The Ten Best Film Performances of Judy Garland

The Ten Best Film Performances of Judy Garland

If you love musicals then there is a pretty good chance that you are a fan of Judy Garland. No female star of classic Hollywood shown as brightly in musicals as Judy, who often held her own against (or out-shown) co-stars such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Van Johnson. They called her “the little girl with the big voice”, but what she really was had more to do with her extreme talent and the unbridled energy she poured into each performance. This article may not be the perfect topic for the holidays, but as I was thinking of what gift I could give to my readers, it was clear: I should share my favorite moments of my favorite film star. I hope you enjoy watching these clips as much as I enjoyed assembling them for you!

Ten: Easter Parade

Though not her finest acting performance, Easter Parade does feature the pairing of Judy Garland with dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire. Together, the two performed one of MGM’s most-iconic musical moments with “A Couple of Swells.” Though the chemistry between the two is somewhat sparse throughout the film (Astaire was not a fan of working with Garland), they certainly mine the humor and fun out of this Irving Berlin number which is often better-remembered than the film itself.

Nine: The Harvey Girls

It’s kind of a corny film, but Garland is game for the comedy and wild-west antics of The Harvey Girls. Taking a job as a waitress in a chain of Harvey House restaurants, Susan Bradley (Garland) finds herself assigned in the rough and tough western town of Sandrock, Arizona. There, Susan and the other Harvey Girls find themselves fighting some local businessmen and saloon girls who don’t want the Harvey chain taking their business. Garland proves an adept physical comedian in this film, but it is her rendition of the Academy Award-winning  "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe", for which the film is best remembered.

Eight: Summer Stock

Toward the end of her career at MGM, Garland made some delightful little films, and one of them was the “Let’s put on a show” gem Summer Stock. Starring opposite Gene Kelly, Garland played Jane Falbury, a down-on-her-luck farmer who is trying to keep her farm afloat. When her actress sister shows up with a company of actors wanting to use the Falbury barn as a rehearsal space, Jane agrees if the actors help her run the farm. Hilarity ensues as they fail miserably at feeding the chickens. Jane, however, is bitten by the theatre bug and steps in when her sister pulls a diva fit and departs. Garland sings two fantastic production numbers: the robust “Happy Harvest” and, at her sexiest, the pulsing “Get Happy.”

Seven: In the Good Old Summertime

The Shop Around the Corner has been made into many films and it even was turned into the Broadway musical She Loves Me. In the Good Old Summertime may not be the most-revered of interpretations, but Garland and Van Johnson are both charmingly stubborn as co-workers in a music shop who hate each other, but are anonymously in love with each other through a lonely hearts, letter-writing club. The film score is made up predominantly of turn-of-the-century standards (and pastiches of such), but Garland makes each ditty her own. In the Good Old Summertime is also the feature film debut of Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, and we know what that amazing lady went on to do.

Six: The Clock

It was always a rare occasion when Judy Garland didn’t appear in a musical, but she was no one-trick pony. In The Clock, Garland plays Alice Mayberry, a woman who meets a soldier on a 48-hour leave during World War II. Alice spends the day with the man, and soon the two go on a date, and eventually fall in love. By the film’s end, the two are playing beat-the-clock in order to jump through the hoops of getting married before his leave is up. Of course, they succeed, but once the vows are exchanged, the soldier must return to duty. The departure from musicals was an important step in the evolution of Garland’s career. 

Five: I Could Go On Singing

The unsettling part about Garland’s performance in I Could Go On Singing is in how she seems to be exorcising her own demons as she plays a role that is uncomfortably close to her own life-story. In her final film role, Garland plays Jenny Bowman, a singer who tries to balance her relationship with her teenage son with her love/hate relationship for her career. There are monologues in this film that seem to be a piece of Garland herself, and it is hard to keep the story of Jenny and the story of Judy separate. Art imitates life.

Four: Meet Me in St. Louis

Garland is at her most beguiling in Meet Me in St. Louis, playing the lovely Esther Smith who dreams of going to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair with the handsome boy next store. Garland performs several songs in the film that have become synonymous with her, including the bright and airy “Trolley Song”, the pining “The Boy Next Door”, as well as the heartache inducing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” If any film personifies Garland at her most lovely, Meet Me in St. Louis captures a luminescence and a natural beauty in the actress like no other film in her career quite does.  

Three: Judgment at Nuremberg

Garland’s unglamorous role as Irene Hoffman in Judgment at Nuremberg was definitely-outside of the parameters of a typical Judy Garland role. Playing a middle-aged German woman testifying at a war tribunal, prosecuting those guilty of war crimes. Garland was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her edgy performance. If anyone fails to recognize Garland as a superior dramatic actress, simply point them to Judgment at Nuremberg and their minds should be changed.

Two: The Wizard of Oz

It’s iconic and it is also Judy Garland’s best known role: Dorothy Gale from Kansas. Wide-eyed, young, and possessing a voice of rich maturity beyond her years, Garland made the perfect little-girl-lost, trying to get home. She embodied a spirit and spunk that made her Dorothy a brave soul, yearning for a happier world. Of course, her performance won her a special Academy Award for Best Juvenile Performance, an award easily attained when one sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with such breathtaking earnestness.

One:  A Star is Born

With all due respect to her iconic turn as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it is Garland’s performance as Miss Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester/Mrs. Norman Maine in A Star is Born that truly reveals what a deep and probing actress she was. Playing the rising Hollywood star to James Mason’s falling one is Garland’s screen triumph, particularly her gut-wrenching performance of the song “The Man That Got Away.” Garland was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and many feel she should have won.

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