10 Essential Judy Garland Movies to Understand the Screen Legend – TheWrap

Happy 100th heavenly birthday, Judy!
Photos: MGM/Warner Bros.
When the 2-year-old Frances Gumm stepped onto the stage of her father’s Grand Rapids, Minnesota, vaudeville and movie house and belted out “Jingle Bells” to thunderous applause, little did anyone know that she would become one of the greatest entertainers of all time, Judy Garland.
From child actress to musical-comedy superstar to two-time Oscar-nominated icon, Garland’s career evolved before our eyes as she battled the demons that haunted her and led to addiction and a reputation for being difficult. Here are 10 essential Garland films that are a must-see if you really want to know who she was and how her private life touched her performances.
“The Wizard of Oz”  (1939)
Although Garland made eight films (and three shorts) before “The Wizard of Oz,” this is arguably the one she is most fondly remembered for and a must-see for anyone young in years or just young at heart. Although her talent was undeniable, her life-long insecurity about her looks persisted during the filming, with MGM putting rubber discs up her nose to make it look more pug, capping her teeth and even testing her with a blond wig – only the last of which was nixed. As young Dorothy Gale of Kansas dreamed of flying over the rainbow “where troubles melt like lemon drops,” generations to come would also attribute that theme to Garland herself.
Here’s a look at “The Wizard of Oz.”
“For Me and My Gal”  (1942)
Made when she was 19, “For Me and My Gal” is one of Garland’s first grownup, meaty roles and the first to put her name above the title. She and Gene Kelly (in his film debut) star as vaudeville performers whose ambitions to play the Palace Theatre on Broadway are thwarted and their marriage is challenged when he goes to extreme measures to avoid the draft during the early years of World War I. This is, by no means a musical-comedy. Musical, yes, but comedy, no. In fact, it may give you the feels more than once. When dancing, she not only keeps up with Kelly, who was a known Broadway actor and choreographer, she makes it look effortless. Her chemistry with Kelly is unmistakable, and their offscreen friendship resulted in them making two more movies together down the line.
Here’s a look at “For Me and My Gal.”
“Girl Crazy” (1943)
Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Busby Berkeley – the demanding director known for his elaborate musical production numbers and kaleidoscopic camera shots – and music by George and Ira Gershwin. As one of the movie’s more popular songs, “I Got Rhythm,” asks, who could ask for anything more? Garland reteamed with frequent onscreen partner Rooney, here as a young playboy who tries to woo Garland’s (initially) uninterested character. As Theodore Strauss wrote in his New York Times review, “the immortal Mickey [Rooney] […] is an entertainer to his fingertips. And with Judy [Garland], who sings and acts like an earthbound angel, to temper his brashness, well, they can do almost anything they wish, and we’ll like it even in spite of ourselves.”
Here’s a look at “Girl Crazy.”
“Meet Me in St. Louis”  (1944)
When “Meet Me in St. Louis” was released, it was a huge critical and financial success, grossing more than any other MGM film in the 20 years proceeding other than “Gone With the Wind.” Two of Garland’s signature songs were first heard in this 1903-set film, “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She wasn’t thrilled by the idea of playing “the girl next door” type again – or a teenager, for that matter – but director Vincente Minnelli convinced her to take the role. They fell in love during filming and, Minnelli said in his autobiography, that by the time the film was in post-production, he and Garland were living together.
Here’s a look at “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
“The Clock”  (1945)
Not one of Garland’s more known films, but worth a watch nonetheless, not because of the musical numbers —  there are none — but rather for her first strictly dramatic role and one that really lets her romantic vulnerability shine. Garland plays a young woman who meets a small-town soldier (Robert Walker) on leave in NYC’s Pennsylvania Station. Within 48 hours of meeting, they’re married. There is one particularly poignant scene that is largely silent and very effective in its simplicity – during breakfast the morning after their wedding night — with its flirtatious, meaningful glances and mimed gestures. Garland asked for Minnelli to direct, and many say that the framing of his camera shots reveal just how in love he was with his future wife.
Here’s a look at “The Clock.”
