Is This Judy Garland's Most Meta Moment?

Tuesday June 28, 2022

Dirk Bogarde and Judy Garland in "I Could Go On Singing"
Dirk Bogarde and Judy Garland in "I Could Go On Singing"  (Source:YouTube)

"I've had enough to float Fire Island," says Judy Garland in the 1963 film "I Could Go On Singing." The line comes when Garland, who plays an emotionally volatile superstar doing a series of concerts in London, gets drunk, sprains her ankle, and is taken to an emergency ward.

She makes the crack to Dirk Bogarde, who plays a successful London doctor who had a child with Garland 13 years before. Garland chose career over the child and left the boy with Bogarde; but the film's melodramatic plot has Garland sweeping in like Auntie Mame to steal the boy away.

Such are the melodramatic trappings of Ronald Neame's 1963 film — Garland's last — that is like a Lana Turner sudser-of-the-day. But seen today, some 59 years after its release and 53 years after Garland's death at the age of 47 — it shows Garland at her most meta. She saw it that way, having reworked the script, based on a 1958 hour-long television play, to her strengths.

But despite shaping her character, Garland made the shooting extremely difficult, according to notes on the film in the TCM database, moody behavior, even suicide attempts, marred the shooting.

But what the film captures best is her mercurial personality, her cutting manner, and her absolute control as a singer. Made just a few years after her legendary Carnegie Hall concert (the recording of which was the #1 album on Billboard for 13 weeks and on the charts for 73), the strain on her voice that can be heard not long after has yet to show itself. Best of all the musical numbers have her on a concert stage singing some less than familiar, but superb material: the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson ballad "It Never Was You" and Arthur Schwartz/Howard Deitz's "By Myself," which became a staple in her act. In her delivery of the latter, she builds the song like a three-act play—tentative at first, then more assured, until finally, in triumph as she finds her strength and self-worth in the lyric. It's a model of musical storytelling.

But the scene that stands out is not a musical one. It is the hospital scene when Bogarde attempts to convince her to perform that evening at the Palladium.

When told the audience is waiting, Garland snaps: "I don't care if they're fasting. You just give them their money back and tell them to come back next fall."

She continues: "To hell with them. I can't be spread so thin. I am just one person. I don't want to be rolled out like a pastry so they can get a nice big bite of me. I am just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any question."

Her rant continues. "I have hung onto every bit of rubbish there is to hang on to in life and I've thrown all the good bits away now can you tell me, why I do that?"

In the Garland biography "Get Happy," Gerald Clarke described the moment:

"A scene of such length - it lasts seven minutes....usually requires three or four setups and possibly three or four days of work as well....But as action progressed, Neame realized that what he was watching was a kind of magic. Instead of stopping the camera where he had planned - "I knew that I would never, ever, get anything like that scene again" - he nodded to his cameraman to keep rolling forward, closer and closer to his two stars. Quick to catch on, the cameraman signaled, in turn, to an electrician, who hastily put a diffuser over a light that otherwise would have been too hot for close-ups." 

In some ways the scene encapsulates Garland's angry tape recordings she made between 1963 — 1967, which were released in a 2-CD format. She says on the tapes: ''I've sung; I've entertained; I've pleased your children; I've pleased your wives; I've pleased you—YOU SONS OF BITCHES!''

The website Dangerous Minds describes the tapes this way: "The 2 CD quasi-bootleg set, 'Judy Garland Speaks!', has to be one of the single most demented things that a major celebrity has ever left behind for the world to discover several decades after their death. Even people who would normally never care about something Judy Garland-related marvel at the incredible pathos and dark insanity of these tapes, which come off like Garland performing in a one-woman show written by Samuel Beckett."