It was a counter-programming stroke of genius. NBC was riding high with the seemingly unstoppable Bonanza, one of the first westerns to film in color, and a show which helped secure NBC's dominance on Sunday evenings. CBS had tried a laundry list of various attempts when they hit upon the brainstorm of a glossy, big budget offering that would appeal to adults and probably especially women, hopefully drawing enough of an audience to make a dent in the Cartwright clan's ratings. And so The Judy Garland Show was born, strangely after a rather contentious history between the star and the network, one that saw both hugely viewed specials from the mid-1950s on, but also a nasty lawsuit with both parties suing each other over alleged breach of contract. But the duelists put that all behind them and Judy, according to virtually all accounts, managed to pull herself together (albeit not for very long) to undertake the rigors of a weekly variety show, which premiered in September 1963 and limped its way through the rest of the 1963-64 season (Bonanza was, in fact, unstoppable). She was surrounded by top flight talent in every department, from producer George Schlatter (later of Laugh-In fame), arranger and frequent guest Mel Tormé (who later wrote a fascinating exposé of his involvement with the show, entitled The Other Side of the Rainbow), bandleader Mort Lindsey, choreographer Danny Daniels, costume designers Edith Head and Ray Agyahan and art director Gary Smith.
It's quite telling that almost none of these incredible talents made it through the run of the series, which was beset by production difficulties (not all of them actually attributable to Garland's infamously flighty temperament) and which underwent at least two major format changes in its relatively brief 26 episode run. Nonetheless, the series has entered the pantheon of "must haves" for every Garland fan. Here was Garland, perhaps a little past her prime, and, as the series progressed, obviously not fully in control vocally, emotionally or otherwise, but still belting out classics with an absolutely unbelievable array of A-list guest stars. The show, even through its often bewildering changes, sported a very clean, modern look, and Judy, despite (in a famous CBS executive comment) being "too glamorous for television," is decidedly at ease, if twitchy and overly energetic most of the time (a result, more than likely, of her pill popping).
Pioneer Entertainment released two pretty expensive boxed sets, each with (more or less) half of the one season of the show, several years ago, sets that have since gone out of print and which fetch fairly daunting prices on several online sites. Infinity has now gone back to the original two inch videotape masters and is releasing the shows volume by volume, with two episodes per DVD. For some reason they've decided to skip over the show that was taped first (despite not being broadcast until December), and so this first volume sports the second and third tapings, which were nonetheless not broadcast until November 1963. The first episode, taped July 7 and broadcast November 10, features Count Basie as the main musical guest, with Tormé and folksinger Judy Henske providing backup. Perhaps of more interest is the second offering, taped July 16 and broadcast November 17, which features Liza Minnelli in her first television performance with her famous mother. Also guest starring in this episode (as completely peculiar as it sounds) are Soupy Sales and latin vocal quartet The Brothers Castro. Since these are from the first iteration of the series, Jerry Van Dyke is along for the ride as putative comedy relief.
This is top of the line early 60s television by anyone's standards. Production values, while somewhat minimal, are inventive and impressive (CBS spent a truckload of money building a huge raised stage, with turntables, for the series). Garland simply tears through a wide swath of the Great American Songbook with Lindsey's swingin' big band knocking some amazing charts out of the ballpark. The show doesn't feature "sketches," as was the norm for a lot of variety shows back then, but these early episodes are virtually through-written, with Van Dyke and Garland offering bridging segments to get us from one act to another. At times, these are largely lamentable (the first episode has some interminable "comedy" of Van Dyke wanting to play his banjo with Count Basie, a lame setup that finally pays off in a surprisingly spry rendition of Jobim's "One Note Samba"). At other times, the comedy hits home a bit more naturally, as in Van Dyke's sly undermining of Garland's confidence in Liza's ability to "take the stage," as it were, in her first big national break (by the time this segment is over, it's Garland who's convinced she's not ready for prime time).
But it's really the music that makes this show, and it's here in abundance, from Judy's "Strike Up the Band" with the Count to a wonderful romp through Styne and Sondheim's "Together Wherever We Go" with Liza. If Garland (and Minnelli, too, for that matter) seem to be broadcasting every emotion in their quivering vibratos, the guest stars make for a decidedly cooler (in the Marshall McLuhan sense, if no other) experience. Tormé displays his protean vocal chops on "Fascinatin' Rhythm" and while Judy Henske's "God Bless the Child" may ultimately be seen as something of a camp classic, she makes up for it in a very funny epilogue where she's joined by Van Dyke and Tormé and they quite winningly parody the then blazing hot fad of folk music (a la Peter, Paul and Mary).
Garland fans are no doubt going to rejoice that these shows are becoming available again (though at 13 volumes, it's once again going to be a pretty pricey proposition to have them all). It's a little sad that kids today don't get to grow up with the great variety shows those of us who were kids in the 1960s and 1970s did. At least with home video releases, we can recapture a little of that old black and white magic and marvel that a cast and crew could churn out 26 of these a year.
If you remember these shows were archived on two inch videotape masters, and are from the black and white era, you will be pleasantly surprised at the quality here. The full frame image, while certainly not digitally pristine or even amazingly sharp by today's standards, still is clean and crisp and sports very, very good contrast. No real damage or degradation was noticed at all.
Both the original mono and a repurposed DD 5.1 mix are available. Purist that I am, I preferred the original soundtrack. I found the 5.1 a bit too reverby for my tastes, though balance was quite excellent throughout these two episodes. There are some very brief volume anomalies in these shows, which I'm sure were in the source material. No subtitles are included.
Some online blurbs are yakking about bounteous extras on this release, but my DVD had none per se, despite a listing for "outtakes." That said, the masters are included in what looks like their entirety, so you get "off camera" moments like Van Dyke riffing until he's sure the show has gone to commercial, and some brief after-show moments with Garland and Schlatter, which I assume are the "outtakes" mentioned. Interestingly, the Basie footage comes in at about 43 minutes, way too short for an hour series back in 1963, while the Minnelli episode is about 56 minutes, conversely too long. It would have been instructive to have had some documentation as to what exactly was in the episodes as aired.
Judy Garland hoped to extricate herself from her deep financial hole, and CBS hoped to vault over Bonanza's juggernaut with this series. Unfortunately neither of them made it over the rainbow this time. The Judy Garland Show is still a classic of its genre, despite its flaws (in all of its many incarnations). Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet