Top Ten Judy Garland Films
Judy Garland was a talent unlike any other. An expressive singer of remarkable vocal power, she was also a likable actress of emotional depth and fragility. Unable to do anything halfway, there has never been anyone quite like her. Born to a vaudeville family, Judy was performing onstage from the time she was a small child and was still barely a teenager when she was signed to MGM. It wasn't long before this remarkable teen star began earning attention and praise for her distinctive voice. Only 4'11, Judy had a voice more mature than her years and larger than her frame, while being more fully capable of commanding an audience than performers twice her size.
But the true magic of Judy Garland was not just the sheer power of her voice and presence but also her innate vulnerability and sincerity. Struggling with addiction and insecurity since her teenage years, Judy's personal life was often a mixture of great joy and great despair, all of which informed her heartfelt performances. Although Judy tragically passed away at the untimely age of 47, her legendary performances, both in her live concerts and on film, continue to live on. If you're just now discovering the work of Judy Garland, it's high time for you to experience the distinctive star power of one of Hollywood's first teenage stars, who continues to be known as one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
Keep in mind that I chose the order of these top ten films by considering their importance in Judy’s overall career, as well as the size/importance of her role in them. I also took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Judy Garland film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top Ten Judy Garland Films
- The Wizard of Oz
- Meet Me in St. Louis
- A Star Is Born
- The Clock
- Summer Stock
- For Me and My Gal
- The Harvey Girls
- The Pirate
- Strike Up The Band
- In The Good Old Summertime
1. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
The only choice for number one on a Judy Garland top ten, The Wizard of Oz is the film that made Judy Garland a star and remains one of the most influential and beloved movies ever made. Based on L. Frank Baum’s classic novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this big-budget musical fantasy was a bit of an anomaly in the studio era and a fantasy film of this scale would not be attempted again for decades. It tells the story of Dorothy Gale (Judy), an ordinary Kansas farm girl who, along with her dog, Toto, is accidentally locked out of her family’s storm cellar when a tornado strikes. Forced to take shelter in her family’s farmhouse during the storm, Dorothy realizes after the storm passes that her house has been magically transported to the fantastical Land of Oz. She also discovers that when she landed in Oz, her house happened to land on the villainous Wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly. This incites cheers from the locals, but wrath from the Witch’s equally evil sister, known only as The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Guided by the angelic Glinda, the Witch of the North (Billie Burke), Dorothy is given the Witch of the East’s powerful ruby slippers and is sent off on the Yellow Brick Road to find the legendary Wizard of Oz in the hopes that he will have the power to send her back home. Featuring an Oscar-winning score, groundbreaking special effects, incredible costumes by Adrian, and a perfect cast of actors,The Wizard of Oz is a truly magical film. Directed primarily by Victor Fleming (who split his time between directing this film and Gone with the Wind), The Wizard of Oz, actually, went through five directors before filming was completed, including George Cukor and King Vidor. In fact, King Vidor was the one who finished the film, directing all of the movie’s Kansas sequences, including Judy’s iconic rendition of “Over the Rainbow” (the song went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song and quickly became Judy’s trademark). Out of respect for Victor Fleming, Vidor actually, refused to take credit for his work on the film until after Fleming’s death.
