Judy Garland’s movie swan song I Could Go on Singing (1963) debuted in New York 55 years ago today, after a two-month London-based shoot that commenced precisely one year earlier, also in mid-May, with perhaps the movie’s most energized sequences, the legendary singer’s performances of two songs, Hello, Bluebirdand I Could Go on Singing, in front of patient but ultimately enthusiastic recruited audiences at the London Palladium, the site of many a triumphant Garland stand. (The film’s other exquisite numbers – It Never Was You and By Myself – were shot later on a Shepperton Studios recreation of the Palladium stage.) It would be a year of grinding work and huge personal life turbulence for the adulated superstar – physical exhaustion, a suicide attempt, the fracturing of the Garland/Sid Luft marriage and a legal child-custody battle, the signing of a contract for a CBS-TV variety series that held the promise of steady work and home-life stability. So by the time the finished product, directed by Ronald Neame, arrived in theaters stateside, it was already marked with the double-edge sword distinctions of being 1) a filmed record of the extraordinary impact she had on live concert performance audiences and 2) a no-holds-barred, somewhat unforgiving mirror held up to the destructive tendencies that ensnare such a unique and captivating artist for whom center stage was an obsession and a necessary addiction. Based on a nonmusical 1958 Studio One in Hollywood teleplay The Lonely Stage by Robert Dozier about a stage actress (originally played by the formidable Mary Astor) whose messy personal life threatens a professional comeback, Mayo Simon’s 1963 screenplay adaptation became a Garland self-portrait both celebratory and devastating.
She plays Jenny Bowman, an internationally revered singer who decides that this particular Blighty engagement will be her chance to reestablish a familial bond with the now teenaged son (Gregory Phillips) she left in the adoptive care of her long-ago lover (Dirk Bogarde), now a respected surgeon whose wife recently died. Temperamental and fragile, yet invincible once she excitedly revs herself up backstage to the strains of her show’s overture and strolls out in front of the crowd, she claims the love of the crowd without question. But will the responsibility of a parenting, though invigorating for a brief interval, be enough to compensate when the spotlight is switched off? Everyone in the impulsive Jenny’s inner circle, including her devoted manager (Jack Klugman) and assistant (Aline MacMahon), suspects that the stage, however lonely, will remain Jenny’s one unbreakable relationship. Dedicated Garland biographer John Fricke offers these notes in his 2010 Judy: A Legendary Film Career: “Almost in spite of itself, Judy’s final film remains a worthy valedictory to her motion picture career. A somewhat autobiographical role and performance were later defined and then congratulated by historian Foster Hirsch as ‘tabloid-level exploitation that Garland, astonishingly, manages to redeem by her truthful, low-key, improvisatory acting style.’ The exciting vocal arrangements were the work of Saul Chaplin, her compatriot from MGM’s Summer Stock a decade earlier. Mort Lindsey, Judy’s concert conductor of the preceding 14 months, provided rousing orchestrations for the numbers and composed and conducted the film’s underscoring as well. Though far from a box-office bonanza, the movie captured both on- and off-stage glimpses of the mature, in-concert Garland and included several sequences that were recognized, even on first exhibition, as virtual documentary. Years later, such parallels have been (whether or not correctly) even more embraced. It’s perhaps enough to note that, as ‘an end-of-career testimonial,’ Judy’s work in I Could Go on Singing was linked with that of Charlie Chaplin in Limelight, as Foster Hirsch appreciatively realized that the two ‘always acted with emotional ripeness that chafed against generic limits.’” That may be why the stage, lonely and fraught as it might have been for the reel Jenny or the real Judy, likely both, always seemed so bountifully full to a rapt Garland audience. Featuring two probative, production history-detailed expert Audio Commentaries, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers persuasive Technicolor/Panavision evidence in crisp 1080p hi-def clarity. Find it here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/31308/I-COULD-GO-ON-SINGING-1963/.