Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Frances Gumm?

One Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks back I was out driving in the very beautiful mountainous countryside near where I live listening to the "Music of Your Life" radio network. This programing is for the most part quite bad, but approximately every tenth or fifteenth song or so they will play something that I like, and that I haven't heard in a long time, or sometimes ever. As this is the only station in my reception area that offers this hope on a semi-regular basis, and because its format is otherwise amiable, I listen to it quite frequently. Although Judy Garland is a much-beloved star and the undisputed queen of the Hollywood musical, and as such would seem to epitomize the type of entertainment the "Music of Your Life" aspires to provide, her recordings are played rather sparingly on the network. Perhaps this holding back is calculated in order to produce the maximum effect when they do play her; if this is the case, it is a successful strategy. As I rode through the lonely landscape, listening to the uninspiring stream of tired standards, light news reports, Paul Harvey soundbites, and gold investments and the virtues of saving for your own retirement, what should come on all of a sudden, direct from 1937 like a signal from a long-lost planet, but "Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart"? This was not merely a superior record, but a temporary foray into a whole other, and better, experience of life. Indeed I felt myself--palpably so--a better person, not merely for the duration of the song, but for some time afterward, and some traces of the effect lingered right up until I fell asleep that night for good, 8 or 9 hours later.

In our age the great consumers and chroniclers of music, alike in schools, urban hipster communities or on the Internet, specialize in celebrating and introducing the work of performers whom 98.7% of the population has never heard of despite the fact that they are much better as well as more important than all the people who are household names. This is a vital service given the ridiculous state of both commercial and public radio in the U.S. as far as music is concerned, such that in my late thirties I am still hearing for the first time even of people who are legendary global superstars, such as Miriam Makeba (aka "Mama Africa"; she goes back to the late 50s and early 60s, so I really do like her greatest hits record). To write about Judy Garland, whom everyone, including me, feels they already know too much about, would seem to serve no purpose; however, as with Joe DiMaggio whom I wrote about a while back, there is something unsatisfying to me in the standard biographies. They all seem to me to fail to distinguish what was really so greatly appealing about these figures. Also like DiMaggio, the legend of Judy Garland took on a persoality after 1945 which carried it a rather long distance from its "real" origins in the psychology both of the Depression specifically and pre-WWII, pre-superpower America generally, all of which was superceded with remarkable quickness, and frequently grotesquely, when the new circumstances of the postwar era swept this old world away. I am not much interested in the unhappiness, the drug problems, the suicide attempts, the five husbands and other lovers, the adoption as an icon by the gay community, all of which have become as much a part of the Judy Garland story as the songs, except so as to see what became--and what was left--of the teenager who made so many pop songs in the 1930s, even the idea of pop songs in the 1930s, seem more important than anyone could demonstrate objectively.When I heard the song, I knew at once that there must be Judy Garland clips all over the Internet which it had never occurred to me to look up. Intending to look at two or three songs I ended up watching two hours worth, mostly from 1937-42, and I could easily have watched more but it was 2am. It was all so...delightful to me in the particular mood I was in that day. She became, I guess, a real diva when she got older...she earned the right, at least...but in these earlier movies, she just sings as if it is as natural to her as talking, as indeed it probably was. Like Charlie Chaplin, as well as many other old stars who literally grew up in the circus or a travelling troupe of stage or vaudeville actors, whose parents were part of the company, which company's other members took the place of aunts and uncles and teachers, etc, a sort of childhood by the way that no one really has nowadays, Judy Garland never fully learned to make a significant differentiation between performance and life, and she certainly had not done so as a teenager. This is as important a talent as an entertainer--particularly one who performs live--can have, for this is how one connects with an audience, by becoming a medium through which the material of art acquires realization. Because of her being conditioned from an early age--again like Chaplin--to solicit and depend on a response from an actual audience, she always gives the impression in her movies of pulling the audience into whatever she is doing more vividly--and indiscriminately--than other actors do (this is supposedly a big aspect of her appeal to gay males). This feeding off of the energy of the crowd also makes her a great conveyer of the particular spirit and personality of the time in which she is singing, certainly as it was experienced by her own generation, the descent of which from chirpy, hopeful youth to middle-aged existential despair was not only more starkly extreme than that of other generations, but also constitutes one of the fundamental storylines of America in the 20th century.

