“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” became her signature song, its lyrics full of yearning to be somewhere where your troubles melt away like lemon drops — a fitting summation for Garland’s turbulent life and continued struggles to beat the odds. When she was reinterred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2017, the film organization Cinespia screened The Wizard of Oz in celebration of her life and the unveiling of her new resting place.
The beloved film turns 80 this summer, just as we’re poised to revisit Garland at the movies when Judy drops Sept. 27, starring Renée Zellweger as the legendary entertainer during a series of London concerts near the end of her life. The link between Garland and The Wizard of Oz is inescapable; Judy even features a line where a character suggests that if they want to get together, Garland should just click her heels, referencing the iconic climax of the 1939 fantasy film.
It’s with good reason, as Garland skipping down the Yellow Brick Road in those ruby slippers is one of our most treasured film images. But the actress was so much more than a Kansas farm girl in a blue gingham dress, and her acting range reached far beyond the land of Oz. So while we’re celebrating the 80-year-legacy of The Wizard of Oz, let’s take a moment to dive deeper and screen some of Garland’s other essential roles.
For Me and My Gal (1942)
This MGM musical marked the screen debut of legendary song-and-dance man Gene Kelly and also gave Garland her first significant adult role. Previously she’d played what were known as juvenile roles, including Dorothy in Oz and many parts opposite Mickey Rooney. For Me and My Gal begins on the eve of World War I, as two vaudeville performers, Jo Hayden (Garland) and Harry Palmer (Kelly), dream of making it on Broadway and getting married. When the war and Harry’s attempts to dodge the draft intervene, their relationship is torn apart, but Jo still yearns for Harry. Garland worked with legendary acting coach Stella Adler to perfect the dramatic scenes here, some of her meatiest yet in her career. The film also features Garland and Kelly duetting and dancing on the title song, which became a hit single when it was released in 1942 and landed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Garland also included it in a medley of songs in her legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
Girl Crazy (1943)
Garland and Mickey Rooney were often paired together (on screen and off) in the early part of her career, but they got to play slightly more mature characters in this Western-themed musical. Based on the Gershwins’ 1930 Broadway musical of the same name, Girl Crazy follows a similar “let’s put on a show to save the day” structure as many of Garland and Rooney’s collaborations. Rooney is Danny Churchill, a philandering playboy whose father plucks him out of Yale and sends him to college out west to get his mind off women. Of course, one of the first people he meets there (and immediately falls for) is Garland’s Ginger, the postmistress. The two team up to put on a Western show to save the college from closure. It’s a charming pairing, but the film is also notable for Garland’s singing of several memorable Gershwin tunes that would become standards for her, including “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me.” The film’s climax is a Busby Berkeley-directed sequence set to the Gershwins’ “I’ve Got Rhythm,” featuring Garland in a cowgirl hat and striking fringed outfit. Famous band leader Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra notably features in the number as well. It remains one of Garland’s most memorable onscreen musical performances.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Many consider this film a Yuletide classic because it features Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She introduced the holiday tune to the world via its emotional placement in Meet Me in St. Louis, and it remains one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. Garland plays Esther, a member of the Smith family. In the year leading up to 1904, the family prepares for the St. Louis World’s Fair and encounters a host of romantic and domestic mishaps. The film was one of Garland’s personal favorites because it was the first time she ever felt beautiful o nscreen (and was permitted to appear in a more natural state, sans previously studio-mandated nose discs and dental caps). Hollywood lore even has it that Garland fell in love with and married director Vincente Minnelli because he made her feel so beautiful in this picture — and it’s not hard to see the visual evidence for that feeling. Her lushly defined eyebrows and full red lips are so complementary that Garland went on to adopt them as part of her signature look. She’s glowing and at her peak emotional resonance as she navigates young love and the prospect of her family’s move to New York City. Her rapport with young costar Margaret O’Brien is touching, particularly in their scenes of sisterly affection. The film is packed with standout moments for Garland, including the aforementioned holiday track and another of her most beloved tunes, “The Trolley Song.”
The Clock (1945)
Though Garland was known for her one-of-a-kind voice, she was also capable of turning in a sterling dramatic performance. The Clock is one of her best, and it was also her first starring role for which she did not sing. Garland portrays Alice, a young New Yorker who has a chance meeting with a soldier, Joe (Robert Walker), at Pennsylvania Station. He’s on 48-hour leave, but the two quickly fall in love during his short reprieve from war. The title refers to the famous Beaux Arts clock at the now demolished Astor Hotel, where the couple agree to meet. Both Garland and Walker grappled with substance abuse problems during production, but this film is considered some of their finest dramatic work. It’s a chance to see Garland in a truly adult role, giving a performance that allows her to sink her teeth into dramatic material rather than lighter musical comedy. Her fans have always latched on to her intense emotionality, and it’s on radiant display here, given an extra boost by director Vincente Minnelli, adjusting the script to showcase his then-fiancée.
