Sometimes you just have to listen to your goosebumps. "Rainbow," the NBC movie about the early career of Judy Garland, at 9 tonight on Channel 4, may not stand up to the strictest critical tests, but it does deliver a touching story with no-nonsense emotional oomph, a quality that is immensely agreeable and probably apt.
The film written by John McGreevey, from a book by Christopher Finch, and directed by Jackie Cooper, proves more respectable and affable by far than a slew of fairly recent theatrical features about nasty old Hollywood, including "Gable and Lombard," "W.C. and Me," "Valentino" and "Nickelodeon." The subject of moviemaking seems entirely beyond today's moviemakers.
"Rainbow," predominantly even-keeled, sees Garland as a victim of the exploitative studio system, of the pills Louis B. Mayer urged her to take to lose weight, and so on, but it also acknowledges the tenacious and amitious dynamo within the injured little girl. No one ever became a star without some collusion on their part.
Though the film is several notches beyond most TV-movies, its viewing audience may be down a notch or two, particularly on Washington, because of competition from the Redskins-Baltimore Colts game on ABC. NBC has the strong lead-in of "Little House on the Praire," however, and "Rainbow" makes a complementarily bittersweet follow-up.
Andrea McArdle, in the Garland role, does not really suggest, much less epitomize, Garland's particular sassy charm. Her looks and stubborn inexpressiveness are more reminiscent of Ruby Keeler, and her flinty Broadway singing voice (she was the first to star as "Annie" on the stage), brings to mind a young Ethel Merman.
And yet McArdle manages most of the musical numbers effectively, if not with flawless authenticity, and she even pulls off the film's audacious finale, a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that is supposed to be taking place on the MGM soundstage as work is completed on "The Wizard of Oz" (in "Rainbow," the Paramount lot has been cast as the MGM lot).
For another singer to do "Over the Rainbow" is like a smalltown newscaster borrowing Uncle Walter's "That's the way it is," but McArdle proves herself the proverbial trouper and stops well short of sacrilege.
The crises in Garland's life resemble formula pathos - a broken home, the early death of daddy, a fear of being unattractive - but they are given dimension by the fact that the girl born Frances Ethel Gumm also had a spectacular talent. She was able to be Judy Garland.
Instead of backing off from the soap operatic elements of the story, director Cooper - who knew Garland and is himself portrayed in the film - and writer McGreevey see the reverberations in them and stage them as if Garland's life were as much a movie as the movies that she made.
Thus it doesn't seem corny but in fact absurdly perfect that Garland, her dying father listening to his little girl on the radio from the hospital, chooses to serenade him with the ballad which he earlier sang at her bedside - "I'll Get By."
And two brief segments are reminiscent of the 1954 Garland version of "A Star Is Born," one in which executives at Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. listen blankly to her auditions (as in the "Born in a Trunk" number) and another in which her pudgy little kisser is revised by MGM's makeup department.
Garland's mother is played by Piper Laurie, who still has the face of an angel but who here also suggests someone with the backbone of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Martin Balsam is awfully restrained as Louis B. Mayer, Don Murray satisfactorily evanescent as Garland's father, and Michael Parks overcomes the miscasting that tries to pass him off as Roger Edens, one of a gaggle of geniuses who made MGM musicals the festivities that they were.
It should also be noted that a notable young actor named Moosie Drier comes on like gangbusters in his brief appearance as Mickey Rooney.
Not in a million years should "Rainbow" be taken as the whole truth about Garland, Hollywood, stardom, or Louis B. Mayer's chicken soup. The film was shot in a mellow rosy glow that serves as a kind of advisory - this is a romantic reminiscence, not a back-alley expose. What's most critically missing from the depiction is a sense of Garland's humor, and the self-deprecation she would later use to patch herself back together after one highly public calamity or another. She must have been a bit more knowing and caustic a child than the one shown here.
But we should probably be grateful for the tasteless touches Cooper avoided; certainly there is precedent for the low down voyeur's approach in scores of books, movies and journalism devoted to the sufferings and excesses of the famous. A morbid preoccupation with Garland's tribulations, as opposed to a genuine appreciation for her comedic and musical gifts, made it difficult to call oneself a fan during her final turbulent years. Her concerts became sessions of mutual exhibitionism for herself and her audiences.
Perhaps the best thing about "Rainbow" is that it clears away some of those grislier memories and comes out on the side of making allowances for those who are turned into legends by their fellow mortals. One of McArdle's most effective numbers is also one that Garland recorded successfully in the '30s, "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and its lyrics say something about the way Cooper and his colleagues approached the project.
"I still recall the thrill," McArdle sings; "I guess I always will."
"Rainbow" makes recalling the thrill a privilege.