Judy Garland
[ Issue 28 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Judy Garlandl’s many fans

Bikwil honours Judy Garland

Judy Garland

Our series Memorable Moments in Music continues with article No. 4 — Diane Dees' piece Enormous Jabs of Pleasure.  In it she describes Judy Garland's legendary performance of The Man That Got Away in the 1954 re-make of A Star Is Born.

A great moment in music is reasonably perceived to be a live moment, but such a moment on film bears a unique, though paradoxical, organicity: we can continue to experience it in its imperfectly frozen essence

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Enormous Jabs of Pleasure
[ Memorable Moments in Music No. 4 ]
— Diane Dees


A great moment in music is reasonably perceived to be a live moment, but such a moment on film bears a unique, though paradoxical, organicity: we can continue to experience it in its imperfectly frozen essence. To me, the greatest such moment — and definitely a standout moment in music — is Judy Garland's legendary performance of The Man That Got Away in the 1954 re-make of A Star Is Born.

The scene that film critic David Denby once referred to as a great moment in American film is that and more. Norman Maine (James Mason) searches for Esther Blodgett (Garland), and finds her jamming with her band after-hours in an otherwise deserted club on Sunset Boulevard. The chairs are stacked on the tables, and the lights are very low. The boys in the band are playing softly, and when Danny (Tommy Noonan) tells Esther to "take it from the top", we hear the now-famous muted trombone introduction to the Arlen-Gershwin classic. When Esther is finished, Norman tells her that listening to her gives him "little jabs of pleasure", and compares the experience to watching a great prizefight or a great dancer.

A little history is in order here. Much of the George Cukor-directed film (produced by Garland's husband, Sid Luft) had already been shot when Warner Bros. decided to start all over, using CinemaScope. In his biography of Garland, Get Happy, Gerald Clarke explains that the early CinemaScope process was flawed. The cameras could capture a wide screen, but they didn't have much flexibility in coming in for zooms and clasps. Intimate scenes like the one in the club were difficult to shoot.

There were several costume considerations. In John Fricke's book on Garland, there is a photo of the star in one of the rejected costumes: A-line skirt, big belt, short-sleeved blouse with the first two buttons unbuttoned. The final selection, of course, was the dark blue, fitted dress with three-quarter sleeves, a big white collar and a printed tie — an Esther Blodgett dress if ever there were one.

One wonders how much more devastating the scene would have been in black and white, but it is good enough in color. The Man That Got Away, arguably the greatest torch song ever written, is heartbreaking to listen to. When you watch Garland's performance in the film, however, you see more of an ironic interpretation. She smiles a lot; she is visibly pleased with the strength of her own performance. At one point, she is framed by shelves of bar glasses in the back, and — on the left — the startling appearance of brass and wind instruments, which are raised in a counterpoint to her performance. When Garland sings “Good riddance, Goodbye”, she makes a dismissive gesture toward the orchestra, and the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are just as suddenly withdrawn.

Twice, the singer does the trademark Garland hand-through-the-hair gesture, and her movements range from elocutionary to Vaudevillian. When the song is over, she winks. In a lesser artist, these movements would have been over the top, but when Garland executes them, they are perfect.

Hollywood legend has it that vocal arranger Hugh Martin argued fiercely with Garland over her interpretation of the song, and we can only make an educated guess that Garland won the argument. It is, in fact, absurd to think that anyone anywhere would have argued with Judy Garland over the vocal interpretation of any song.

A lot of credit for the stunning effect of The Man That Got Away scene, which occurs early in the film, must go to Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, for the song itself is haunting. The orchestral arrangement by Skip Martin, with its seductively driven coda, is brilliant. And then there is Judy Garland herself, whom we cannot—and should not—totally separate from Esther Blodgett or Vicki Lester.

By the time Garland made A Star Is Born, she was ravaged by alcohol and drugs, most of her romantic dreams had "all gone astray," and she was dealing with the consequences of her own substance-driven behaviors. She still had her marvelous sense of humor, which she never lost. In the film, she is Everywoman, with layers of skin peeled off. Her otherworldly voice takes possession of her body and suffuses it with a strength that makes her appear physically powerful. She is the perfect vessel for the perfect song.

A Star Is Born became a victim of the worst type of Hollywood abuse. Despite glowing critical acclaim for the film, Harry Warner—secretly, and at the last minute—cut twenty-seven minutes from the three-hour movie, thinking he could get a better box office return with a shorter product. Judy Garland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Grace Kelly, for her role in The Country Girl. Perhaps even more outrageous, The Man That Got Away, nominated for Best Song, lost to the insipid Three Coins In a Fountain. A Star Is Born did not even receive a Best Picture nomination, and Cukor wasn't nominated as Best Director. The popularity-driven Academy Awards are never much of a gauge of what is good in film, but the 1954 travesties have gone down in film history as especially low moments.

Fortunately, in 1983, A Star Is Born was given new life. Footage that Warner had destroyed was restored, and the footage that resisted restoration was replaced with still photographs. I was fortunate enough to see a premiere of the restored version at New Orleans' grand old Saenger Theater, with its giant screen and outlandishly ornate ceilings and balconies. When the Sunset Boulevard club scene appeared on the screen and Garland sang The Man That Got Away, I was a mass of deep breathing and taut muscles. Never having seen Garland live, I drank in every facial twitch, every eye opening, every vibrating phrase.

There are many great musical moments in film, and several of them feature Judy Garland. But for me, there will probably never be one with the combination of intimacy, simplicity and primitive power of The Man That Got Away. For a few minutes, Judy Garland owns a piece of your very soul, and you are completely satisfied to give it up to her.

[ Diane Dees runs a Web site called The Princess Cafe, and can be contacted at dianedees@charter.net ]

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