Judy Canova is best remembered today as a comic actress, but she cut her share of records from the early '30s and into the end of the '50s. As either actress or singer, however, she was a most unlikely success story.
She was born Juliette Canova in Starke, FL, in 1913. By the time she was 12, she and her sister, Diane, and brother, Leon, were performing together and she had adopted the stage name Judy. The trio, known as the Three Georgia Crackers, told jokes and sang songs on the radio in Jacksonville, which led to bookings for nightclub performances in New York. The trio was signed to the American Record Company in 1931, cutting hillbilly novelty songs, and later appeared in a Broadway revue entitled Calling All Stars.
Judy Canova always stood out; she was very tall, with a wide-eyed expression seemingly impressed upon her face. This made her ideal as a future foil in comedy sketches, but not attractive in the conventional sense. She tried studying classical singing only to discover that she lacked the fundamental vocal equipment needed for that repertory. She then decided to take advantage of the one gift she did have -- a loud voice.
Following Calling All Stars, she made her debut onscreen as a Warner Bros. contract player, specializing in comedic material. The most notable of these early appearances was in the film In Caliente, doing a comical rendition of the then-current hit "The Lady in Red" under the direction of Busby Berkeley. Then it was back to Broadway to the Ziegfeld Follies, and then more work with her brother and sister. The trio even made it onto television before the decade was out. They were likely the first country group to perform in the new medium, courtesy of NBC's experimental broadcasting in 1939.
Canova had played bit parts in movies like Thrill of a Lifetime (starring Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour) and Artists and Models (with Jack Benny and Ida Lupino). These were walk-ons, however, and nothing better came along from the major studios. Then in 1940, she received an offer of a contract from Republic Pictures, the biggest of Hollywood's "B" movie studios. Republic specialized in producing high-quality serials and entertaining low-budget comedies, Westerns, and action films.
Her first film for Republic, Scatterbrain, gave Canova star billing, and this was her breakthrough. She proved a sympathetic figure on the screen, the kind of persona audiences loved to root for. Sis Hopkins followed and was the movie that cemented her image. Canova played an innocent good-natured country waif new to the big city, whose honesty and fortitude allowed her to triumph over the more sophisticated people around her. She made 13 movies for Republic in 15 years, never veering from the role of the corn-fed Cinderella. She often worked opposite the likes of such then-popular comedians as Jerry Colonna and Joe E. Brown, and her co-stars included up-and-coming players like Susan Hayward.
Canova also took advantage of her singing voice and her yodelling, both onscreen and in the recording studio. During the early '40s, she was signed to RCA/Victor and she later also cut sides for the Okeh, Mercury, and Varsity labels. She also got her own radio program, The Judy Canova Show on CBS, beginning in 1943, which proved even more successful than her movies. In 1945, the program moved to NBC and became one of the Top Ten most popular radio shows in the country, drawing 18 million listeners at the peak of her career. A mix of country comedy and music, Canova's program was the forerunner to television series such as The Beverly Hillbillies. There was a serious, patriotic side to her work during World War II, when one of her most popular numbers was her show-closer, a version of the Patsy Montana song "Good Night Soldier." She also sold a lot of War Bonds and entertained thousands of soldiers.
Canova's radio show ended in 1953 and she never made the jump to television. She preferred doing guest appearances in the new medium, in between engagements in Las Vegas and other personal appearances. Her last film performance was in the 1960 feature Huckleberry Finn and she was seldom seen after that, apart from rare guest spots on shows such as Pistols 'N Petticoats in the 1960s, in which she again exploited her hillbilly persona. Her daughter Diana, born in 1953, emerged as an actress in the late '70s with appearances on shows like Happy Days, before getting starring roles in Soap and I'm a Big Girl Now.
Judy Canova died in 1983 after a long battle with cancer. Her movies aren't shown very much anymore, even on television, but there's no mistaking the tall, big-voiced country girl, a unique persona in movies and music for three decades.