurfaced and delays led to budget overruns. Although the film was a critical success, Warner Bros. did not make back its cost, despite grossing over $6 million. In 1955, Garland started appearing in TV specials and performing in Las Vegas, making $55,000 a week.

In November 1959, Judy Garland was hospitalized and diagnosed with acute hepatitis. She was told she probably had around five years left to live, however she continued to perform and in 1963 The Judy Garland Show debuted. Despite only lasting one season, the show was nominated for four Emmys.

Health decline and death

Judy Garland one month before her death in May 1969
Judy Garland one month before her death in May 1969

For the next six years, Judy Garland continued touring and making television appearances. Her health still suffered greatly, and despite being cast in the film Valley of the Dolls she was fired in 1967 for missing rehearsals.

In March 1969 she made her final concert appearance in Copenhagen, and shortly after married her fifth husband, Mickey Deans. But despite continuing with performing and being recently married, Judy's mental and physical health was still declining. On June 22nd, 1969 Judy Garland she was found dead in her London home. Her cause of death was ruled as an accidental overdose. She was just 47 years old.

A Hollywood icon

Despite her troubled life, Judy Garland firmly earned her place as a Hollywood icon. Since her death she has been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and has had many, many biographies written about her. Her daughter Lorna Luft wrote about her in her own memoir, which was later adapted into a mini-series, and she was even featured on two US postage stamps.

With such a legacy left behind, it almost seems difficult to believe she could have lead such a sad life away from cameras, though in watching the clip above in which she sings her most famous song, you certainly get somewhat of an insight.

Source: Reddit, Turner Classic Movies, House of Geekery


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