Judy Garland’s 20 best films – ranked!

A very silly and frankly odd musical, although perhaps not quite odd enough to qualify for cult status. Judy Garland plays a girl called Pinkie who is worried about her widowed mother, played by Mary Astor – and believes she needs to get remarried to a nice man. So with her pal Buzz (played by the renowned former child actor Freddie Bartholomew, of David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy fame), she in effect kidnaps her bemused but indulgent mother in a trailer and tours around the country looking for a likely stepdad candidate – and hits on Walter Pidgeon. As so often, Garland steals it with a standout song, this one being Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.

A wacky musical fantasy directed by Vincente Minnelli, featuring Cole Porter songs, but probably the least notable of Garland’s MGM musicals. Garland stars as a shy girl from the Caribbean, who has been forced into an engagement with the unattractive local mayor. Then a travelling circus arrives, led by the dashing and roguish Gene Kelly, who of course falls for Garland. Their song together, Be a Clown, was later reworked – without acknowledgment to Porter – as Make ’Em Laugh in Singin’ in the Rain.

A 15, looking younger but with the brassily powerful singing voice of someone older, Garland had a scene-stealing small role in this cheerfully improbable backstage musical comedy, with Eleanor Powell as a horse trainer who somehow lucks into showbiz stardom. Garland plays a young wannabe in a boarding house who sends a fan letter to Clark Gable, and sings the song You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It) to his picture.

Garland took over a role originally envisioned for June Allyson in this serviceable if not essential Technicolor musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, with Garland as Veronica, the shop girl who quarrels with her colleague Andy, played by Van Johnson, without knowing that he is the dream suitor with whom she is having an anonymous pen-pal relationship. There is a cameo for Buster Keaton, who devised a bit of comic business involving a violin, and Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli makes her screen debut here as the happily married Veronica’s infant daughter.

Garland’s onscreen relationship with Mickey Rooney might bore or mystify modern audiences, but their colossally popular boy-girl-next-door pairing over 10 films (including three for Garland as recurring character Betsy in the 16-movie Andy Hardy series) accounted for a huge slice of MGM profits, and did as much as anything to traumatise and infantilise Garland for the rest of her life. The petite Garland (at just under 5ft) was easily cast as someone younger than she was, and the Hardy series – in which she was the literal neighbour kid to lovable madcap Andy Hardy (Rooney) – needed her to be unthreateningly wholesome and plain.
3. Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) Andy falls in love from afar with a sophisticated New York woman, boasting to his friends about their supposed relationship, which gets him into trouble when the family actually moves to New York and he is expected to prove they are dating. per fortuna, his old pal Betsy shows up and Andy realises Betsy is the one for him, leading to their first screen kiss, which for some was almost incestuous.
2. Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941) Another fish-out-of-water New York romp for small-town boy Andy Hardy; he figures he will make a name for himself in the big city and goes to Manhattan with his loyal pal Betsy who has once again, sembra, been reduced to a platonic friend. Despite Betsy’s exasperated, big-sisterly attempts to help him, Andy makes an uproarious mess of being a city slicker and returns with his tail between his legs to his home town where he belongs.
1. Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) Garland had to play a 12-year-old (four years younger than she was) for her debut in the Andy Hardy films, in which pink-cheeked Andy is sulking because his judge dad won’t let him have a car of his own but nonetheless (improbably) gets to date Lana Turner. Nel frattempo, his new neighbour Betsy (Garland) sadly pines for him.

Garland is the wholesome and sensible lead in MGM’s fancifully imagined western musical (a genre which has yet to make a comeback) that got a best song Oscar for its number On The Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe, about the Kansas-New Mexico railroad. She plays Susan, a woman who is travelling to meet a man in response to his lonely-hearts newspaper ad, and on the train she meets the “Harvey Girls”, nice girls who are going out to be waitresses in the Harvey Restaurants family chain. But once in Arizona she finds the ad was a prank pulled by a handsome guy who she really does fall for, to the fury of a rival, played by Angela Lansbury.

An intriguing movie triptych and a parable of the various types of female stardom that Hollywood conceived as possible. Three women are trying to make it as stars in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Broadway show, The Ziegfeld Follies. Hedy Lamarr is the exotic European siren Sandra, married to a violinist; Lana Turner is Sheila, the small-town Brooklyn girl whose great beauty and glamour brings her wealth and fame but breaks the heart of her truck-driver boyfriend James Stewart; and Garland plays the good-natured trouper Susan who has been performing a vaudeville routine with her sweet old dad. Although she is not as alluring as the others (another example of the casting that hurt Garland’s feelings), Susan does of course win out in the end.

