Thursday, March 6, 2014

Starlet Revue (Mayfair/Associated, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted to make a brief comment on the really odd movie Charles and I screened on TCM just after they showed the 1926 Don Juan: Starlet Revue, also known as The Big Revue, which appears to be the this-is-it film debut of Judy Garland, albeit under her original identity as one of the Gumm Sisters (the name on her birth certificate is Frances Gumm). It’s basically a series of four musical numbers crammed into a 10-minute short, with the predictable hissy recording of a 1929 talkie and some kids doing their best to prove that screen moppets had mastered the art of insufferable cuteness even before Shirley Temple came on the scene (Temple was 1 when this film was made). Judy a.k.a. Frances is the youngest of the Gumms and she’s on the left of the screen — and even that early dancing was the one aspect of appearing in musicals that threw her: she’s well below her two older sisters in the terpsichorean art, and one could well imagine her saying of Gene Kelly (and, in her case, Fred Astaire as well) what Sinatra said of Kelly: “I never could dance, but he made me look like I could.” Her voice sounds like a kid’s voice and the Gumm Sisters blend unbearably badly in one of those schlock songs about how much the singer(s) wish(es) they could go back to the oh so wonderful South — seven years later, in La Fiesta de Santa Barbara and rechristened the Garland Sisters (at the suggestion of George Jessel, who told the Gumm girls and their father/manager/accompanist, Frank Gumm, that their performances at the Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933 would be reviewed better if they took the last name of Chicago’s leading critic, Robert Garland), they blend beautifully and Judy’s voice had already taken on the range, timbre and intonation of an adult woman’s. I can remember when La Fiesta was still considered Judy Garland’s screen debut; then a Garland bio that went to incredible lengths to pin down every part of Garland’s career before she signed with MGM in 1935 mentioned that there were three 1930 Warner Bros./Vitaphone shorts with her (at least one of which, Bubbles, has also been shown on TCM), and now we have this one, even earlier, issued in this print under the banner of “Associated Films” (associated with what, one wonders), though the page on it indicates it was a production of the ultra-cheap Mayfair studio. Two people have reviewed this on already based on last night’s showing, and both have lamented that no one has spent the money needed to restore this so we can see it as something richer than ghostly white images of people cavorting on a black backdrop, and one of the reviewers noted that “no one has spent the few hundred research dollars necessary to discover who directed, filmed, and conducted this piece, or exactly WHAT the music is, either.” It’s a fascinating curio but as a movie is pretty lame, and noting Judy’s appearance in it, one can only shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Well, she had to start somewhere … ”