A star vehicle in the best sense of the word, I Could Go On Singing (1963) was Judy Garland's last movie (she died in 1969 at the age of 47), and watching it one can't help but wish more films like this had come her way. Underrated in the shadow of George Cukor's superb A Star is Born (1954), I Could Go On Singing is nearly as good. In the sensitive hands of director Ronald Neame (Tunes of Glory), the film strikes an excellent balance of on-stage performance and engrossing backstage drama. For Garland's fans the movie is nearly perfect, and rises well above ordinary expectations.
The film was made entirely in England, with Garland as famous American torch singer Jenny Bowman, a thinly disguised and fictionalized version of herself. The story has Jenny reuniting with her prepubescent son, Matthew, whom Jenny surrendered to her doctor lover David (Dirk Bogarde) after the two broke up. Raised as an orphan, Matthew has no idea David is his real father, or that David's "friend" Jenny is his birth mother. When David reluctantly agrees to let Jenny spend one day with Matthew, their reunion quickly gets out of hand as they bond and she longs to become a part of his life again.
What might have been insufferable melodrama is made almost shockingly compelling thanks to Neame's intelligent, uncluttered direction and the performances of the two leads. Their completely different acting backgrounds and styles compliment the characters, and the two generate an emotional realness and intimacy one might expect in a Cassavetes film but hardly in a glossy musical melodrama. The tug-of-war they play with their child is at times uncomfortably realistic. Both are basically well-meaning, loving parents, yet the film smartly shows both as times behaving selfish, manipulative, and petty. Bogarde is as good as he almost always was; Garland, who never got much credit for her acting, is simply terrific, and obviously draws on her own fragile emotional state for inspiration.
The backstage elements of the story are mostly perfunctory, with Jack Klugman as her manager and Aline MacMahon as her dresser / personal assistant. Klugman especially functions in much the same manner that Charles Bickford did in A Star is Born and one scene here is almost identical to a justly famous scene between Garland and Bickford in Cukor's film.
In the wake of the shabby and indifferent treatment Garland received from CBS for her often superb 1963 television variety show, the singer's personal and professional life went downhill fast. Her voice went and she aged badly and prematurely. I Could Go On Singing was something of a last hurrah, made in the wake of her triumphant Carnegie Hall concerts, which this film in some ways emulates. Garland's numbers are well paced, reflecting her character's emotions but not obviously so. The songs don't ask more of her than she was capable at the time (which was not always the case onstage), and are beautifully performed. It is with a sad irony that Garland, who while still a kid became famous singing Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's "Over the Rainbow," should end her career singing another of their songs, the bittersweet title tune.
Video & Audio
For a 40-year-old catalog title, and one not especially popular, I Could Go on Singing generated a lot of angry complaints from consumers when it was first announced that the title would be released to DVD in Panned & Scanned format only. Indeed, consumers were so angry and vocal that MGM delayed the title to create a flipper disc; one side P&S, the other letterboxed.
The P&S version is best avoided; Neame takes full use of the Panavision (2.35:1) format, and the transfer isn't so hot anyway, looking grainy with smeary color. Unfortunately, the letterboxed version is derived from an obviously old transfer, probably the one created years ago for the laserdisc. It's not enhanced and doesn't fair especially well zoomed in on 16:9 TVs. The flat and sometimes muffled mono sound is presented in both English and Spanish, with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Because it's not enhanced, naysayers are again blasting MGM for not going to the added expense of creating a new, 16:9 transfer, on top of the already unplanned costs of delaying the title and creating a two-sided disc. Similar complaints have cropped up on a large number of recent, MGM-distributed titles, including Junior Bonner, The Last Valley (which this reviewer will be getting to shortly), Hell in the Pacific and others.
Many of these complaints are unfair and sometimes absurd. In MGM's defense, its Technical Services department genuinely strives to create the best transfers possible within time and budgetary limitations. They have in the past spent a great deal of time, money, and energy getting transfers right, even on such comparatively and economically marginal titles as the 1933 The Ghoul, their set of newly-corrected Ingmar Bergman films, and Hammer's The Vampire Lovers. The reality is that these kinds of movies, I Could Go On Singing included, have microscopic sales compared to the latest Bond movie, or even movies as bad as Rollerball or Boat Trip. A studio isn't going and can't be expected to shell out $50,000 on a transfer that's going to generate $10,000 in revenue.
Studios like MGM are consumer driven, and like it or not, many people prefer pan-and-scan to letterboxing, and could care less whether a movie is enhanced or not. When enough of these customers return gift and rental DVDs, making a big stink at their local Blockbusters and Targets, this impacts what these big conglomerates are willing to buy.
When this reviewer first worked at MGM, the rumor was that Wal-Mart had refused to carry Silence of the Lambs if MGM didn't also produce a second, full-screen version -- at MGM's expense. One suspects similar strong-arm tactics by retail giants are to blame for some of these new releases, such as the company's recent full-screen Charles Bronson movies (and which are available enhanced in other parts of the world). In some cases, as with the Disney-owned titles like The Last Valley, distributor MGM is forced to make do with what the owners of those films are willing to provide.
It's hard to defend the sometimes brainless decisions home video divisions make once in a while (and MGM is not immune to this), and this reviewer won't try to justify that. But, c'mon, give these guys some slack. They aren't, as some seem to believe, out to make your DVD lives miserable. Really.
The only extra is a 4:3 letterboxed trailer, though it's an unusually good one, and probably designed by legendary 007 title designer Maurice Binder, who also did the main title work for I Could Go On Singing.
While it's indeed a shame that I Could Go On Singing isn't enhanced, the movie itself is terrific, with a rallying Judy Garland giving one of her best performances in a final star vehicle equal to her great talent.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.