“The Pirate”  (1948)
Three years after “The Clock” was released and Garland tied the knot with Vincente Minnelli, he directed her in “The Pirate,” her second film with Gene Kelly. She plays a Caribbean villager whose romantic fantasy about the notorious pirate Macoco leads to her falling for a traveling circus ringmaster (Kelly) who claims to be that man of her dreams. A must-see for Kelly fans, as he has never been hunkier, and once again his chemistry with Garland is off the chart. Although her musical numbers and comedic timing show through, Garland’s addiction problems resulted in a breakdown and in her missing 99 of the 135 shooting days. For the first time in MGM’s history, a psychiatrist was hired for the star just to get her through filming.
Here’s a look at “The Pirate.”
“Summer Stock”  (1950)
That “hey kids, let’s put on a show in the barn!” theme in early Garland/Rooney films ironically plays out in what would be her last film at MGM. “Summer Stock” reunited Garland with Gene Kelly, this time as a woman whose farm is taken over by a bunch of actors who want to, you guessed it, use her barn to put on a show. And fun ensues. Garland’s battle with drug dependency left her emotionally vulnerable and, after 15 years at MGM, she was released from her contract. Although the film scored a 100% with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s really the classic number, “Get Happy,” that scores our highest praise. Shot two months after the film wrapped and after she had lost 20 pounds, Garland slipped on black stockings, a tuxedo jacket and a fedora, and with a half-dozen make backup dancers, she blew her fans away.
Here’s a look at “Summer Stock.”
“A Star Is Born”  (1954) 
Yes, it’s a story that has been done before — once before her and twice after — but “A Star Is Born” is really Garland’s crowning jewel performance. Directed by George Cukor – who helmed “The Wizard of Oz” for one week and was the one who nixed Dorothy’s blond wig – the film was Garland’s “comeback” after being dropped from MGM and arguably the best performance of her career. Time magazine called it “the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history,” adding that among Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s six good songs, one — “The Man That Got Away” — left an “unforgettable lump in the throat,” while Newsweek wrote that the film was “best classified as a thrilling personal triumph for Judy Garland.” She went on to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Grace Kelly, who won for “The Country Girl.” Groucho Marx called her loss “the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”
Here’s a look at “A Star Is Born.”
“Judgment at Nuremberg”  (1961) 
While “A Star Is Born” was a serious film from start to finish, Garland’s next (seven years later) went even darker and more emotional in director Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Garland plays Irene Hoffman, who is a reluctant prosecution witness brought in to testify against judges accused of war crimes under the Nazi regime during World War II. Although Garland’s performance as the poor German woman was all of 18 minutes in the 179-minute film, it’s an emotional roller-coaster to behold. As The Film Experience put it, “Judy plays Irene’s grief in many keys: dignified mourning, frustrated confusion, disdain, defensiveness, fear, until it builds to a crescendo of anger and and injustice that almost renders her speechless.” Garland went on to receive Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for the glorified cameo.
Here’s a look at “Judgment at Nuremberg.”  
“A Child Is Waiting”  (1963)
Produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by John Cassavetes and written by Abby Mann, “A Child Is Waiting” was the second to last Garland film. She plays a music teacher who is hired by a psychologist and head of a boarding school for developmentally challenged children (played by Burt Lancaster). After bonding with an autistic student, she challenges the doctor’s tough love approach, showing that patience and understanding are needed in dealing with special needs children. Garland’s humanity and sincerity shine through in scenes with the children, making her low-key performance all that more touching.
Here’s a looking at “A Child Is Waiting.”  
Honorable mention: “Sid & Judy”  (2019)
“There is something besides ‘The Man That Got Away’ or ‘Over the Rainbow’ — there’s a woman,” Garland says in voiceover at the start of the Showtime documentary “Sid & Judy.” She continues: “So fasten your seat belt because I, Judy Garland, am going to talk.” And that she does. Never before seen or heard film and audio clips of the legendary performer tell the story of Garland’s life in her own words, so not only do you learn what she said about her troubled life, but you also hear how she said it. And sometimes it’s not what you’d expect. You want insight into Judy Garland, whether she saw her life as tragic yet spectacular as her fans saw it? Then put this on your watch list.
Here’s a look at “Sid & Judy.”
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Photograph by Irvin Rivera for TheWrap
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