A&E's "Biography" series, which is increasingly all over the map in terms of the stature and career longevity of its subjects, weighs in with one of its more solid entries as part of its 10 th-anniversary celebration. The two-hour "Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow" is a comprehensive, thoughtful blend of new and old interviews, archival footage and stills, and paints a haunting portrait of one of the most talented and troubled popular performers of our time.
Producer-writers Peter Jones and John Fricke concisely trace the childhood of Frances Ethel Gumm, who first took the vaudeville stage at age 2 --- and had to be carried off by her song-and-dance-man father when she wouldn't stop singing. Although their stage mother drove the career of the three Gumm Sisters (after extensive appearances on radio and the boards, they made four one-reel shorts in 1929), Baby Gumm apparently had her own drive to perform. Indeed, this would be a theme throughout her life, as the singer-actress was battered by both inner compulsions and external pressures.
By the time she was 12, she had changed her name to Judy Garland and gone solo, and was swiftly signed to MGM. But it was while on loan to Fox that she made her feature debut, in 1936's "Pigskin Parade"; it would be a couple of years before Metro made its big investment in the little girl with the woman's voice, "The Wizard of Oz." Several commentators here stress that her role as Dorothy in the beloved film may be Garland's most enduring legacy.
Among those offering affectionate views of their friend in new interviews are Mickey Rooney, June Allyson, Robert Stack, Margaret Whiting and Jackie Cooper. While their comments are insightful and often poignant, the voices tend to echo one another after a while, resulting in a certain sameness of tone. It's refreshing when Shana Alexander and Charles Busch submit differing interpretations of Garland's gay appeal.
But by far, the most compelling voice here is that of Garland -- beyond her singular vocal talent, served up in numerous clips (of varying quality, ranging from home movies to pristine movie footage), she was a captivating interview subject, charming and winningly bitchy. Docu's undoubted highlight is its excerpts from a '62 appearance with Jack Paar: In a little black dress, Garland exuberantly tells tales about co-stars from vaudeville and film, putting audience and host in stitches.
Director Jones interweaves the story of Garland's success with the increasingly dark side of her career. The film's lasting impression is of a woman both made and broken by the studio system. The combination of paternalism and ruthlessness is best epitomized in Louis B. Mayer, who gave Garland away when she married Vincente Minnelli, and who also prevented her, on at least two crucial occasions, from receiving much-needed rest and treatment for her addiction to prescription drugs. (The spiraling process of medication culminated in the star's being given prescriptions by five separate studio doctors.)
Two of the most indelible moments among docu's archival interviews are George Cukor's amazement at her self-doubt ("I'm always afraid that this is the time they're gonna catch me," Garland told him), and Dore Schary's explanation of why, after she had been with MGM for 15 years and 29 pics, the studio reached "the end of the line" with the star. Forty-eight hours after the relationship was severed, Garland attempted suicide.
But hers is also a story of comeback after comeback; spurned by Hollywood, she returned to the concert hall. Her '51 stand at Broadway's Palace put the former vaudeville showcase back on the map, and her '55 TV debut on CBS received the highest rating for a special up to that point.
Eventually, there would be betrayals by husbands, managers and agents, trouble with the IRS, illness and continuing drug problems. But while she was relentlessly worked by the business, Garland worked -- in live performances, on the bigscreen, radio, TV and recordings. "Beyond the Rainbow" is a vivid look at the triumph and tragedy of an outsize talent.
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