Written especially for a sequence in the film where Dorothy’s world turned from black and white to Technicolor…
Over The Rainbow – Judy Garland with Victor Young & His Orchestra
One of the greatest stars of the Golden Age Of Hollywood, Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 1922, and grew up within the old studio star system. Under this somewhat medieval regime, the destiny, and indeed ability to work and earn a living was strictly controlled by the studio to which the actor or actress was signed. When stars became “difficult” or refused to adhere to strict studio rules, their contracts were “suspended”. They were simply offered no work until a period of penance had been served, and the studio saw fit to reinstate the contract. These facts serve to illustrate the circumstances in which Judy Garland came to star in The Wizard Of Oz and sing her trademark song, ‘Over The Rainbow’.
The Wizard Of Oz was made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1939 at a cost of just over $3 million after songwriter Arthur Freed, writer of such other hits as ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, persuaded Louis B.Mayer to buy the film rights to the children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum. (There had in fact been several previous movie versions) Mayer appointed Freed associate producer of the film, but wanted child star Shirley Temple to play the part of Dorothy – however, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t release Temple from her contract, so 16 year-old Judy Garland, contracted to MGM, got the part instead. This was also apparently at the instigation of Freed – Mayer didn’t think that Judy Garland was particularly pretty, and in fact nicknamed her his ‘monkey’!
Following her performance in The Wizard Of Oz, Judy Garland swiftly became one of MGM’s biggest stars, and the film was so successful that Louis B.Mayer decided to set up a new musical unit headed by Freed. Stealing the director recognised as the “king of the musicals”, Busby Berkeley, from Warner Brothers, MGM swiftly became the leading producer of musical extravaganzas in the 1940s and 1950s. To write the music for Wizard, Freed hired Harold Arlen, one of the top Hollywood songwriters of the period. Arlen wrote many classics of the age including, ‘Stormy Weather’, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ and ‘Let’s Fall In Love’, and together with lyricist Yip Harburg, the songs for The Wizard Of Oz including ‘Rainbow’. Other Yip Harburg compositions included, ‘April In Paris’, and the depression hit, ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’
Remarkably, Judy Garland might never have been famous for her rendition of the song. It was cut from the film several times, because MGM felt it slowed the pace, and again it was Arthur Freed who went to Mayer and insisted the song be re-instated. Written especially for a sequence in the film where Dorothy’s world turned from black and white to Technicolor, Harburg’s lyric also had a political slant, written in optimism at America’s future under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Program. (Apparently Harold Arlen’s music had originally been a little slower but was speeded up a bit at the suggestion of Ira Gershwin) One of the most memorable songs of the 20th century, Judy Garland later commented; “It is so symbolic of everyone’s dream and wish that I’m sure that’s why people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. It’s the song that’s closest to my heart.”
The song as featured in the movie was first recorded in October 1938, before filming began. However, Judy Garland’s first version of the song made available to the public (and the one that first reached the record charts) was a re-recording made for Decca on 28th July 1939 with Victor Young and his Orchestra. (Judy was signed to Decca in 1937, her first hit song ‘Dear Mr Gable’) The MGM movie version was later issued as part of a box set of five 78 rpm’s. (The movie premiered in America on August 12th 1939) ‘Over The Rainbow’ won the 1939 Oscar® for Best Original Song. It was perhaps fortunate that Gone With The Wind didn’t feature any songs since that movie walked off with the rest of the awards at the ceremony.
Judy Garland, like many Hollywood stars (and perhaps because she found fame at such an early age) was much troubled by problems in her private life, and addiction to alcohol and drugs. These addictions were often, again, a result of pressure from the studios to work long hours on films, and particularly for their female stars, to gain and lose weight at short notice due to filming requirements. Judy Garland died from an accidental overdose of sleeping tablets in 1969. ‘Over The Rainbow’ was voted Number 1 on an RIAA (Record Industry Association Of America) list of the best songs of the 20th century entitled, Songs Of The Century. While Judy Garland’s version of ‘Over The Rainbow’ is regarded as an all-time classic, many younger readers will probably prefer the new millennium hit version by the late Eva Cassidy.
As a matter of historical interest, another song from The Wizard Of Oz performed by Judy Garland and other members of the cast became a British hit in April 2013 under somewhat unusual circumstances. During the week in which former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, a social media campaign by anti-Thatcher groups attempted to place ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ at the top of the BBC charts. This caused considerable media controversy and the BBC decided NOT to air the track (which was only 51 seconds in length, and consequently the shortest ever track to make the Top 20) on their Sunday afternoon chart show regardless of which place it made in the charts. In the event, the track didn’t top the charts but reached #2 with a reported total of 52,605 downloads. Instead of playing the track, BBC Radio 1 ran a news insert explaining why the song had appeared on the charts.
(The tune of Vera Lynn’s wartime smash ‘White Cliffs Of Dover’ from 1942 seems to have appropriated its chorus melody from ‘Over The Rainbow’. Written by a pair of Americans – before the US entered the war – they also placed bluebirds above the famous Dover cliffs, though that is actually a total non-starter! The chorus of David Bowie’s 1972 hit ‘Starman’ is also very similar to the chorus of ‘Rainbow’)
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