June 10, – Judy Garland:
“I was born at the age of 12 on an MGM lot.”
The above quote wasn’t far removed from reality. Her real name, Frances Ethel Gumm, was dropped when she was 12 years old, along with her childhood.
When she was six-years-old, Frances and her older sisters Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia Gumm performed at their father’s movie theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Gumm family moved to Lancaster, California, in 1926, following rumors that her father had made sexual advances towards young male ushers at the movie house. Her father purchased and operated another theater in Lancaster, and her mother began working to get her girls into motion pictures.
They made their film debut in a 1929 short The Big Revue. Their final onscreen appearance was in 1935, in an MGM Technicolor short titled La Fiesta de Santa Barbara.
The Gumm Sisters toured the country in Vaudeville, where performer George Jessel‘s suggestion that they choose a more appealing name than “Gumm” was met with laughter from the audience, and their act was once erroneously billed at a Chicago theater as “The Glum Sisters”.
Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft stated that her mother selected the name Garland when Jessel announced that the trio “looked prettier than a garland of flowers”.
By late 1934, The Gumm Sisters had changed their name to the Garland Sisters. Frances changed her name to “Judy” inspired by a popular Hoagy Carmichael song. In 1935, Louis B. Mayer brought Garland in for an impromptu audition at MGM Studios in Culver City. She was signed to a contract on the spot, presumably without a screen test.
Her appearance was a dilemma for MGM. She was only five feet tall, and her girl-next-door looks didn’t fit the glamorous image required of leading ladies of the era. She was self-conscious and awkward. Her insecurity was made worse by Mayer, who referred to her as his “little hunchback”.
Garland went to school on the MGM lot with the beautiful Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor. Unlike those glamorous girls, Garland was dressed and photographed in juvenile costumes to match the image created for her. They made her wear caps on her teeth and discs to reshape her nose.
She was cast opposite fellow unknown Deanna Durbin in the musical short film Every Sunday (1936). The film contrasted her vocal range and swing style with Durbin’s operatic soprano and served as a sort of screen test for both young performers. Mayer decided to keep both.
Garland sang a special arrangement of You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It) to MGM’s top star Clark Gable at his birthday party at the studio. The studio execs flipped for her performance and she performed the song in the all-star movie Broadway Melody Of 1938 where she sang to a photograph of Gable.
MGM paired Garland with popular Mickey Rooney in the fourth of the Hardy Family film series Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) as a literal girl-next-door to Rooney’s character Andy Hardy, although Hardy’s love interest was played by Lana Turner. Garland and Rooney teamed as lead characters for the first time in Babes In Arms (1939).
Garland, Rooney, and the other young performers were prescribed amphetamines to help them stay awake and keep up with the frantic pace of making one film after another. They were then given barbiturates, so they could sleep. The drugs led to a lifelong struggle with addiction for Garland.
Garland was the right weight for her age, but the studio demanded she diet constantly. She lived with self-doubt throughout her life, despite the successful films and recordings, concerts, awards, critical praise, and love from her fans. Poor Garland needed constant reassurance she was talented and attractive. She resented the hectic schedule at MGM and she felt that the studio stole her youth.
Rooney denied MGM was responsible for her addiction:
“Judy Garland was never given any drugs by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mr. Mayer didn’t sanction anything for Judy. No one on that lot was responsible for Judy Garland’s death. Unfortunately, Judy chose that path.“
Garland would have turned 98 years old today, hopefully she is finally over her childhood.