Judy Garland and MGM’s Nostalgic Midwestern Home
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Judy Garland and MGM’s Nostalgic Midwestern Home

Judy Garland starred in more than twenty-five films for MGM between 1935 and 1950, including a whole slew of “backyard” musicals with fellow singer/dancer Mickey Rooney. In many of these musicals, the teenage Garland plays a precocious, aspiring/professional singer, but following 1939’s The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming), MGM cast Garland in several musicals in which she plays preternaturally talented amateurs. These “amateur” musicals are set at the turn of the twentieth century in the Midwest or West and help to define the characteristics of the subgenre Rick Altman would later call “folk” musicals.1 In particular, Garland’s MGM folk musicals—The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1944), The Harvey Girls (dir. George Sidney, 1946), and In the Good Old Summertime (dir. Robert Z. Leonard, 1949)—paint a nostalgic portrait of the Midwest as the American home.

Whether set on a Kansas farm, in a big Victorian house in St. Louis, on the (admittedly non-midwestern) Arizona frontier, or in a nostalgic Chicago neighborhood, these films all reject the urbane, cosmopolitan musicals popular on Broadway in the 1920s and in Hollywood in the 1930s. As Desiree J. Garcia argues, Hollywood folk musicals in general “shifted both form and content to foreground ordinary, specifically American subject matter that found its musical inspiration not in European kingdoms or places of entertainment, but in the idyllic American countryside and small towns of the early twentieth century.”2 Garland’s MGM folk musicals promote a nostalgic, fantasy version of the early-twentieth-century Midwest in particular as the ideal location for this project. [End Page 209]

Fig. 1. The courtyard of Dorothy’s Kansas farm. The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939).
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Fig. 1.

The courtyard of Dorothy’s Kansas farm. The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939).

Creating and Recycling the Midwestern Home

In all of these films, home is the primary theme. While most musicals of the classical period end with a marriage, they do not all define the home in relation to the Midwest, as Garland’s MGM folk musicals do. Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, and In the Good Old Summertime each build on the home theme of The Wizard of Oz and employ folk strategies to define a nostalgic, turn-of-the-twentieth-century fantasy of domestic life, though some are more successfully than others. The one film set outside the Midwest, The Harvey Girls, falls flat in that respect, suggesting that the Midwest (or a nostalgic, fantasy version of the Midwest) is better suited for this project than is the frontier.

MGM’s 1939 musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s popular 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz revises many key features of the story to emphasize the importance of Dorothy’s midwestern home. The film’s revisionist take is partly due to the conventions of Hollywood classical narrative, which requires a plot driven by character psychology (i.e., clear cause and effect),3 but the change from a fairy tale to a Bildungsroman has significant effects on the representation of Kansas. In the novel, for instance, Dorothy’s Kansas home is a one-room farmhouse surrounded by gray nothingness. Baum specifies, “Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions.”4 In MGM’s film, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm is a large, sheltering complex, as shown in the courtyard scenes (Figure 1). [End Page 210]

Fig. 2. Dorothy has trouble getting back home. The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939).
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Fig. 2.

Dorothy has trouble getting back home. The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939).

The literal embrace of the farm buildings symbolizes the protective family Dorothy does not appreciate at the beginning of the film. In fact, she experiences danger only when she leaves the protective confines of the farm. Her primary nemeses, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and the cyclone, are dangers that come from outside the farm’s fences, and Dorothy’s struggle with numerous gates and doors shows how difficult it is to regain access to the physical and metaphoric embrace of the home after she runs away (Figure 2...