2. "Meet Me In St. Louis" (1944)
Based on the novel by Sally Benson, this perennial favorite marks the first time Judy would work with director (and future husband) Vincente Minnelli. Set in the early 1900s, Meet Me in St. Louis follows a year in the life of the Smiths, a typical middle-class family living in the St. Louis suburbs. The family consists of Anna and Alonzo Smith, along with their five children: Lon Jr., their oldest and only son, Rose, the eldest daughter, the two youngest girls, Agnes and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and the teenage Esther (Judy), who currently has a growing obsession with the handsome boy next door. Also, sharing the family's large Victorian house are Anna’s charming father and the family’s longtime maid, Katie. A delightful period musical filled with memorable songs, Meet Me in St. Louis serves as a nostalgic love letter to life in the 1900s. Some of the film’s musical numbers are true to the period, such as, “Skip To My Lou” and “Under The Bamboo Tree”, while others were written specifically for the film, such as, the now-classic “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song”. During production, Vincente Minnelli went to great lengths to make sure the film was as historically accurate as possible, even recreating author Sally Benson’s childhood home down to the last detail and taking many of the film’s costumes directly from 1900s Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. The book on which the film is based was, actually, inspired by the real experiences of author Sally Benson’s family. However, even though the character of Tootie is based on Benson, herself (“Tootie” was her childhood nickname), many of Tootie’s exploits in the film were done by Benson’s older sister, Agnes, in reality. Although the 21-year-old Judy was, initially, nervous about accepting yet another teenage role to be in this beautiful film, she would later cite Esther Smith as one of her all-time favorite roles.
3. "A Star Is Born" (1954)
A musical remake of the 1937 film of the same name, A Star Is Born is the second of four versions of the story that would eventually be made over the years and the very first to incorporate music as a major focus of the narrative. Originally billed as her comeback film after 4 years away from the screen, A Star Is Born, actually, marks the beginning of the end of Judy’s film career. She would only act in 4 more films (three live-action and one animated) before her untimely death in 1969. The film tells the story of aspiring singer Esther Blodgett (Judy), who has been making a living performing at various cabarets, bars, and benefits. At one particular benefit, she happens to meet famous actor Norman Maine (James Mason) when he drunkenly wanders on stage while she’s performing. She helps him save face by successfully passing off his drunken cameo as an intentional part of the act. Grateful for what Esther’s done, Norman reaches out to get to know her better and quickly discovers what an incredible singer she is. Esther claims that her greatest dream is to have her own song on the radio but, Norman tells her that she has the talent to dream bigger and encourages her to pursue a career in movie musicals. Thanks to Norman’s status in Hollywood, he’s able to secure a screen test for Esther and sets her on the road to becoming a great star. However, Norman has his own demons to work through and his years of binge drinking are about to catch up with him, just as Esther’s star begins to rise. Directed by George Cukor, A Star Is Born serves as a fitting tribute to Judy’s talent as a performer, both as an actress and a singer (earning her an Oscar nomination in the process). Originally, Cukor's cut of A Star Is Born was 181 minutes, but studio executives took it upon themselves to make a 154 minute cut without Cukor’s consent. In more recent years, most of the lost footage has been restored with the exception of a small plot point early in the film which is recreated with audio and still photos in most versions of the film you’ll find today.
4. "The Clock" (1945)
Reuniting Judy with her Meet Me in St. Louis director, Vincente Minnelli, The Clock marks Judy’s very first non-musical role. This simple romantic drama stars Judy as Alice Mayberry, an ordinary girl living in NYC whose life is changed forever when she accidentally trips over a soldier’s foot at Penn Station. The trip ends up breaking the heel off of Alice’s shoe and the soldier (Robert Walker) gallantly offers to help her get it fixed. This soldier’s name is Joe Allen and it turns out that he’s on 48-hour leave from the army. He tells Alice that he’s never been to NYC before and has absolutely no idea what to do with his time. So, when Joe offers to walk her home, Alice agrees and helpfully points out some notable landmarks on the way. But, this simple meeting between two strangers will quickly grow into a love that neither of them ever expected. Although set in New York City, the film was, actually, shot entirely on the MGM backlot, recreating NYC with painstaking accuracy, including an immense photo-realistic reproduction of Penn Station. Although Judy was going through her own substance abuse problems during production of The Clock, it was actually Robert Walker who needed help staying sober on camera. In the middle of divorce proceedings from his wife, Jennifer Jones, the split sent Walker into a downward spiral he never quite recovered from. Judy would often have to sober him up the night before so, he would be ready to shoot in the morning. To her credit, Judy gives a touching and vulnerable performance as Alice, once and for all proving her talent as a great dramatic actress. Judy had, actually, asked specifically for a non-musical role to grant her a small break from the more grueling rehearsal schedules of her musical films. Judy was, also, responsible for the hiring of Vincente Minnelli. After she didn’t get along with the film’s original director, Fred Zinnemann, she requested that Minnelli take over. Working on The Clock together helped rekindle their earlier romance and the two were engaged by the time production had finished.
