film

life lessons from judy garland movies

Several years ago on a Garland discussion board I mused about lessons in style and substance contained in the many films of Judy Garland’s career.  I adapted those ideas into multiple entries on another blog in late 2009. This musing continued during the summer of 2011 inspired by the Paley Center for Media and Film Society of Lincoln Center Garland television and film retrospectives. This rainy Manhattan day, between writing tasks and a play reading later this evening, I thought I’d attempt to combine all of the “lessons” into one blog post.  Hang on to your seat belts.

I embrace the fact that I have indeed learned (or had reinforced) some valuable life lessons in movies that feature Judy Garland. The credit for the language certainly goes to the screenwriters.  The credit for the delivery of these charmers must go to Ms. Garland and her colleagues. I select and group the following items in ways I find personally entertaining.  Because, to quote Manuela Alva in The Pirate: ”If I didn’t laugh I should be very annoyed.”

Lesson 1: Natural talent communicates and Ellen Terry was wise.

  • “If you’d never seen a bullfight before you’d know a great bullfighter from the minute he stepped into the ring. From the way he stood, from the way he moved. Or a dancer. You don’t have to know about ballet. That little bell rings inside your head, that little jolt of pleasure. … Ellen Terry, great actress long before you were born. She said that that’s what star quality was. That little something extra. Well, you’ve got it.”

A Star Is Born (1954), Norman Maine to Esther Blodgett

Lesson 2: Dream big and be prepared for the sudden opportunity.

  • “A career is a curious thing. Talent isn’t always enough. You need a sense of timing, an eye for seeing the turning point or recognizing the big chance when it comes along and grabbing it. A career can rest on a trifle … like us sitting here tonight. Or it can turn on somebody’s saying to you: you’re better than that. You’re better than you know. Don’t settle for the little dream. go on to the big one.”

A Star Is Born (1954), Norman Maine to Esther Blodgett

I next celebrate some of the wise, innocent, and yes often cloying proclamations in the Andy Hardy movies in which Garland appeared.  There were over fifteen of these testaments to fictional upper middle class suburban life starring Mickey Rooney and a stable of regulars.  Garland appeared in three of these as the delightful Betsy Booth (daughter of the actress Martha Booth we never meet but gosh I’m a bit smitten with the name).  The following bits of wisdom, whether uttered by Betsy or by Andy, are chock full of earnest charm.

Lesson 3: It’s best not to try to pull a fast one.

  • “When you do something phony and it turns out good, it’s still all wrong.”

Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Andy Hardy to Betsy Booth

Lesson 4: A person can have a physical reaction to disillusionment.

  • “Whenever I get disillusioned I always get a pain in my stomach.”

Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), Betsy Booth to Andy Hardy

In certain movies in which she appeared in her late teens through her late twenties, Judy Garland portrayed women with feisty natures.  Women who worried less about placating their suitors and more about making their points clearly.  I like these women.

Lesson 5: Age or gender do not automatically grant wisdom.

  • “Just because you have a pair of long pants on, you think you know everything.”

Strike Up the Band (1940), Mary Holden to Jimmy Connors

Lesson 6: Humor is a tool in many social circumstances.

  • “If I didn’t laugh I should be very annoyed”

The Pirate (1948), Manuela Alva to Serafin

Timeless reflections on the allure, the romance, and the realities of performing life come from two movies released at pivotal points of Garland’s career. Summer Stock is her final MGM film in 1950. I Could Go On Singing is the final film of her career. The following two speeches address “the hokum” and charm of live performance.

Lesson 7: Theatre gets you, like a virus, but one you’re thrilled to have.

  • “Show business? There’s nothing else in the world. If I couldn’t be up here I’d work backstage or sell tickets…. Take a whiff of that. You like it? …. That’s greasepaint…. Go easy. That’s very potent stuff. You smell that once too often it goes a way down deep inside of you. Oh you can wipe it off your face alright but you’ll never get it out of your blood. No, it’s the same old stuff but that’s one of the reasons I love the theatre. And everything it stands for. The heart aches, the excitement, the applause, the lights, the hokum. Everything.”

Summer Stock (1950). Joe Ross to Jane Falbury

Lesson 8: Performance has its magic, but it does not have magic healing powers.

  • “You know. there’s an old saying. When you go on stage, apparently, you don’t feel any pain at all. When the light hits you, you don’t feel anything. It’s a stinking lie.”

I Could Go On Singing (1963). Jenny Bowman to David Donne

The characters portrayed on film by Judy Garland often provide succinct reflections on the art of communicating a story in song. It’s about instinct. It’s about commitment. It’s about craft.

Lesson 9: Singing is storytelling.

  • “I figure you have to know what you’re singing about before you can get the idea over to other people.”

Babes in Arms (1939), Patsy Barton to Mickey Moran

Lesson 10: When singing is second nature you will do it.  No matter what.

  • “I can remember my first job singing with the band. And then, one night stands clear across the country by bus. Putting on nail polish in the ladies rooms in gas stations. Waiting on tables. Wow, that was a low point. I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never never do that again. No matter what. But I had to sing. I somehow feel most alive when I’m singing.”

A Star is Born (1954), Esther Blodgett to Norman Maine

Lesson 11: When you have it you have it, don’t second guess yourself.

