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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: "The [Songs] That [Almost] Got Away"

Joots prepares to unleash her golden voice.

Judy Garland's singing career is indivisible from her acting career. When one hears the name "Judy Garland," it is likely that one will immediately conjure up images of her in the midst of song. With a powerful voice matched by a powerful personality, it is no wonder that the tunes Judy gave us over the course of her career are still ringing in our ears. Some of the most popular songs in film history, and perhaps of all time, were first christened by Joots. Her sad and endearing rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis has caused it to become one of the holiday's most beloved melodies, and her duet "How About You?" with pal Mickey Rooney in Babes on Broadway can bring a round of smiles to even the most maudlin of occasions. However, some of Judy's most popular hits almost never came to be. Now that they are a part of our cultural and musical repertoire, history and life in general would seem incomplete without them. Here a three stories about three impromptu tunes.

1) "Over the Rainbow" is unarguably the most memorable moment from 1939's The Wizard of Oz. For generations, this film has maintained its endearing hold on the public via the tune that every human being, whether young or old, can relate to. We all still dream, still hope, and still possess some corner of our hearts where our youthful innocence takes harbor. Song writer Richard Arlen, one of MGM's greatest musical workhorses, had no idea how memorable his song would be when he wrote it. He got the idea when he stopped his car outside Schwab's Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard and was hypnotized by the brilliant colors of the electric sign. When he teamed up with lyricist E.Y. Harburg, his inspiration took shape in a melody that would transcend time and send little Dorothy Gale (right) all the way to the mystical land of her imaginings: Oz.

But, "Over the Rainbow" almost didn't make the cut! After the initial previews in June of '39, the studio heads at Metro weren't sold on many portions of the film. It had been an arduous one to make, not to mention costly, and after all of the stress, they needed a clean, perfected hit to earn back their investment. First of all, the film was too long. An hour and a half was the acceptable length for a musical comedy or-- as the studio called this piece-- "a musical drama." A few minutes, therefore, had to be shaved. In addition to cutting some of the Wicked Witch's most scintillating and downright evil lines-- which, when screened in London, instigated the rule that no child could attend the horrifying film unattended-- a few odds, ends, corners, and even musical numbers had to be snipped. One Suit suggested that "Over the Rainbow" be cut. After all, it was a melancholy little number that merely delayed Dorothy's voyage to Oz, where all of the real action happened. In addition, having one of the studio's biggest assets singing in a barn surrounded by hay and hogs didn't seem like a keen selling point.

Off to see the Wizard.

When Harburg found out, he was furious! To him and nearly everyone else involved with the picture, Judy's rendering of this song was the most important moment of the fim. Not only did it establish her character, but it prepared the audience for what was to come, acting as a bridge to the unbelievable land where Dorothy would journey. King Vidor, who directed the scene, was called in to wrap up the unfilmed footage when Victor Fleming was called away to pick up Gone with the Wind from the ousted George Cukor. (Ironically, Cukor had been an advisor on Wizard after first director Richard Thorpe was fired and before Fleming was brought in). The last minute switch was kismet. Vidor was an alumni of silent film, and his interpretation of the scene, its poetry, the camera's movement, all lent to the beauty of Judy's longing voice. Out of the black and white of the scene comes the first true color of the film before the tornado ever carries Dorothy to Oz. Surprisingly, it was Louis B. Mayer who stepped up to the plate, convinced that the number had to stay. While he often himself appeared like the Tin Man, the sentimentality and wholesomeness of the song appealed to him. Apparently, he did have a heart. And so, the song stayed, and history was made.

2) "Get Happy" is the singular moment of Summer Stock, and one of the most brilliant moments of Judy's career. When watching the movie today, one often gets bored waiting for this one big scene amidst the drudgery and chaos of the surrounding, back-country plot. In fact, the charming Gene Kelly and the matronly Judy (right) seem like an unlikely fit, which makes their romance very confusing-- a far cry from their more suitable For Me and My Gal days. They perform better apart than together. Gene has his time to shine in his solo dance sequence, but even the incomparable, sexual dancer can't top Judy's pipes. "Get Happy" was the saving grace of the film, and it resulted almost by happenstance.

When Judy began work on the picture, she had picked up a little weight. After obtaining rest and relaxation at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where she had been served three square meals a day, she did not look like the svelte beauty she had been in The Clock or Ziegfeld's Follies. In fact, she looked a great deal older than her 27 years. Being adorned in farm-girl attire only hampered her already less-than-startling appearance. After years of overwork, stress, and drugs, Judy was not in a good place emotionally when she started the film, and was also on the brink of a break with MGM. Going on a crash diet increased her edginess and ill feelings. Insecure, she often called in sick, arrived late, or used any possible delaying tactic to avoid coming to work, for-- as she relayed to musical director Saul Chaplin-- "I'm so ugly and untalented, they're going to find me out!" Director Chuck Walters, a constant collaborator with Judy over the years, was by now used to, if not immune to, her hysterics, and he knew how to work around them. He often distracted Judy with other business to keep her mind off work, knowing that if he could just get her up and in front of the camera, she would do her thing. His ploy often worked. He would tell Judy, "Oh, you look tired. Why don't you go home. But first, could you run through this song once for tomorrow?" Judy would agree, start to sing, and then "Whip, Boom, Pow!" She became the star everyone knew and loved, and Walters would turn the camera on to capture it.