5. "Summer Stock" (1950)
This cute breezy musical marked Judy's third pairing with the amazing Gene Kelly and would prove to be her last film at MGM studios. Judy plays the role of Jane Falbury, a simple farmer who has been living and working on her family’s ancestral farm her entire life. She’s been attempting to pay off the farm’s debt and she, finally, feels like she’s making some headway when her fiancé’s father helps her buy a much-needed tractor. However, the same day she comes home with her tractor, Jane discovers an entire NYC theatre troupe has descended on (and taken over) her quiet farm. After a few minutes of confusion, Jane realizes that the troupe belongs to her little sister, Abigail (Gloria DeHaven), and her boyfriend, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly). Apparently, Abigail has taken up acting and is set to star in the troupe’s current production (which Joe is directing). Since they needed a cheap venue for their play, Abigail took it upon herself to volunteer her sister’s barn. Joe was under the impression that Abigail had gotten her sister’s blessing beforehand and immediately apologizes when he realizes they weren’t, actually, invited. However, his troupe is in desperate need of a venue so, he pleads with Jane to let them stay anyway. Reluctantly, she agrees but, only if the troupe agrees to help with the farm’s chores. However, having a bunch of New York City actors working on her farm may not turn out the way Jane expects. Without question, Summer Stock’s most famous musical number is Judy’s iconic solo number “Get Happy”. Surprisingly, the number was, actually, added last minute after the filmmakers realized that they needed a show-stopping number for the film’s finale. “Get Happy” ended up being shot months after the rest of the film was completed and because the stunning number stands out so much visually from the rest of the film, many viewers assumed it was taken from another movie. However, it was only the number’s sexy costume (featuring a black tuxedo jacket, fedora, and stockings) that had been intended to be used in another film. It had previously been used for a deleted song in the movie Easter Parade but, when the number was cut out, Charles Walters (the director of both films) remembered the striking costume and decided to use it to even greater effect in this number.
6. "For Me And My Gal" (1942)
Directed by Busby Berkeley, this patriotic musical drama marks the very first time Judy was given the chance to play an “adult” role rather than a teenager. Set in the 1910s, the film was inspired by the true life story of vaudeville actors Harry Palmer and Jo Hayden. In the film, Harry (Gene Kelly) and Jo (Judy) meet on the vaudeville circuit and realize they could have the makings of a great duo act if they joined forces. As the duo Palmer and Hayden, they do enjoy some success and it seems like they may, finally, realize their mutual dream of playing the Palace Theatre in NYC. However, the start of World War I could change everything. For Me and My Gal was not only Judy’s first film opposite Gene Kelly, it was Kelly’s film debut. Already an accomplished Broadway actor, Kelly was forever grateful to Judy for helping smooth his transition into onscreen acting. The two would form a lifelong friendship that saw them through 3 film pairings (all of which are on this list). Although director Busby Berkeley is famous for his big production numbers, For Me and My Gal is an uncharacteristically small-scale musical, with all of the numbers done in a realistic theatrical style. Even the film’s songs are all contemporary to its 1910s time period (including, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and the film’s title song). Originally, the more established film actor George Murphy was intended to play Harry Palmer, but when Kelly was cast instead, he was switched to the smaller role of Jimmy Metcalf (Jo’s original vaudeville partner). Hilariously, early test audiences still ended up rooting for Murphy’s character to end up with Jo so, the film was recut to lessen Murphy’s role and make Harry more sympathetic.
