At the start of one of the best films Judy Garland ever made, A Star Is Born (1954), beams of radiant light cast by giant buzzing klieg lights pierce the starry night sky and we’re caught up in the excitement and glamour of a splashy movie premiere. The landmark show-biz musical drama itself received a similarly lavish Pantages Theater September 29, 1954 red carpet premiere event that was beamed nationwide as a broadcast special. Fifty-four years ago last night, the beloved singer/actress’s final film, another showbiz musical drama aptly named I Could Go on Singing (1963), got its own splendid sendoff at London’s Plaza Cinema. See some Ed Sullivan-hosted film highlights of the gala evening here:
Both movies capture peak Garland performances of song standards, close-to-the-bone, emotional acting and wrenching finales that are a poignant blend of personal sadness and artistic triumph. But I Could Go on Singing, directed with diplomatic care and panache by Ronald Neame, carries the added frisson of what esteemed film historian David Thomson called “a grotesque note of autobiography,” because its storyline, drawn from Robert Dozier’s 1958 Studio One in Hollywood teleplay The Lonely Stage, evolved into a perfect fit for the troubled Garland. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson reflects: “Long before her actual death [which came in London in 1969], it was clear how far her career had been given over to disasters, breakdown, and a general messiness that sprang from her emotional intensity. Her greatest admirers were able to interpret the chaos as almost a proof of her integrity….Not only was she capable of the deepest immersion in her material, but her own technical flaws and professional shortcomings were made to seem touching proof of her survival. She was always much more than a film actress. She was a great dramatic singer, and she thrived on personal appearances when, at her best, she could dominate the Palladium or Carnegie Hall.” I Could Go on Singing, also starring Dirk Bogarde, Jack Klugman and Aline MacMahon as beleaguered allies in the struggles of legendary performer Jenny Bowman (Garland) to reboot her personal and professional lives, captures both the thorny messiness and transporting magic of an existence constantly in the spotlight. Following that premiere, British reviewers were dazzled, from Penelope Gilliat’s “She is a harrowingly good actress” to Paul Dehn’s “A few great players are alchemists, who can turn corn golden, and Judy Garland is one of the few” to David Robinson’s “She is personally as superb as ever, as enchantingly vulnerable, as thrillingly strident….Always fascinating to watch.” Somehow, months later, the film’s stateside arrival drew a more muted response – applause for the star but enough dismissal of her vehicle as to warrant caution that it was really for devotees only – and subsequently modest box-office returns. That was enough to dim the prospects for future film work, although TV and concert appearances would continue. Twilight Time’s I Could Go on Singing Blu-ray, featuring Garland performances of the songs By Myself, Hello Bluebird, It Never Was You and the Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg-penned I Could Go on Singing, plus two riveting Audio Commentaries that probe the film’s tumultuous production and legacy, keeps the klieg lights blazing in gorgeous 1080p Panavision widescreen clarity, and is now offered at a limited-time price of 50% off list.