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Judy Garland at 100: A starter guide beyond the Yellow Brick Road

Judy Garland at home in 1944.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
Judy Garland at home in 1944.

It's safe to say The Wizard of Oz has been an entry point to Judy Garland for many generations. It's hard to imagine it any other way; encountering the movie as a child could almost be a rite of passage, and Garland's performance as Dorothy remains indelibly embedded in popular culture more than 80 years later.

But the powerhouse entertainer born Frances Ethel Gumm famously (and luckily, for us) had so much more to give audiences over the course of her relatively short and tumultuous life. Her musical catalog is stacked with songs she introduced or made her own, and they aren't all "Over the Rainbow." (One among them has become a certified Christmas classic.) In adulthood, she'd garner Oscar nominations and Grammy wins, and shine in performances alongside other contemporary greats, like Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis, Jr. And her artistry, vulnerability, and perseverance under the unforgiving glare of the industry and public eye firmly established her as a queer icon.

Though she died at 47 in 1969 from what was ruled an accidental barbiturate overdose, she's remained in the public consciousness through biopics (including 2019's Judy, which earned Renée Zellweger her second Oscar), movie and TV show needle drops, drag queens, and even Tik Tok.

And so in 2022, Judy Garland endures, for a myriad of reasons beyond The Wizard of Oz. This month marks the centennial of her birth – the perfect occasion for the Garland-curious to finally dive into her work and unpack what made her so special, then and now. Movie retrospectives are happening, and YouTube has a plethora of clips to comb through; here's a guide to help jumpstart you on your journey beyond the yellow brick road.

The beginning: little girl, big voice

Every Sunday (1936)

By the time Garland was signed to a contract with MGM Studios in 1935 at the young age of 13, she'd already been in show business for almost her entire life, having worked the vaudeville circuit in an act alongside her two older siblings, performing as the Gumm Sisters. This short film catches her on the precipice of stardom, showcasing her powerful vibrato and effervescent stage presence via a song written specifically for her, "The Americana." Fun fact: It was designed by the studio as a screen test for the executives to decide whether to keep Garland or her co-star, Deanna Durbin, a classically trained opera singer. Ultimately, Garland would stay on and Durbin would sign with Universal Studios.

A star is born

By 1946, a decade into her tenure at MGM, the 24-year-old Garland had made more than 20 films. They feature wonderful performances by her, but also come with asterisks for those who may be new to her work and/or to the rhythms of classic filmmaking in general. Like many musicals of its era, Strike Up the Band primarily exists to string a bunch of rousing numbers together, which may or may not be your bag. And like many performers of her era, Garland's legacy does include unfortunate instances of blackface, in Everybody Sing and Babes In Arms.

Start with these signature roles from her MGM years instead:

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

She had many peaks throughout her career, and this is one of them. Garland plays Esther Smith, one of the eldest daughters in a prominent family living in St. Louis at the beginning of the 20th century. Through modern eyes, it's a movie with very low stakes drama – the primary source of conflict is the family's displeasure with the news they'll be uprooted from their hometown to move to New York City, where a new job awaits the father, played by Leon Ames. But to paraphrase Liza Minnelli, Garland's oldest daughter, it's all about the feelings conveyed. And here, in one of her early transitions away from child roles, Garland give us all the feelings as an assertive, vivacious young woman determined to stay in St. Louis and catch the eye of the clueless boy next door.

Easter Parade (1948)

Try to ignore the awkward age gap between Garland and her onscreen love interest Fred Astaire (23 years!) and enjoy their chemistry as a song-and-dance team in their only onscreen pairing. Astaire plays Don Hewes, a vaudeville star whose girlfriend and dance partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) breaks the news that she's leaving him to pursue solo stardom. (This occurs on Easter Sunday, hence the title.) Hoping to make Nadine jealous, he hires chorus girl Hannah Brown (Garland) and vows to turn her into a star. The songs were written by Irving Berlin, and standouts include the silly tramp number "A Couple of Swells" and the torch song "Better Luck Next Time."