Gene Kelly made his film debut here, the first of his three pairings with Garland, and the two experienced how tough it could be working for one of Hollywood’s toughest taskmasters, Busby Berkeley, against whose tirades the more prestigious Garland had to protect the relative newcomer Kelly. They are two vaudeville performers Jo and Harry playing the circuit on the eve of the first world war, and intending to get married. But faced with the draft, Harry smashes his hand to get out of service, an act he instantly regrets and Jo – whose brother has been killed in the war – furiously breaks off the engagement. Harry gets a job entertaining frontline troops then discovers a way to redeem himself.

Mature-period Garland playing a troubled role in a John Cassavetes film is an intriguing thought, and this is a genuinely challenging and audacious issue picture, albeit perhaps a little self-conscious. Garland plays the new teacher at a school for children with developmental and learning difficulties, who becomes invested in one particular child, to the disapproval of the crisply professional medical chief, played by Burt Lancaster. Perhaps the dramatic centre of the film is the child’s mother, Gena Rowlands – and it’s an open question as to how Garland would have played that role.

The Gershwins’ Broadway musical about the rich kid who’s sent away to manage a farm by his disapproving plutocrat dad and then falls in love with the local postmistress was translated to celluloid with Mickey Rooney as the pampered prince, although in the movie it’s a midwest agricultural college, not a farm. Garland takes over the role Ginger Rogers played on stage and is the figure of sweetness and maturity compared with Rooney’s wacky, high-energy turn. This was the last movie in which Rooney and Garland had co-starring lead roles and it was clear that Rooney was not growing out of his child-star persona the way Garland was. Again there were some gold-standard songs, including Embraceable You, But Not For Me and I Got Rhythm.

Garland takes on an entirely non-singing role in this romantic drama, precisely the kind of movie that should have been the staple of her golden performing years. In the middle of the second world war, a small-town guy in uniform played by Robert Walker, on weekend leave and about to ship out to England, meets cute with Garland in New York’s Penn Station by bumping into her and breaking her heel. They get talking, she shows him a little of the big city (director Minnelli shot on location) and arrange to meet later under the clock at the Astor Hotel, their whirlwind romance developing from there.

This was the movie, from veteran directing workhorse Norman Taurog, that arguably first gave us the adult Garland, boldly doing a double role, an Irish accent and even a death scene (her character heartwrenchingly dies in childbirth). Judy plays Nellie, a young Irish girl who marries her sweetheart Jerry Kelly (George Murphy) against her father’s wishes and the couple emigrate to the US where pregnancy brings tragedy. But her daughter, “Little” Nellie, also played by Garland, grows up to heal the family’s wounds. Startlingly, Garland sings an uptempo version of Singin’ in the Rain more than a decade before Gene Kelly made it his own.

There is some debate as to which is the first “adult” Garland film – Little Nellie Kelly? For Me and My Gal? – but this is the one in which she was presented as glamorous in the Hollywood siren style, albeit with that perkiness that MGM expected of its house superstar. This is a musical comedy adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington (whose midwestern tales often fed Hollywood, famously with Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons). Garland is Lily Mars, a smalltown gal who yearns for Broadway success and makes a nuisance of herself when a New York producer played by Van Heflin shows up. Irrepressibly, she follows him to the big city and they fall in love.

Still only 28, but with more life-experience than most people of that age, and with depression and substance-abuse problems that made this her final film for MGM, Garland starred in this fanciful let’s-do-the-show-right-here musical based on the tradition of “summer stock” theatre groups who really would put on productions anywhere they could. She is a farm owner who allows a visiting theatre company to rehearse in her barn – and falls in love with the director, gallantly played by Gene Kelly. So many Garland films feature Garland doing a standout musical number and this tradition took an evolutionary step upwards with Garland performing one of her best-known songs, Get Happy, in a slinky black tuxedo, stockings and fedora – very sophisticated for a farmer.

Fred Astaire came out of a brief retirement for this wonderfully happy, witty and buoyant musical scored by Irving Berlin in which he plays a Broadway performer who conceives a Pygmalion-relationship with a good-natured dancer called Hannah, played by Garland, whom he plucks from the chorus line, proclaiming he can make her – or any girl he chooses – a star. His heart has been broken by his regular leading lady, Ann Miller, who has gone off for another gig, and who is glamorous in contrast with Garland’s everygirl image that was the style of so many of her pictures. The course of the Garland/Astaire relationship doesn’t run smooth, although it is at the centre of many dapper dance routines and the couple wind up walking happily along in the traditional Easter Parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Garland delivered a sensationally good supporting-role performance (her second Oscar nomination) in this courtroom epic about the Nuremberg trial, focusing on the German judges who legitimised Nazi tyranny and racism. Garland plays the dowdy and unhappy Irene Hoffman, a non-Jew accused during the war of having a sexual affair with an elderly Jewish man who was duly executed, even though she denied the affair. Adesso, the German judges’ fierce defending counsel (Maximilian Schell), taking the only-obeying-orders line, has to try to get Frau Hoffman to admit now that she lied under oath, and that the judges were technically correct in their verdict. It is a complex and powerful portrayal from Garland, who is forced to revisit an unimaginably painful memory. She appears unable to abandon the lie that was nobly intended to save her lover from the death penalty – or perhaps, anche adesso, she is telling the truth: that this elderly Jewish man’s attentions were poignantly non-sexual.

