Mel Torme on three Judy Garland musicals
Once in a while, when I was working with Judy Garland on her ’60s TV variety series, we would sit at the piano together after a day’s shooting. There, with no cameras running and no audience expecting her to belt out one of those big, brassy showstoppers that came to define her, she would sing one of her favorite old songs — ”I’m Nobody’s Baby,” ”Buds Won’t Bud,” or ”Mama’s Gone, Goodbye.” Somehow, by God, there was the exquisite early Judy again, singing softly, tenderly, without artifice. That was the musically magnificent Judy Garland who’s virtually forgotten, the unspoiled young apprentice at MGM, where she made a handful of fine, intimate black-and-white musicals.
Three of these gems have been released on video for the first time: Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Everybody Sing, and Listen, Darling (1937, 1938, and 1938). Produced during the Depression-wracked ’30s, these are perfect examples of sweet, inanely plotted formula fare, the kind of pictures that Louis B. Mayer cried over, replete with good songs, excellent supporting casts, and happy endings — just what the suffering country needed. And there was Judy in the center of it all, gladdening hearts with her many talents.
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, the first of a stream of Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney films, arrived in 1937. Judy sings only one song in this light comedy about a boardinghouse for jockeys: a fun ditty called ”Got a New Pair of Shoes,” and she sings the hell out of it. Chatty and chunky at the age of 15, she breezes her way through this flick, making you want more.
More was on the way: In 1938, Metro released Everybody Sing, with Allan Jones and Fanny Brice. When third-billed Judy is bounced out of Miss Colvin’s School for Young Girls for ”swinging” Mendelssohn’s ”Spring Song,” her parents decide to send her to Europe. But Judy sneaks off the ocean liner at the last minute and manages to get a featured spot in a new Broadway revue — by auditioning in blackface! With much of her baby fat shed, she does a catchy tune, ”Down on Melody Farm,” and reprises that song later in a four-way (Jones, Reginald Gardiner, Lynne Carver, and Judy) comic opera pastiche that’s a bit labored but fun. This was surely a difficult tour de force for Judy, but her innate sense of music, syncopation, and comedic timing pulled her through.
In her second 1938 film, Listen, Darling, Judy plays matchmaker to screen mom Mary Astor and suitors Walter Pidgeon and Alan Hale. She’s particularly fetching and sings (”On the Bumpy Road to Love,” ”Ten Pins in the Sky,” and a poignant ”Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) with more assurance and control than ever. In later life, I used to hear her sing ”Zing!” at parties, going at breakneck speed. This film version is the one that rings true.
The video and audio quality of these cassettes are just as superb as Judy Garland herself in all three of these little treasures. They may not have the Technicolor grandeur and the renown of The Wizard of Oz, but as showcases of one of our greatest talents in her purest form, they perform a wizardry all their own.
Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry: A-
Everybody Sing: B
Listen, Darling: B