All the recent praise for Renee Zellweger in director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” made me fondly remember Judy Garland’s last screen performance in “I Could Go on Singing”, the frequently overlooked 1963 melodrama, with musical numbers, directed by British director Ronald Neame. Garland’s performance simply makes the film work.
While Judy was only 47 when she died in 1969, her remarkable career was so incredibly short for the impact she made in so many classic Hollywood musicals—all in just a 27 year screen career. Garland’s first feature film was the 1936 “Pigskin Parade”; but her Hollywood stock would rise tremendously as she co-starred with Mickey Rooney in “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938), a year before the monumental “Wizard of Oz.”
“I Could Go On Singing,” originally titled “The Lonely Stage,” was Garland’s only singing role after receiving an Oscar nomination for “A Star is Born” (1954), as Vicki Lester, her most powerful performance ever. In “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland” (2000) biographer Gerald Clarke begins a late chapter stating, “I Could Go on Singing” did not pretend to be anything other than a soap opera.” In fact, Garland saw nothing sparkling in the screenplay.
Here she is as American singer Jenny Bowman, who returns to London on a successful world tour and reunites with a prominent British surgeon, and former lover, David Donne (Dirk Bogarde). He has been recently widowed, and their love child, the now 15-year-old son Matt (Gregory Philips), has only been told he was adopted. The trio meets at Matt’s boarding school. Then while David is off in Rome, Jenny and Matt spend some time together and eventually, Matt discovers she’s his mother. Jack Klugman also stars as George Kogan, Jenny’s faithful manager.
Although not a musical, Neame uses the songs Garland performs thematically reflecting her character’s deep feelings. Besides a rousing rendition of the title Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg tune “I Could Go On Singing”, Garland sings with great passion, “By Myself,” by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, Cliff Friend’s “Hello Bluebird” and Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “It Never Was You.”
The bedraggled Garland was only 41 years old making this film—although she could have passed for a decade older. According to biographer Clarke, Judy was initially so disappointed with the script she asked her old friend and co-star Bogarde to write her a scene to match Vicki Lester’s wrenching monologue in “A Star is Born.” Bogarde did as she requested and the results of his efforts is one of the most arresting in Judy’s long film career.
This occurs in the terrifying climax of the film as David confronts Jenny, who is recovering in a hospital emergency room, mending an injured ankle after a drunken fall; he begs her to get her act together and perform for her waiting audience. Director Neame holds the two in nearly a seven-minute long take.
Jenny explodes, “I don’t care if they’re fasting. Give them their money back and tell them to come back next fall… I can’t be spread so thin. I’m just one person. I don’t want to be rolled out like a pastry so everybody can get a nice big bite of me. I’m just me. I belong to myself. I can do whatever I damn well please with myself and nobody can ask any questions.”
To which David quickly replies, “Now you know that is not true, don’t you?”
Jenny demands, “Well I’m not going to do it anymore. And that’s final. I—it’s just not worth all the deaths that I have to die—“
Then David insists further, “You have…you have a show to do tonight. You are going to do it and I am going to see that you do.”
Jenny sadly reveals: “You think you can make me sing? Do you think you can…you can get me there, sure. But can you make me sing? I sing for myself. I sing when I want to, whenever I want to. Just for me. I sing for my own pleasure, whenever I want. Do you understand that?”
Yet, when David tells her he truly loves her—she finds the right motivation and goes on to perform brilliantly at the Palladium. Yet sadly, somehow movie audiences ignored this film and it became Garland’s curtain call.