TDE Note: You won't see us post often to the, ahem, "progressive" Forward magazine (if you want Jewish script, try The Tablet), but this article is a fun romp through mid-century Hollywood.
When the Jewish comedian Jerick Hoffer, better known by the stage name Jinkx Monsoon, impersonated Judy Garland on a recent episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” the tribute showed how strongly Jews have been friends of Judy, to the point of wanting to become their own idealized conception of her.
From the start of her career, Garland, whose centenary is celebrated June 10, radiated onscreen wholesomeness that enchanted Jewish audiences seeking comfort at a time when rising Fascism in Europe would soon lead to the Holocaust. One interviewee in the oral history “Growing Up Jewish in America” recalled that at the old Midwood Theater on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, a haven for kosher restaurants, 1930s audiences would kvell at Andy Hardy pictures: “They were wonderful people: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. And Andy Hardy’s father, Lewis Stone — there couldn’t be an ounce of antisemitism in a man like that.”
Naturally, what was shown onscreen had little to do with the reality of the lives of each performer, and Judy Garland’s abbreviated, complex existence has been exposed in over a dozen books as well as films and TV programs. In our age of heightened sensitivity about some aspects of racial bigotry, it is noteworthy that Garland has yet to be canceled, even though she appeared in blackface in “Everybody Sing” (1938) and again in “Babes on Broadway” (1941). In the latter film, she sang “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” a 1912 opus with lyrics by the Ukrainian Jewish songwriter L. Wolfe Gilbert.
Gilbert was one of many Tin Pan Alley Jews who fled Old Country pogroms only to myopically express nostalgia for plantation days in the American South. Another such was Irving Berlin, whose 1912 “When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam’” was memorably sung and danced by Garland in the 1948 “Easter Parade,” even if the song itself teeters on absurdity, ably spoofed by Broadway wit George S. Kaufman.
With mock literalness, Kaufman pointed out that in fact, no midnight train to Alabama departed from Pennsylvania Station. Critics Michael Lasser and Philip Furia added that Berlin had created a bizarre mise-en-scène where a nostalgic African American narrator was returning to his home state just when real-life African Americans were fleeing violent Southern racism for the usually more subtle northern variety.