The Pirate (1948)
There is probably no film more polarizing among Garland’s fans than The Pirate. While some find it schlocky, others revel in the film’s campiness and the opportunity it gives Garland to showcase her supreme comedic abilities. Garland is Manuela, a young woman who is engaged to a local rich man but dreams of being swept off her feet by the notorious pirate Macoco. Gene Kelly stars opposite Garland as Serafin, a traveling player who masquerades as Macoco to try to win her hand after learning of Manuela’s fantasy. The film features songs by Cole Porter, including the now beloved standard “Be a Clown.” Kelly fought for legendary black dance duo the Nicholas Brothers to appear with him in the “Be a Clown” number (their first time dancing on screen with a white performer), and he and Garland memorably reprise it at the film’s conclusion. The picture has many delights, including a dream ballet meant to reflect Manuela’s sexual fantasies in which Kelly cavorts in short shorts with a cutlass. Garland shows her knack for farce in a hilarious scene of seduction turned rage in which she hurls and breaks nearly every object in the room. Her life is so often is associated with tragedy, so it’s a joy to watch her give a performance so rife with expert comedic timing and instincts.
Summer Stock (1950)
This is a complicated film for Garland, as it marked her final movie with MGM and the end of the studio contract that had defined and shaped her life since the 1930s. Production was a struggle for Garland, as she battled her dependency on prescription drugs. She was often late or MIA when it came time to shoot musical numbers. Garland portrays Jane Falbury, the owner of a farm, who is dismayed when her sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) shows up with a theatrical troupe needing a place to rehearse. She reluctantly agrees to lend her barn in exchange for assistance with chores, but soon finds herself falling for the director Joe Ross (Gene Kelly). Garland and Kelly face off in a dance number titled “Portland Fancy,” and Kelly also has a memorable dance solo with ”You Wonderful You.” But most notably, the film is the source of Garland’s most iconic number besides “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — “Get Happy.” Garland performs the number in a tuxedo jacket, black fedora, and black nylons, and she filmed it a few months after the rest of production was already completed, having fought to lose weight at the urging of the studio. “Get Happy” remains one of the most iconic musical sequences in film history and has been referenced countless times, including in Michael Jackson’s 1995 performance of “Dangerous” at the VMAs. The song would go on to be a part of Garland’s repertoire, memorably featured in a 1963 TV mash-up with Barbra Streisand singing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” A 2001 biography of Garland even bears the same title as the song.
A Star Is Born (1954)
With the release of Bradley Cooper’s take on this enduring Hollywood tale last year, A Star Is Born has come back into the public consciousness in a major way. Heralded as Garland’s comeback, the 1954 version was her first film in four years, after parting ways with MGM. Desperate to make good in Hollywood, Garland co-produced the project with then-husband Sid Luft specifically as a vehicle for her talents. Garland plays Esther Blodgett, the titular star, whose career takes off as her mentor-turned-lover-turned-husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), declines under the ravages of alcoholism. It allowed Garland to tap into her own star narrative, unpacking things like the studio’s negative impact on her life in a scene where her character receives a makeover determined to fix everything from her nose to her chin. Garland dominates the screen and gives a tour-de-force performance as she transitions from naïve Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester, movie star. The film is a lengthy testament to her skills with semibiographical numbers like “Born in a Trunk” and the Garland classic “Swanee,” but it’s her wrenching take on “The Man Who Got Away” that’s a master class in telling a story through song. She was nominated for her first Oscar for the performance, but lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, which many cinephiles still consider the greatest snub in Academy Awards history.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Garland earned her second and final Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Irene Hoffman in this intense tale of a 1948 American court trying Nazis for war crimes from the halls of a courtroom in occupied Germany. It’s one of Garland’s few non-musical roles and her first film performance since A Star Is Born, marking a seven-year gap in between projects. Garland’s role is small but crucial (about 18 minutes of screen time), as a woman who is called to testify against Nazi atrocities and terrified of aiding the American prosecution’s case against German judges. She earned her Oscar nomination with a gripping scene in which she breaks down on the witness stand. Stanley Kramer was inspired to cast Garland after seeing one of her legendary concerts and the full range of emotions she was capable of bringing to a performance. It was a rare uneventful shoot for her, and she in fact befriended the far more troubled (at the time) Montgomery Clift. Judgment at Nuremburg was groundbreaking for its frank tackling of war crimes and moral responsibility, as well as its being one of the first mainstream films to show footage from the Allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps. For Garland, it was one of her last truly remarkable performances. She only made three films after this, voicing an animated cat in Gay Purr-ee and acting opposite Burt Lancaster in A Child is Waiting and Dirk Bogarde in I Could Go on Singing.