There’s nothing quite like the moment when Judy Garland begins to sing, “Somewhere over the rainbow”…and the Cape Symphony will recreate that moment on February 9 and 10.
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is Garland’s most memorable role, and that song full of yearning is the song she’s most identified with to this day. She was seventeen at the time, and had already been in show business for fifteen years. Indeed, she never knew a life that wasn’t focused on entertaining the world with her incredible talent.
Born Frances Gumm to vaudevillian parents, Judy was the youngest of three girls and joined her sisters on stage at the age of two, singing “Jingle Bells.” The Gumm Sisters toured in vaudeville and appeared in a few short films before becoming the Garland Sisters in 1934 and then breaking up in 1935 when the oldest sister married. Songwriter Burton Lane saw the sister act and “discovered” Judy, age 13, leading to a meeting with Louis B. Mayer and a life-changing contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
The studio didn’t quite know what to do with Judy, who was too old to play a child but not old enough to play an older teen or young adult. They dressed her as a child and did all they could to alter her appearance to make her more attractive; her peers at MGM were Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor, beauties with whom no one could possibly compete. Judy suffered from the insecurity caused by being treated as the “ugly duckling” while still just a teenager. In 1937, she was first cast in a supporting role alongside Mickey Rooney, and eventually the two were paired as leads in Babes in Arms, subsequently becoming a winning team for the studio.
In 1938, MGM needed to cast the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, based on the L. Frank Baum children’s book from 1900. Shirley Temple was the first choice, but couldn’t be borrowed from 20th Century Fox. At the time, studios essentially owned actors and Temple didn’t have the option to choose the role. MGM’s own Deanna Durbin wasn’t available. Judy Garland was the studio’s other young singer and fortunately, she became Dorothy. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the movie.
During filming, Judy was kept on a strict diet, and everything was done to make her look as young, innocent, and pretty as possible. Her dress and long ponytails were meant to disguise her body, and her uneven teeth were capped. Despite all this, her outstanding talent shone through. The late Roger Ebert wrote, “Garland’s whole persona projected a tremulous uncertainty, a wistfulness. When she hoped that troubles would melt like lemon drops, you believed she had troubles.”
“Over the Rainbow” was ranked as the number one movie song of all time by the American Film Institute. The song’s composer, Harold Arlen quoted Judy Garland as telling him many years later, "As for my feelings toward 'Over the Rainbow,' it's become part of my life. It is so symbolic of all my dreams and wishes that I'm sure that's why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it."