Summer Stock (1950)

By all accounts, Garland's life was a shambles and her behavior behind the scenes erratic during production of this movie, her last before she was fired by MGM. Yet that's imperceptible here, because she's as plucky and game as ever, playing Jane, a farm owner who allows her sister's theater troupe to rehearse in her barn. (Why yes, this is quite literally a barnyard musical.) Gene Kelly is her co-star, and Garland holds her own alongside him on the dance floor. And of course, there's the oft-referenced highlight: That black fedora and tuxedo jacket, and Judy slinking along to the irresistible "Get Happy."

The drama queen

The Clock (1945)

It was extremely rare for a Garland performance not to call upon her to belt at least one tune, but she could sell a straight performance just as well as she could a song. In The Clock, she plays a woman who meets and falls in love with a soldier, played by Robert Walker, who's on 48-hour leave in New York City. As directed by Vincente Minnelli, the movie effectively captures the whirlwind romance and tension that grows out of their initial meet-cute in the middle of Penn Station, and Garland imbues the role with a quiet, radiating warmth.

This was her second collaboration with Minnelli (following Meet Me in St. Louis) and by this point they were already romantically involved; they'd marry the same year this movie was released. The director's admiration of Garland is evident in the way he frames her soft, ethereal close-ups.

A Star Is Born (1954)

Versions of A Star Is Born have come before and after Garland's turn, but this remains the definitive iteration, perhaps because it so closely parallels aspects of its star's life. Here she plays Esther Blodgett, a talented singer-turned movie star whose career and marriage are threatened by the presence of an addiction – except said addiction is not her own, but that of her alcoholic husband, the fading screen idol Norman Maine (James Mason). This is top-tier Garland, a performance steeped in pathos and vulnerability that will shake you to your core; she pours every fiber of her being into this tragic character, whether she's belting an indelible torch ballad, working up a sweat in a 15-minute showstopping medley, or describing the helpless, lonely feeling of loving someone who's slowly self-destructing before your eyes.

Judy in retrospect

Judy at Carnegie Hall (1961)

This live album has been called "the greatest night in show business history" for a reason. It's Garland, following a particularly dark period in her life, flourishing in one of the only environments where she ever seemed truly at peace – live, unfiltered, on a stage, with her audience. And the audience adores her; you can hear it in their effusive laughs whenever she tells a self-deprecating joke and in their rapturous chants for encores. Her voice, more rugged and raw than in her younger years, sounds fabulous, and as she moves through her hits and beloved standards, each one is reimagined in the process. "Over the Rainbow" has never sounded more achingly wistful than it does here; "The Man That Got Away" somehow feels even bigger and more unstoppable than it did in A Star Is Born. You will listen once, and then, surely, you'll want to listen again, and again.

"Judy Sings Lena Sings Judy," The Judy Garland Show (1963)

"Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again," The Judy Garland Show (1963)

The Judy Garland Show was short-lived – it was canceled after one season – but there are countless gems to be found streaming online. Two of the best moments find Garland dueting with another powerhouse female vocalist, Lena Horne and then-newcomer Barbra Streisand. In the former, the legends take turns singing each other's biggest hits, and it's an utter delight to see how their styles contrast, like Horne's slinky, exaggerated take on "Meet Me in St. Louis" ("I didn't know it was a sexy song!" Garland exclaims while bowling over with laughter) and Garland's hep vibrato over "Honeysuckle Rose." When they come together in unison for a spirited rendition of Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin's standard "Love," the energy is so high it can hardly be contained.

And then, of course, there's the Babs. Mashing up "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," their voices complement each other beautifully – Streisand's clean and clear vocals dance lightly over Judy's more guttural tones for most of the song, but then their bravados meld together in a triumphant climax. It's been called a passing of the torch, as it were, from one (gay) icon to the next, and everything about it is perfect.

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Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.