7. "The Harvey Girls" (1946)
Based on the novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Harvey Girls was inspired by stories about the real Harvey House waitresses of the Old West. Set in the late 1800s, this Western musical stars Judy as Susan Bradley. Susan is traveling on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to the Western town of Sandrock, Arizona to marry the man she’s been corresponding with by mail after answering his personal ad in the paper. Also on the train to Sandrock are a group of “Harvey Girls”, new waitresses for a Harvey House restaurant that will soon be opening in the town. When the optimistic Susan arrives in Sandrock and meets her older-than-expected fiancé, she immediately discovers that he didn’t even write the letters that were sent to her at all. Apparently, their entire engagement was, actually, a prank orchestrated by the local saloon owner, Ned Trent (John Hodiak). The engagement is mutually called off, but rather than run back home in defeat, Susan decides to stay in Sandrock as a Harvey Girl. However, not everyone in Sandrock is happy to see a civilized Harvey House opening up in their Wild Western town. One of The Harvey Girls' biggest production numbers, also, proved to be its most popular song: the Oscar-winning “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”. The song ended up spawning multiple cover versions with Johnny Mercer’s cover topping the Billboard charts at #1 for 7 straight weeks. In real-life, the Harvey Houses were established by Fred Harvey in 1870 and were made to provide clean and inexpensive food/lodging for travelers crossing the West by train. Although The Harvey Girls was shot on location in Monument Valley and Victorville, CA, both Sandrock and the Harvey House set were inspired by the Harvey House in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which still stands today as a National Historic Landmark and recently reopened as a working hotel.
8. "The Pirate" (1948)
Based on the play by S.N. Behrman, this unique swashbuckling musical comedy reunited Judy with her For Me and My Gal co-star, Gene Kelly, as well as, director Vincente Minnelli (her then-husband). Featuring a score by Cole Porter, the movie stars Judy as Manuela Alva, a young woman born and raised in the small town of Calvados in the Caribbean. For many years, Manuela has been obsessed with tales of the legendary pirate Macoco (also known as “Mack the Black”) and secretly dreams that the great pirate will one day appear to take her away for a life of excitement at sea. However, in reality, Manuela is engaged to the town’s mayor, Don Pedro, who despises the sea and plans to spend the rest of his days in quiet Calvados. Although Manuela doesn’t love Don Pedro, she knows he’s a sensible match that will bring great wealth and status to her family. While getting fitted for her wedding dress in the city of Port Sebastian, Manuela meets Serafin (Gene Kelly), the leader of a group of traveling players. Serafin is immediately taken with Manuela, but both her love for Macoco and her engagement prevent her from showing the slightest bit of interest in a lower-class actor. But, unbeknownst to Manuela, her dream of finding Mack the Black may be closer than she believes. In the original stage production of The Pirate, the lead roles of Manuela and Serafin were, actually, played by legendary husband/wife acting team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (the namesakes of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway). MGM had bought the rights to the play many years earlier with the intention of making a film version with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, but that version never manifested. When Judy and her husband saw the play on Broadway, Minnelli fell in love with it and, upon discovering MGM already owned the rights, immediately signed up to direct a film musical adaptation with Judy in the lead. Although The Pirate didn’t do very well at the box office during its initial release, it has since developed a bit of a cult following, thanks to its uniquely stylized and tongue-in-cheek tone.
