In many ways Garland was easy prey for the Hollywood predators. Bulldozed by her mother, Ethel, into movies at a very young age, Garland won a contract with MGM in 1935 and quickly established a pleasing girl-next-door image with her fellow child actor Mickey Rooney. Garland, Rooney and Deanna Durbin were inseparable companions in these early days while they worked their contracts for the studio, waiting for the big break. MGM ran them ragged, starting another film within days, sometimes hours, of the previous one, in order to squeeze as much as possible from their young talents.
Consequently, the teenagers were often too tired to work and were given adrenaline shots and pep pills to keep them awake. When they couldn’t sleep as a result, they were given barbiturates and sleeping pills. In Garland’s case, the pill-popping had begun long before Louis B Mayer, the tyrannical head of MGM, got his grubby paws on her. While on the road as The Gumdrops (a diminutive of her real family name, Gumm), her mother Ethel used to feed Garland and her two sisters pep pills to keep up the punishing schedule and maintain their performances.
But it wasn’t until Mayer was searching for a girl to play Dorothy Gale in the proposed film version of L Frank Baum’s best-selling children’s book, The Wizard Of Oz, that Garland became the studio’s most valuable commodity.
Terrorised by Mayer and his executives, the young Garland was also deeply insecure about her looks. She was surrounded by the most glamorous stars of the decade including Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo and Claudette Colbert, among others, and considered herself deeply unattractive.
After watching herself in her first feature film, Pigskin Parade in 1936, she remarked: “I was frightful. I was fat – a fat little pig in pigtails.” The fact that Mayer commonly referred to her as “My little hunchback” can’t have done much for her self-esteem either. Indeed, although he thought she could sing, he remained unimpressed by her appearance with the result that Garland was constantly having prosthetics applied to her nose and teeth, her waist was brutally corseted and she was put on a diet that would have killed most people.
Lauren Bacall recalled: “From childhood Judy was placed on drugs – to lose weight or to go to sleep or to wake up. And once you get hooked on pills... it obviously affected her.”