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New release is a reminder of Judy Garland's artistry and vocal prowess

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This year marks the centennial of Judy Garland's birth. You may have watched some of her films when she was star of the month on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Warner Brothers has been reissuing her films on Blu-ray. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is going to review the most recent of those new releases.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) They're writing songs of love but not for me. A lucky star's above but not for me. With love to lead the way, I've found more skies of gray than any Russian play could guarantee. I was a fool...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Judy Garland's poignant rendition of "But Not For Me" was the high point of Busby Berkeley's 1943 version of the 1930 Gershwin musical "Girl Crazy," not only because she's in such beautiful voice, but because she seems to be singing completely without artifice. From the very beginning of her career, audiences found Garland so lovable because of her rare emotional honesty. The only film I know in which she actually sings badly is Ziegfeld Girl from 1941, and she does it on purpose. In the story, her father is a retired vaudevillian who coaches her to punch out every song, and she's awful until she finally follows her own unerring instincts. She demonstrated those instincts in 33 feature films, 30 of them musicals, before her death at the age of 47. This year, the centennial of her birth, Warner Brothers has been reissuing a number of her films in gorgeously restored Blu-rays, joining such previously released classics as "The Wizard Of Oz," "Meet Me In St. Louis," "Easter Parade" and "A Star Is Born." These new additions also reveal that her most exuberant songs were as good as her tender ones because her joy of singing is so genuine as in the title song from her first film with Gene Kelly. It's his very first movie, and she generously gives him the melody while she sings impeccable harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR ME AND MY GAL")

JUDY GARLAND AND GENE KELLY: (Singing) The bells are ringing for me and my gal. The birds are singing for me and my gal. Everybody's been knowing to a wedding they're going. And for weeks, they've been sewing. They've been sewing something old and something new so - something that is blue so they can make a trousseau for my gal. They're congregating for me and my gal. Look here why. That's the parson waiting for me and my gal. And sometime, we're going to build a little home for two.

GARLAND: (Singing) Or three.

GENE KELLY: (Singing) Or four.

GARLAND: (Singing) Or five.

KELLY: (Singing) Or maybe more.

GARLAND AND KELLY: (Singing) In love-land for me and my gal.

SCHWARTZ: One of Garland's most underrated films is "The Harvey Girls," a 1946 Technicolor musical Western. The best-known song is Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren's "On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe," the only Garland song after "Over The Rainbow" to win an Oscar. It begins as a novelty number, with Garland's train pulling into the station. But it doesn't stop expanding until it becomes a kind of American epic. At the climax, Garland and the entire ensemble, with their arms rotating like pistons, practically turn into the train itself as it leaves for parts even further west.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE ATCHINSON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All aboard.

GARLAND: (Singing) All aboard.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We came across the country lickety-split, rolling 90 miles an hour fit to be tied (ph).

GARLAND: (Singing) I can't believe I'm here at last.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When you go traveling, it's natch (ph) for you to At (ph), Tope (ph), to Santa Fe (ph).

GARLAND: (Singing) I can't believe that everything would go so fast. Then you...

JUDY GARLAND AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Pull that throttle. Whistle blows. A-huffing and a-puffing and away she goes. All aboard for Californ-I-A...

GARLAND: (Singing) ...On the Atchison...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison...

GARLAND: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka...

GARLAND: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and...

GARLAND AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.

SCHWARTZ: The 1950 musical "Summer Stock" was Garland's last film for MGM, her company since she was a teenager. It's about Gene Kelly wanting to put on a show in Garland's barn, which she vehemently resists. It was a period of great turmoil for her with dramatic fluctuations in her weight and her ability to perform. Her major number was added months after the rest of the film was completed. Suddenly, she was 20 pounds thinner and had traded her baggy farm overalls for a fitted tuxedo jacket and a tilted black fedora. She seldom looked more sophisticated or glamorous. The song she chose was Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's great revivalist tune from 1930, "Get Happy." It seemed like advice she was giving to herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")

GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. You better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. Get ready for the judgment day. The sun is shining. Come on, get happy. The Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. We're going to the promised land. We're heading across the river to wash your sins away in the tide.

SCHWARTZ: I'm not sure that any of these musicals are among Garland's best films, but they include some of her very best work. And each of them reminds us that Judy Garland was not just a legend, but a major and indispensable artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")

GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles. Come on, get happy. Chase your cares away.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. His most recent book is called "Who's On First?: New And Selected Poems." It's published by the University of Chicago Press. He reviewed new Blu-ray editions of Judy Garland musicals released by Warner.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Congressman Adam Schiff about serving on the House committee investigating Jan. 6th and having led the first impeachment of Donald Trump. We'll also talk about Schiff's memoir, which has just been published in paperback with a new afterword. It's called "Midnight In Washington." I hope you'll join us. I am Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY")

GARLAND: (Singing) Get ready for your judgement day. Come on, get happy. Chase your cares away. Shout hallelujah. Come on, get happy. Get ready for the judgment day. Sun is shining. Come on, get happy. Lord is waiting to take your hand. Hallelujah, come on, get happy... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.