The Sad, Ironic History Behind Judy Garland’s “Get Happy”

Sam Smith and Renée Zellweger have unveiled their cover of the classic song for the Garland biopic "Judy."

As previously reported, queer crooners Rufus Wainwright and Sam Smith are joining Renée Zellweger on the soundtrack for her comeback Oscar vehicle, the Judy Garland biopic Judy.

The just-released cover of “Get Happy” features Zellweger and Smith breezily skipping through the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler standard, made famous by Garland in her 1950 film, Summer Stock.

Though joyful, Garland’s version of the song is ironic, its upbeat tone belying the draaaaammmaaaa behind the film from whence it soft-shoed. Summer Stock is, in many ways, the quintessential Judy Garland vehicle. It features her singing and dancing with Gene Kelly in hopes of saving her failing farm, in some of her best performances captured on screen—and in one of her most iconic looks.

And off screen things were also quintessential Judy—because mom was a mess. Kelly had agreed to do the film as a favor to Garland, who was going through a real rough patch. She was battling an addiction to psychiatric medications, a battle she had been waging since she was prescribed them as a child star to control her weight. Fresh out of rehab, MGM hoped Summer Stock would get Garland back on her feet and her career back on track. The film was essentially a concerted effort to keep Garland together—and alive.

During the six-month shoot, the then-27-year-old Garland was racked with insecurity over her appearance—she was overweight from rehab—and her ability to work. Garland was in such a state that Kelly and Summer Stock’s director, Charles Walters, had to literally prop her up, each of them taking an arm.

“There were even times when we had to nail the scenery down and provide her with supports so she wouldn’t fall over,” Walters recalled in Gene Kelly: A Biography by Clive Hirschhorn. “Once, I remember, she had to walk up a few steps, and she couldn’t do it. So I had to cheat the shot, and shoot the scene from a different angle. The whole experience was a ghastly, hideous nightmare which, happily, is a blur in my memory.”

Garland, who was and would be no stranger to getting fired from a set, was clearly in no condition to work, but studio head and well-documented monster Louis B. Mayer had a rare moment of compassion, telling producer Joe Pasternak, “Judy Garland has made this studio a fortune in the good days, and the least we can do… is to give her one more chance. If you stop production now, it’ll finish her.”

And so they soldiered on. Garland finished the production, and you can’t really tell she was falling apart at the seams the entire time. For proof of what a truly gifted and consummate performer she was, even in the face of personal turmoil, look no further than the barn-dance sequence from Summer Stock, with Garland matching the ridiculously good Kelly step for step.

However, Garland’s climactic number “Get Happy” was shot three months after production wrapped, when the filmmakers realized they needed a big, fat finish. By then Garland, with the help of a hypnotist, had lost 15 to 20 pounds, and she appears visibly thinner. This gives the movie’s finale an almost mystic quality, as if Garland’s character has been somehow transformed by love.

Garland would later repurpose “Get Happy,” reflecting its sadness with the classic gay wet dream that was this duet with fellow big-voiced, multitalented diva Barbra Streisand, for Judy’s short-lived talk show:

Considering Smith’s proficiency with melancholia, and this version being an actual duet, it would have been a more suitable choice for him and Zellweger—albeit a less lively one.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat