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Charles Walters
USA, 1950

Over the past year I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of Judy Garland fandom. Becoming a Judy fan involves seeing her movies through a unique bi-focal lens, bearing witness to not only the surface presentation, but also something deeper that binds her on-screen performance and off-screen person. Just as the auteur theory suggests that a director can bring a personal significance to the film outside of the story’s narrative boundaries, a theoretical approach to Judy’s movies can also unearth new layers of meaning.

Take Summer Stock, for example. Its outward appearance is a Technicolor musical steeped in wholesome, cornball Americana. The story follows Judy as she struggles to keep the family farm solvent and help stage a musical in the barn. Embedded within this seemingly lighthearted material, however, are several alternative narratives. The overall trajectory of Summer Stock, with its backyard “let’s put on a show” ethos, is a regression to Judy’s films of the late 1930s and early 1940s (Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, Strike up the Band, and Girl Crazy). The irony is that MGM never wanted Judy to grow up, and kept her in childish roles such as these long after she wanted to “grow up” both on- and off-screen. Seen in this light, Summer Stock isn’t a successful narrative about putting on a show—it represents a failure for Judy to take hold of her career and break free of the past. Visually, Summer Stock presents another autobiographical narrative for Judy. The transformation of Judy’s figure from first scene to last demonstrates the bodily trauma she was experiencing in real life—eating disorders and pill addictions.

Even the film’s catharsis – Judy’s metamorphosis from farm girl to stage star – resounds with irony. Song and dance, which seemingly solves all the problems of Summer Stock, was to prove time and again a curse for Judy: that which gave her life meaning also gave her unending grief. Collisions, such as these, between the person and the fiction allow the film to resonate as a dark, complicated landmark in the life and career of its star.