After the film wrapped, the studio watched the initial cut but felt that there was something missing. The movie needed one more big number-- a la Judy, of course-- to seal the deal with viewers. So, Judy was called back from vacation in Carmel to begrudgingly film one more song. Her one condition was that it be "Get Happy," written again by Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler. It was one of her favorites and was an old piece that Arlen had penned back in 1929. When Judy arrived on the set, she looked quite different. Rest in Carmel had served her well! Trim, sexy, and with her swagger back, she looked ready to go! She pre-recorded the vocals for the song with no problem, but she received an attack of the jitters when it came time to call "action." So drugged up that she could barely stand, Walters had to postpone the shoot until the next day, which the inebriated Judy didn't understand. She found the delay unprofessional, not realizing in her mentally unwound state that she was the source. Nonetheless, she arrived the next day sober, on time, and gorgeous. The pro had stepped up her game. Walters, who had been forced to choreograph the sequence himself, put Judy in a black fedora, jacket, and heels, and let her go. Those legs deserve a song of their own! And when Judy tips that hat and saunters down the stage, it becomes the musical moment worth waiting for. Without it, the film wouldn't have remained as famous and beloved as it is today. "Get Happy" would be Judy's last song at MGM as well as one of the pieces played at her funeral.

3) "The Man That Got Away" is yet another Richard Arlen contribution, this time with lyricist Ira Gershwin. Unlike the aforementioned episodes, this song was purposeful from the get go. An important moment in the film A Star is Born, this piece was calculatingly crafted to relate several things: the character Esther Blodgett's talent, which then induces the fascination and passion of Norman Maine (played by James Mason), and a foreshadowing of the doom their relationship is to endure. The movie has many brilliant moments and memorable songs, including the lengthy "I Was Born in a Trunk" sequence, but "Man" is the one that remains synonymous with the picture. In fact, without this song or Judy's pained and intense performance, the film would have crumpled into an obsolete heap next to the original (starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937.)

No, the problem wasn't with the song this time... It was with filming it. It seemed that George Cukor, the director most remembered for his sensitive translations of the female heart, couldn't get this one particular moment right. In fact, he had to film it three times over before everyone, including himself, was satisfied. George adored Judy and was floored time and again by her boundless talent. Her character's painful conversation with Charles Bickford about her husband, Norman, and the emotional disease, obsession, and self-loathing that she can neither comprehend nor help, reveals to the audience a profound truth-- she is talking about herself, the real Judy, who is drowning, and unable to save herself. With such a force at his disposal, Cukor was excited to film the "Man" scene, as he was any musical number with Judy. The first attempt was made on October 21, 1953. Seeing the clip now, it is understandable why it was scrapped. Judy is adorned in an unflattering pink shirt against a pink wall, and she is surrounded by blue decor and musicians in blue suits. The color is garish, and Judy blends right in. The musicians often take precedence over her in the scene, her hair is fairly short and worn down, and the song is abrupt. It starts and it ends. Judy fills the moment with emotion, but it still comes off as anti-climactic. After Jack Warner and Judy's latest hubby Sidney Luft saw the dailies, they asked for a reshoot. Try number two, on October 27, was a bit of an improvement. This time, the instrumental introduction lasts longer. It gives Cukor time to cut away to Norman Maine, seen entering The Downbeat Club and witnessing the rag-tag group of performers and his latest fascination, Esther. The decor is dressed down-- the walls are still pink, but the trimmings are brown and dark. Too dark in fact. And when Judy sings in her now brown dress (as seen above), the audience still has trouble finding her. She looks a sight better than before, her hair half up, but she is still drab. 

 We have a winner!

The scene remained as it was until February of 1954. This time, Cukor attacked with a vengeance. The frumpy wardrobe designed by Mary Ann Nyberg was replaced by a respectable, blue Jean Louis suit-- simple, befitting the character, clean, and elegant. Judy's hair was pulled all the way back from her face, making her appear more youthful and pretty, and Cukor changed the camera angle from center stage to a side shot, more focused on Judy and her piano playing partner (Tom Noonan). The piano figures in as a deliberate prop. Judy moves around it, leans on it, and in one great moment grasps it as she tosses her other arm up in the throes of perfect melody. Another item is infused, for Judy's character is given more humility this time. In previous takes, she had always simply wandered about The Downbeat Bar with her friends before unceremoniously starting to sing. This time, Noonan prods her, "Come on... Take it from the top." Judy then peers down at the music, which makes the moment seem less planned and more serendipitous. Thus her natural, unbridled talent comes across with innocence and not with knowing agenda. With the light in place and in focus on her, she is no longer upstaged by the surrounding musicians, and Judy's accidental songbirg finally comes to life. Cukor too uses the camera to more effect, particularly in pulling back in a long shot during a climactic moment. This time, the greatest triumph is in having all eyes on Judy and her powerful delivery of a painful ballad. It was a sequence necessary to the rest of the film, for-- from this moment-- she has the viewer's sympathy and never lets go.

The almost divine intervention in all three of these films resulted in divine movie moments, and thus timeless, divine movies themselves. Certainly, Judy's voice would have enhanced and carried any film she was in, but the perfection of these three scenes made her work classic and eternal as opposed to merely acceptable. These three are also some of the songs she is most known for, so their absence from cinema would have been a severe detriment to, not only the lady herself, but pop culture in general. As it is, we keep the songs with Judy in our hearts. She is our eternal little girl lost, whom we find again and again in our favorite melodies.

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