9. "Strike Up The Band" (1940)
Directed by Busby Berkeley, Strike Up The Band was the 5th movie to pair Judy opposite her close friend Mickey Rooney. The film was intended to capitalize on the success of their earlier pairing, Babes in Arms, starting a trend of so-called “backyard musical” films that the teenage stars would continue to appear in for a few more years. Strike Up The Band features Rooney in the role of Jimmy Connors, a high school drummer who is tired of playing the same old boring songs in the school band. So, with help from his best friend, Mary Holden (Judy), Jimmy manages to convince the principal to let them form a dance band to perform at a school fundraiser. If the event is a success, Jimmy and Mary’s band might get booked at other events, bringing Jimmy one step closer to his dream of becoming a famous bandleader like Cab Calloway. However, he may have trouble breaking this news to his mother, who still dreams of her son growing up to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Mary has her own dreams of becoming the lead singer of a successful band but, at the moment, she’d be just as happy if she could get the clueless Jimmy to start referring to her as his girlfriend, rather than his “pal”. Although the film’s title is taken from the title song of the Gershwin musical Strike Up The Band, this movie is not, actually, an adaptation of the Broadway play at all. At the time, the song “Strike Up The Band” had become significantly more popular than the musical it originated from so, confusingly, the movie’s title is merely a reference to the song (which is sung in the film) and not the original musical. This film has a number of memorable musical sequences (most of which are sung by Judy), including the now-standard “Our Love Affair”, but the most ambitious was the huge “La Conga” number. In order to prepare for it, Busby Berkeley, actually, had the cast rehearse for 13 days straight before filming even began.
10. "In The Good Old Summertime" (1949)
A musical remake of the classic 1940 film, The Shop Around The Corner (which is, itself, based on the play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo), In The Good Old Summertime moves the story’s original setting from 1930s Budapest to 1900s Chicago. Judy plays the role of Veronica Fisher, the newest salesclerk at a local music shop, who managed to talk her way into the job despite the fact that the store wasn’t, actually, hiring. Although she is an excellent salesman, she and the store’s senior salesman, Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), got off on the wrong foot when they first met and have had a highly contentious relationship ever since. But, Veronica and Andrew have, actually, known each other longer than either of them thinks. In fact, the two have been carrying on an innocent, but completely anonymous, love affair as secret pen pals for quite some time. So, how will they react when they realize that the person that they’ve been falling in love with through letters is, actually, the same person that they believe they hate? Fans of Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan will probably find this film’s story familiar, since the film’s source material (The Shop Around The Corner) was remade yet again in 1998 with a contemporary twist, under the name You’ve Got Mail (those that have seen all three will notice certain key scenes that appear almost verbatim in every single version). In a very strange twist, although this film is called In The Good Old Summertime, the majority of the story, actually, takes place during the Christmas season (the movie is merely bookended by the summer) and even features Judy singing a lovely original Christmas song simply called “Merry Christmas”.
Honorable Mention: “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943)
For my honorable mention this time around, I decided to choose one of my favorite Judy Garland movies that, also, happens to be one of her lesser known. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, Presenting Lily Mars stars Judy as the titular Lily, an ambitious small-town girl who dreams of becoming a great stage actress. As luck would have it, Broadway producer John Thornway (Van Heflin) is from Lily’s hometown so, when he comes home to visit his mother, Lily wastes no time trying to get his attention. Unfortunately, Lily has no stage experience outside of her high school drama classes and John Thornway is not so easily impressed. But, the hopeful and determined Lily is not going to give up on her dream that easily. A combination musical and screwball comedy, this charming film features Judy at her most beautiful and vivacious. Originally intended to be a star vehicle for Lana Turner, the film was rewritten as a musical for Judy when Lana had to back out. Even though the character of Lily is only 19 and Judy had already played her first adult role a year earlier, Presenting Lily Mars was structured to help push Judy’s image away from her cute “plain Jane” teen roles and towards that of a more glamorous leading lady. Although filmed in black-and-white, it was one of the rare times that Judy’s hair was, actually, dyed blonde for a role and it suits her very well. However, it would be dyed darker immediately afterwards for her role in the film Girl Crazy. Unfortunately, due to reshoots of the film’s finale, the production of Presenting Lily Mars, actually, ended up overlapping with the production of Girl Crazy. Her non-stop schedule at this time has been cited as one of the major times MGM overworked Judy beyond what was reasonable and beyond what was asked of many of their other contract players.
And if you would like to learn more about the multi-talented Judy Garland, I recommend the biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke, as well as, the book A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away, written by Jeffrey Vance and Judy’s youngest daughter, Lorna Luft.
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© 2019 Lindsay Blenkarn