  • Esther: “What makes you so sure about me?”
  • Norman: ”I heard you sing. You know yourself, don’t you. You just needed somebody to tell you.”
  • Esther: ”I’m certainly mixed up now. I thought I was doing just fine…. sleep on it … you fixed me for sleep all right.”
  • Norman: ”Whether you do it or not, don’t ever forget how good you are. Hang on to that. Because I’m right.”

A Star is Born (1954), Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine

Garland’s character Ginger Gray in Girl Crazy provides a break from the dependent and selfless supportive characters Garland played for several years as Mickey Rooney’s sidekick in an array of Andy Hardy movies and several “let’s put on a show” musicals. In what would be the final pairing with Rooney (other than a guest shot by Garland in the Rodgers and Hart fictionalized biography Words and Music) Garland takes on a young woman standing on her own two feet, independent, making the romantic choices.

In 1943 Garland was a married woman in private life and a worldly 21-year-old. As Ginger Gray, this young woman is able to let the dialogue crackle, with an assurance of an Eve Arden in Stage Door (1935) or Ruth Hussey in Philadelphia Story (1940) or even Ginger Rogers in the original Broadway version of this character (1930-31). In fact, the character of Ginger Gray was originally Molly Gray on Broadway and took on the “Ginger” moniker in honor of the original portrayal by Ms. Rogers.

Lesson 12: Sometimes it’s time to cut the fun and get back to the job at hand.

  • “Well you just go ahead and have your own private little joke. I’ve got things to do. “

Girl Crazy (1943), Ginger Gray to Danny Churchill, Jr.

Lesson 13: Upper class privileges don’t prepare you for real life.

  • “While you’ve been eating strawberry ice cream with a silver spoon and in a nice fat college for such a long time that the minute that you get out here amongst plain people, you run for cover.”

Girl Crazy (1943), Ginger Gray to Danny Churchill, Jr.

Love. Requited. Unrequited. Mashed up and confused and full of surprises. Garland films throughout her career featured adolescent mush and earnest young adult struggles and absolutely couldn’t-be-more-grown-up realizations of the fact that love cannot solve all problems. And yet you keep on singing. And loving.

Lesson 14: Rich kids can get smitten too.

  • “Did anyone ever tell you — you had a face like a two-week vacation. With pay? Did anyone ever tell you that you have a nose cute enough to write a song about? Did anyone ever tell you that whenever a girl like you starts talking to a fellow like me it means only one thing – that you’re falling madly in love with him? Did anyone ever tell you that a fellow in my state of mind is apt to kiss a girl in your state of mind?”

Girl Crazy (1943), Danny Churchill, Jr. to Ginger Gray

Lesson 15. Love unrequited is a raving crazy-making mess at any age.

  • “It’s way down deep inside me. He’s wrong and I love him. He’s right and I love him. It’s no good. Gee, what do you do when you love somebody so much … they don’t even know you’re around.”

For Me And My Gal (1942). Jo Hayden to Jimmy Metcalfe (about Harry Palmer)

Lesson 16. Love always makes sense but the rest of life may not.

  • Jenny: David, you wouldn’t cheat me, would you? You wouldn’t be telling me …
  • David: Darling, I wouldn’t cheat you.
  • Jenny: You wouldn’t say you love me if you didn’t?
  • David: I wouldn’t say I love you if I didn’t.
  • Jenny: Then tell me again..
  • David: No I wouldn’t darling.
  • Jenny: Please tell me again. Please, once more.
  • David: I’ll tell you as often as you want me to. I’ve always loved you.
  • Jenny: That’s where it ends, isn’t it?
  • David: That’s where it ends. We were the right people that met at the wrong moment with all the right ideals .. We were just too strong ever to give up everything for each other.
  • Jenny: We just didn’t fit.
  • David: We fitted. The rest didn’t.
  • Jenny: That doesn’t make much sense.
  • David: The loving does.
  • Jenny: The loving does. The loving always does.

I Could Go On Singing (1963). Jenny Bowman and David Donne

Lesson 17: If you pay attention, you may anticipate the future.

  • “In the night, every night, we’ve known somehow it would come to this.”

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Irene Hoffman Wallner to Hugo Wallner

Lesson 18. Communicating through song doesn’t need rationalization. It just is. And it’s kinda nice.

  • Joe: “We’re trying to tell a story with music, and song, and dance, not just with words. For instance, if the boy tells the girl he loves her, he doesn’t just say it, he sings it.”
  • Jane: “Why doesn’t he just say it?”
  • Joe: “Why? Oh, I don’t know. But, it’s kinda nice. “

Summer Stock (1950), Joe Ross and Jane Falbury

These sweet and resonant moments captured in dialog transcend simplistic categories yet, to quote Joe Ross in Summer Stock, are “kinda nice.”    For all of these moments, for all of the lessons, for all that this amazing performer and her movies continue to give, I give thanks every day.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 27, 2011)

About martha wade steketee

Lover of ghost lights, movies, stories of creative lives, magic of live performance, storytelling in song.

Discussion

One thought on “life lessons from judy garland movies

  1. I love this .I will print it all and keep refering to it.
    Gordon

    Posted by Gordon Stevens | October 28, 2011, 1:25 pm

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