A Tribute to Judy on Her 100th Birthday: The Greatest Actor/Singer/Dancer

By Cory Franklin

June 10, 2022

Friday is the 100th anniversary of Judy Garland’s birth. The young girl, born Frances Gumm in rural Minnesota, came with her family to Hollywood to chase the glittery show-business dream.

Where most failed, she succeeded, and more than succeed, she became a legend and the greatest multitalented actor of our era. It came at the expense of her personal life, but no one, before or since, has combined the gift for acting singing and dancing as well as she did.

How good was she? Her inestimable talents were evident in live performances, television, and recordings (her legendary 1961 album “Judy at Carnegie Hall” was the Grammy-award winning album of the year). But her forte was cinema.  In the 1940’s, she was the most profitable asset of MGM, Hollywood’s biggest studio. In her films she sang five solo songs that appear in the American Film Institute list of 100 greatest movie songs – more than any other performer. This, of course, includes the AFI #1 song, “Over the Rainbow,” generally considered the greatest film song of all time. She easily could have had several more on the list – among her memorable songs not in the top 100 were “Easter Parade”, “You Made Me Love You” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”

While not thought of as a dancer, she matched, step for step, some of movies’ greatest dancers including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ray Bolger.

After she danced with Sammy Davis Jr. (another superb dancer and singer, but a meh actor) on his 1960s television show, they were so impressive together he asked her to make an encore performance. Only brief flashes of their dancing together still exist on YouTube, but it is clear she was an upper-echelon dancer.

Though nominated twice for an Academy Award, she never won. Of course, her performance in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is one of the most iconic in the history of cinema. She made highly profitable dreck for MGM in those “let’s put on a show” movies with Mickey Rooney that didn’t showcase her acting. But when given a real chance to act, she was superb in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), “The Clock” (1945), and late in her career, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) for which she earned an Oscar nomination.

The transcendent performance of her film career was “A Star Is Born” (1954).

There have been three other versions of that movie, all of which had formidable actors in the female lead: Janet Gaynor, Barbra Streisand and most recently Lady Gaga. They were all good to great, but none of them could match Judy, who demonstrated perhaps the greatest display of acting, singing and dancing by one performer in a movie. Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington called it “a portrayal of almost unbelievable intensity.”

She was considered a shoo-in for the Academy Award that year, so much so that television cameras were stationed in her hospital room during the awards she could not attend because she was about to deliver a baby. In arguably the biggest upset in Oscar history, she lost to Grace Kelly for Best Actress. Groucho Marx called it the “the biggest robbery since Brinks.”  Judy took it with equanimity, saying she got her real award – her newborn son. Compounding the felony, to shorten A Star is Born, Warner Brothers (she had been unceremoniously let go by MGM) cut and discarded whole scenes. Today there are no publicly available prints of the complete classic.

In terms of multifaceted talents, who can compare with the versatility of Judy Garland?

Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Ginger Rogers come to mind.  But the first two were not really dancers and the last was not a singer. Perhaps Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge might have matched Judy if they weren’t hindered by Hollywood’s racial barriers.

On the male side, Jimmy Cagney, a great actor and an excellent dancer, couldn’t sing a lick.  Gene Kelly was a nonpareil dancer and a decent actor but wasn’t a great singer. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby? Voices to be sure, but neither was the actor nor dancer Judy was.

Today’s generation of actors have not gone through the rigorous training, refinement of skills and winnowing process of the bygone studio system. Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga are considerable talents, but none has a resume approaching that of Judy. Ironically, the closest multivalent might have been her daughter, Liza Minelli.  In Cabaret (1972), Liza demonstrated her mother’s acting, singing and dancing chops. But Liza might be the first to admit she was no Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Judy had chronic problems with amphetamines and barbiturates the studio prescribed – amphetamines to keep her weight down and maintain the grueling pace at MGM, barbiturates to counteract the amphetamines. She drank excessively and had five difficult marriages. A victim of show business pressures, she died more than 50 years ago, far too young.

Most people today, if they are familiar with her at all, know her only in black and white as the orphan farm girl transported by a Kansas cyclone to colorful Oz.

But on the centenary of her birth, her talent and excellence bear mention. Do yourself a favor, catch one of her movies.

Judy Garland was the real deal. And we shall not see her like again.

Dr. Cory Franklin

Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years. An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.