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Judy Garland Show, Vol. 2, The
There was always the voice - through pain and happiness, professional success and personal tragedy. It was haggard at times, and could raise the roof with its old school sonic swagger. But there was no denying that voice - a voice that launched a thousand "You Made Me Love You" affairs, that transported us "Over the Rainbow" and regaled us to "Shout Halleluiah, Come On, Get Happy!" Even near the end, it was that marvelous voice, that classic combination of pitch and performance, charm and china doll misfortune that gave the former face a new lease on life, one her career could only manage for short amounts of drug-fueled time. Still, what bliss to be able to tune in, week in and week out, and watch someone like Judy Garland sell a song...at least, that was the idea behind giving the star her own TV show back in the early '60s. The offshoot of some successful specials, this series was more or less a make or break moment for the 41 year old. Looking a good decade older, and with a reputation for being unreliable and difficult, she needed the support of her adoring public to keep from totally falling apart. Sadly, as this DVD collection points out, no matter how powerful the pipes, forces behind the scenes and her own internal demons doomed her chances.
Though it's listed as "Volume 2" on the DVD cover, the two episodes of The Judy Garland Show offered here come from much later in the star's variety show run - installments number nine and ten to be exact. It was smack in the middle of the series second bout with producer changes. George Schlatter, who would later go on to helm '60s mega-success Laugh-In, as well as '70s reality TV pioneer Real People, had just been fired for making Ms. Garland "too glamorous". Famed director Norman Jewison was brought in, and with him came an emphasis on "humanizing" the former MGM icon. He lasted until episode 13. So here we are, stuck in the middle of the great Jewison experiment, a move that made Judy the butt of jokes from resident comic Jerry Van Dyke, as well as frequently burdened with between-song banter that belittled her noted personal issues and emphasized her career complaints.
Yet as mentioned before, it's the singing that matters. In the first show featured here, the one and only Babs Streisand shows up for some good natured belting. At one point, the Grand Dame of the stage, Ethel Merman, joins the duo for a rousing rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business". Throughout, Garland and Streisand do what they do best - wowing the audience (both in studio and at home) with their amazing vocal prowess. The comedy guest stars, The Smothers Brothers, are not so successful. Their act is oddly dated and drawn around a 'Goofus and Gallant' divergent personality byplay that just doesn't deliver in 2009. The second show features Garland's Oz co-star, Ray Bolger, and her replacement at MGM, Jane Powell. Both are troopers, but they just can't compete with their hostess. The former Scarecrow gets a running gag about "not" doing his classic numbers - only to finally acquiesce and do them. Powell, on the other hand, is just amiable ear candy. Nothing more.
For someone who has adored Garland for most of their adult life, this DVD set is a sad reminder of how horrible the selfish culture can be to even its greatest achievers. Though she is only just turned 41, the singer looks awful here, drained of all the vigor and vitality that spawned a million musical love affairs. There is no denying that life was hard on Garland - addictions, disappointments, financial issues, etc. - but she always had her voice, and its said singing ability that saves The Judy Garland Show. Forget Jerry Van Dyke, his manic mugging, and his recently retrofitted attempts at turning celebrity into a limelight laughing stock. Dick's brother is mostly harmless and forgettable here, doing stupid stuff that only sullies his own, not Garland's, reputation. This goes double for the attempts at humor at the star's artistic expense. When we hear Garland prepare for a delightfully dour version of "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)", we imagine something very special. Then the show goes and spoils it by turning the bar setting into a swinging nightclub sequence, including extras who actually shout over and stifle Garland's take. Just horrifying.
But then the set makes up for it with that ultimate songstress summit, the meeting of the Funny Girl and the Harvey Girl. Streisand and Garland are magnificent, in friendly competion with each other for the audience's attention while never once giving over to diva antics or smug egotism. In fact, for those who only know Ms. Babs from her recent bouts with perfectionism and professional drama, seeing her at the literal start of her career is spellbinding (during a friendly Q&A, she talks about Girl as her next stage project). Even when Merman shows up to play spoiler, the trio take it to the bank and earn all kinds of interest on the investment. This is typical of The Judy Garland Show. Just when you think they can't come up with another wacky stunt or stupid bit of star/co-star byplay, the writers regress and deliver. But then the voices show up and sweep away the silliness. Sure, Garland can be a bit of a stiff, her clear detachment from reality forcing many a guest to do most of the heavy lifting. Luckily, in the Streisand show, both Judy and her young protégé come across like all kinds of gangbusters.
The Bolger/Powell parade is not as successful. Both performers are so out of Garland's league, so old school to Judy's pained Pagliacci openness that we can't help but whiff the falsehood. When Ray whips into a surreal solo dance number where his old "hits" are celebrated by fleet footed fragility, we almost buy it. But there are attempts to be hip and happening that just don't gel. Similarly, Powell is all pluses and minuses. Sometimes, she sings like a solid saloon torch. But a few minutes pass by and then we're front and center at a staging by the Golden Era of Hollywood Lite Operetta Society. This is not meant to detract from anyone's fame or celebrated abilities. But when you're cruising with Garland, you've got to bring your A-game. In this case, Streisand definitely does. For Bolger and Powell, the problem is more ethereal. They are great artists, but just not completely in sync with their host's genius. Indeed, the one thing you take away from The Judy Garland Show is how special the star really was. Forget all the flaws and infamous foibles - the lady could SING! And when she does so here, all other programming problems are instantly forgiven.
In a word - amazing. The black and white video image from four decades ago looks amazing, the 1.33:1 full screen transfer treating the material with majesty and near flawless recreation. Sure, the super sharp contrasts of the monochrome threaten to provide a few moments of feedback/haloing/flaring, but unlike crappy old TV shows that use kinescopes to celebrate their subject, these fresh feeling images are just the trick.
Equally unbelievable. Look around sometimes and ask yourself - where's the mic? No, these performers weren't lip syncing. Somehow, '50s and '60s sound engineers could find a way to perfectly meld voices and off-stage orchestration without either overpowering the other. This is obvious in the newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound track. The aural element offered is exceptional. Even the original Mono is good.
While the cover art suggests that there are outtakes provided, none are apparent on the DVD menu, nor are they found when placing the disc through various "file search" software. This means that there are no bonus features as far as this critic can discern - and that's a shame. If anyone deserves context it's Garland.
Again, it all goes back to that voice. You just can't beat it - and when combined with the equally excellent song stylings of one Barbra Streisand, it's hard to argue with the end results. Even with Jerry Van Dyke's acute lameness, the show's unevenness, the attempts at turning Judy Garland into a self-effacing joke, the often underwhelming nature of her guest stars, this variety show still succeeds. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it's just a shame that is parsing out the episodes this way. Maybe it's because of the technical needs in tweaking each installment for a 2009 viewership. Perhaps it's an issue of access. Or it could be that these are the best of the bunch, the cream of a creative crop that would deliver more bombs than bliss otherwise. Even if the shows were subpar, barely watchable examples of 1960s TV production gone grainy and flickered, that voice would still resonate. It's the reason we still care about Judy Garland some 40-plus years after her untimely death. It's the reason The Judy Garland Show still stands up.
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