I am going to link to some songs now, though I suspect people rarely follow song links, either because A) they are at work, and not alone or B) they don't have time to invest three or four minutes in a song. In my instance there is also probably C) no one is reading my blog anyway; however something has made me determined to write a Judy Garland post, and dadgummit, I am going to do my Judy Garland post.

I apologize for the intrusion of the noxious Mickey Rooney into several of these clips, but as he co-starred with J.G. in 9 films between 1938-42 it is hard to avoid him. Needless to say she carried him in these movies to the point where he is practically vaporized--I mean for the most part you aren't even aware of his presence when Judes is singing.

Here is "Zing! Went the Strings...". The version they played on the radio was a little jazzier, but I couldn't find it during my brief internet researches. This seems to be the standard version. The clip does not contain a lot of action, but it is one of her signature songs and it evokes a lot.

This is a good one here, which Rooney and the film directors continually steer in the direction of imminent disaster, only to have J-Gar not only rescue them but elevate the song to the status of being one of the iconic tunes of its era. It appears to me that they are trying to imitate black people in this scene, which of course is not successful, but thankfully Judy Garland has her own unique style and appeal as a singer to fall back on and steer this effort in a direction where it still bears considerable fruit. To better illustrate what I mean, here is the really lame-white-people version of this song from the in my opinion much-overrated Singing In the Rain.

Like several of these songs this one starts a little slow but under the Judester's steady grasp accumulates a lot of force by the end. Also there is the not-to-be-missed babe sitting with Rooney in the audience at the debutante ball (who is she?) The contrast she provides with Frances Gumm gives us a segue into a matter of some substance, for apparently the question of whether Judy Garland was good-looking or not was one of the burning issues of the early 1940s. She herself was supposed to been tormented by the fact that she was not a great beauty along the lines of her Hollywood High classmates Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and that this insecurity led her to abuse diet pills and alcohol and other substances throughout her life. I don't know enough to speculate; it seems plausible. At the same time it goes without saying that men--many men, at least, including me--absolutely love women who can sing, especially young ones of course but at almost any age a really good singing voice is worth (and I can't think of any clearer way to express this) 20 points of beauty on a hundred point scale. It seems to be hard to make the women themselves feel this, which is perhaps why celebrated singers so often have both romantic lives on a par in quantity and quality of lovers with more conventional beauties, as well as more tortured and tempestuous.

This is my favorite. If you don't like this one even a little I congratulate you, for you are a truly hard man who is not to be trifled with. This is just enchanting. My initial thought--this was made, remember, in 1941--was that if Hitler and the German intelligentsia had been shown this clip, and been as perceptive about human nature as they fancied themselves to be, they could have read their doom, for I have never seen it spelled out more starkly. They were dealing with a foe who would be capable of reducing their thousand year-old cities to rubble in a matter of hours, and then skipping merrily off to the pictures the same night for the most part unconscious of the magnitude of the destruction it had just unleashed. I understand that the real history is more complicated than this but looking back at the music and art and films of the 30s both in America and Europe, including Germany, from the vantage point of today, it looks so obvious that America is the juggernaut, albeit a remarkably clueless one, and the Nazis can scheme and bully and stage spectacles and murder and wreak havoc among the etiolated states of Europe, but there is no way they are hanging with America, which was operating on a wholly different scale in everything, which the Germans appeared to have failed to ever take into consideration, preferring to focus as they always do on the perceived stupidity and dearth of individual personality among the populace, including most of the educated portion of it. It may have been a fluke of history that this happened to be the case, but it nonetheless was the case.

I don't know what is going on in this movie--it appears to be the annual dinner of the Skull and Bones society--but J.G. looks very good and the song is very evocative to me of this whole time period.

I am disappointed with my post, so I am going to console myself by throwing one last song out.

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