[June 10th would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Garland’s performances, leading up to a weekend post on LGBTQ icons.]
On power moves behind the scenes and even more powerful presences on the screen.
Across my more than 11.5 (!) years of researching and writing these blog posts I’ve learned a ton (certainly one of the main reasons why I continue to do it; my hope that y’all are learning too is another), enough in fact that I can break down the things I’ve learned into sub-categories. One of the more striking and telling such sub-categories would have to be the things I’ve learned about famous women across our cultural landscape, and more exactly about the layers to their careers and successes that have been too often left out of our collective memories and narratives of them. That would definitely apply to Lucille Ball and her truly groundbreaking work as a television producer (seriously, Star Trek!), and I’d say it applies as well to the many layers of Marilyn Monroe’s life and career (which I traced in that whole weeklong series) beyond the sex symbol iconography. And I hope that this week’s series of posts has already reflected things I’ve learned about Judy Garland’s acting career and performances that have likewise expanded my sense of this already-iconic-but-perhaps-in-a-too-limited-way cultural figure.
Like Ball and Monroe and so many other powerful women, Garland’s career and legacies went way beyond acting, and indeed beyond performing on screen at all. In 1961, the same year in which she made the triumphant return to film acting in Judgment at Nuremberg about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, she settled a longstanding contract dispute with CBS and went on to sign two significant deals with the network: first for a series of stand-alone specials in 1962-63; and then a $24 million offer (well over $100 million in 2020s numbers, and thus described as “the biggest talent deal in TV history”) to produce and star in a weekly series. Titled simply The Judy Garland Show, that series debuted on September 29, 1963; it only aired for one season (26 episodes), not least because CBS decided to schedule it against NBC’s Western mega-hit Bonanza, but The Judy Garland Show would go on to receive four Emmy nominations, and in any case reflects Garland’s power behind the scenes as well as the power and draw of her name and presence.
And, through her, so many other powerful names and presences. Here are just some of the guest stars across the show’s first three months, from that late September premiere through the end of 1963: Barbra Streisand (nominated for an Emmy for her appearance), Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Mickey Rooney, Peggy Lee, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, and Mel Tormé. This wasn’t just a late-night talk show format where the stars would chat for a few minutes, either—it was a groundbreaking performance and sketch show, at least somewhat akin to (but of course preceding by more than a decade) Saturday Night Live. I don’t know enough about television history to say with any definitiveness whether The Judy Garland Show had an influence on such later shows—but I do know that its general absence from our collective memories should not in any way be taken as proof that it wasn’t influential or didn’t leave such a lasting legacy. When it comes to the lives and legacies of powerful and seemingly already famous showbiz women like Judy Garland, after all, we still have a lot to learn.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Garland works or moments you’d highlight?