Director Minnelli met Garland on the set of this movie, fell in love with her and married her one year later, and it’s attractive to think that this love affair suffused the whole movie with happiness. Based on Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories about midwestern family life, the musical tells the story of Mr and Mrs Smith and their four daughters in St Louis, and all their drama, intrigue and hi-jinks, just before the World’s Fair of 1904 – and their dejection on hearing that they might have to move to New York. Garland gives a wonderfully relaxed romantic, innocent performance as the lovelorn Esther, wide-eyed with emotion under her fringe (her “bangs”). She has three sensational musical numbers, including The Boy Next Door, whose richness precludes any memories of the gurning Mickey Rooney; The Trolley Song, with Garland’s heartstrings going zing-zing-zing; and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in which Judy appears heartbroken at the idea of being away from the family at Christmas-time, an idea with obvious resonance for wartime Americans.

Garland’s final film absorbs the reality of her declining years effectively exiled from the US and finding comfort in the adoration of foreign fans, particularly in London, where she played legendary shows, all the more captivating for her frailty, at the Palladium and the Talk of the Town. She plays Jenny, an internationally renowned singer in London to play a sold-out show and resuming her relationship with a handsome widowed surgeon, David Donne, with whom she once had a child and who lives with David, thinking he’s adopted. David is played by Dirk Bogarde whose onscreen rapport with Garland is interestingly dynamic and intimate, as Jenny’s unhappiness, drinking and overwork takes its toll: “I can’t be spread so thin,” she tells him. “I don’t want to be rolled out like pastry, so everyone can get a nice big bite of me!” This film is the nearest we have to a kind of quasi-documentary portrait of Garland’s last years.

There was delirious genius in this musical fantasia about the imagination, about growing up, about the illusory nature of reputation, prestige and success and the escapist adventure of art itself – particularly the movies. Garland was utterly inspired as the solemnly idealistic girl Dorothy who is transported away from the black-and-white world of Kansas to the colourfully exotic Neverland of Oz, there to confront the Wicked Witch of the West, to befriend some of the oddest creatures imaginable and to make an aspirational and redemptive pilgrimage with them to the mighty Wizard Of Oz who will grant their wishes. Garland brilliantly inhabits the body of someone who is supposed to be a little girl, but also someone who is wise and mature beyond her years. (She was 17). The movie was one of many that tried to deny or conceal Garland’s approaching womanhood but there is a point to it here: the child and the adult are as one in Garland, and it’s the brilliance and guileless purity with which she brought off this combination that caused the role to pursue her the rest of her life. Garland movies are known for her standout songs and this was the greatest: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a song of yearning for something as out of reach and intangible as the rainbow itself, which in the person of Garland becomes hopeful, yet with a ghost of future adult disillusionment.

This was the first remake, the one that followed the 1937 original with Frederic March and Janet Gaynor (nel 1976 it would regenerate with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, and then in 2018 with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga). This is the role that got Garland the first of her two Oscar nominations; it is the greatest of Garland’s backstage showbiz movies, the greatest of her movies about falling in love with a svengali older guy in the business who can help her; and greatest of her movies full stop – only this film is about the tough, embittered reality behind the world of cinema and musical theatre. It really is a “backstage” drama in a way that Garland’s other films never had been. Garland plays showbiz wannabe Esther Blodgett, whose unsightly real name is shortly to be changed to Vicki Lester. (Garland’s real name was Frances Ethel Gumm). Una notte, working as a humble band singer, she witnesses washed-up matinee idol Norman Maine (played by James Mason) staggering drunkenly on stage and in an inspired display of tact and theatrical chutzpah and nascent love, she leaps up on stage herself, takes him sweetly by the hand and pretends to the crowd that this is all part of the show, and guides him into the wings, saving Norman from humiliating himself. He resolves to help her professionally out of gratitude; they fall in love and marry but then his career mortifyingly plummets while hers soars. As well as everything else, Esther has to soothe her husband’s wounded ego, even as his drinking and behaviour worsens, and he reaches his nadir of wretchedness by disgracing himself at an award ceremony for Esther. Some critics fetishise the fact that in real life it was Garland who was drinking and Mason concerned, but Garland’s performance was wonderful: passionate, martyred, the mature crowning glory of her career.

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