Judge Chris Claro oohs and Oz through four episodes of Garlandia.
"Quiet please, there's a lady on stage."
Judy Garland's mystique as a 20th century icon was legendary. With the possible exception of Elvis Presley, no one performer was more closely scrutinized, both onstage and off. It's not that she didn't provide fodder, God knows. Mercurial moods, drug dependencies, health issues, multiple marriages, an early death—the life of the former Frances Gumm was tailor-made for the spotlight-on-celebrity culture that burgeoned in the 40s and exploded as television stormed the US in the 50s.
Garland's career careered from screen to stage, weathering slumps on each. It was during one of those low points that she and then-husband Sid Luft produced a special for CBS in which Judy sang and did sketches with Robert Goulet and Phil Silvers. The good ratings and positive critical response to the special made the network hungry for more. The result was The Judy Garland Show.
Music-heavy and impeccably produced, Garland's series played to her strengths of singing and making herself totally vulnerable to the audience. Garland is winning even when she seems to teeter on the precipice of total collapse at any moment, which was her default mode at that point in her career. Judy wasn't the last in her family to make her billboard her neediness; Garland 2.0, daughter Liza Minnelli, has never made any secret of her abject desire for the audience's approval.
Despite its unpredictable star and the turmoil behind the scenes, The Judy Garland Show—the production of which has been the subject of two books, including one by the show's musical director, Mel Torme—is surprisingly entertaining, with a gloss that belies its age. The crisp economy and sterling production values of the show are a reminder of what TV variety used to be.
The simplicity of the formula for The Judy Garland Show made it successful. Each week, Judy would welcome two guests to sing with her or solo. In The Judy Garland Show Featuring Ray Bolger and Vic Damone, the two episodes feature the series' standard mélange. In addition to Ray Bolger, singer-dancer Jane Powell guest stars while Jerry Van Dyke (who worked for a time as a regular on the show) makes his final appearance. The highlight of the show is Garland and Powell sharing a medley of romantic movie songs accompanied by Van Dyke, lip-synching the parts of such leading men as Howard Keel. As hokey as it sounds today, it plays quite well.
Ray Bolger not only does a solo song-and-dance number, he also sits with Judy in her "Tea" segment, which was a little talk-show segment plunked into the middle of the production numbers. Tellingly, Garland is at her most unguarded in this segment, given that it's nothing but conversation. Her neediness and low self-esteem show as she comments about her weight and appearance. Though it never reaches the status of downright cringeworthy, there's a morbid fascination in seeing a movie star as exposed as Garland allowed herself to be in these segments. With the level of image protection and brand management practiced by most performers in the 21st century, producing an off-the-cuff segment such as this one would be impossible today.
The second episode features crooner Vic Damone and TV actress Zina Bethune. Who, you might ask, is Zina Bethune? Well, she happened to have been the star of a long-forgotten medical drama called The Nurses. She was also quite the dancer and sang very credibly.
The Judy Garland Show Featuring Mel Torme and Jack Jones reveals the split-personality aspect of the series, as different producers were at the helm at different times. The first episode on the disc, with Mel Torme and Diahann Carroll, is similar to the two above: the guests sing (with Garland and solo) and Judy does her "Tea" segment with George Jessel. In the episode with Jack Jones, however, the show is produced more like a concert, with Garland singing nine songs accompanied by an orchestra before guest Jack Jones makes an appearance.
The extras on each of the discs are a mixed bag. On The Judy Garland Show Featuring Mel Torme and Jack Jones, there are outtakes featuring false starts of some songs and alternate versions of others. The real find on The Judy Garland Show Featuring Ray Bolger and Vic Damone is the inclusion of a long (though not very funny) routine by the show's warm up comic, who it turns out is none other than Reuben Kincaid himself, Dave Madden! Madden's material is pedestrian but filled with cultural references of the time including Conelrad and the Kennedys.
Both The Judy Garland Show Featuring Ray Bolger and Vic Damone and The Judy Garland Show Featuring Mel Torme and Jack Jones are solidly produced period pieces that shoot squarely at fans of one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. If you're mad about Judy, these discs are for you.
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