The next time you’re in the mood for a truly strange film, give this one a try.
Now, we don’t mean strange as in occultist or supernatural; we mean strange as in, What kind of movie is this?
We’ve recently glommed onto The Great Gabbo (1929), an early “talking picture”. It stars Erich von Stroheim as a mean, ego-fueled ventriloquist who’s slowly seeping into madness. We know he’s Losing It because he has conversations with his ventriloquial figure, Otto, wherein Otto is the Voice Of Reason.
For example, when his girlfriend leaves him, Gabbo isn’t worried, and he relays this to his wooden friend:
Gabbo: “She’ll be back.”
Otto: “I don’t think so. Not this time.”
Otto, we learn, is Gabbo’s alter ego. The wooden figure expresses the things Gabbo can’t or won’t, which is both weird and pitiful.
The film opens when Gabbo, on the verge of stardom, breaks up with the aforementioned girlfriend (Betty Compson). She believes Gabbo is a sweet man Underneath It All – *cough* baloney! – and she wants to gentrify him even though he barely tolerates her. “Of all the bumbling, stupid idiots I have seen in my life, she is the worst,” he snivels.
About Gabbo’s ventriloquist act: If such a performance were possible, it would be astounding. Get this – Gabbo smokes, eats and shoves a woman’s scarf in his mouth, all while giving the wooden figure a clear, obstruction-free speaking voice.
In doing so, Gabbo steals the show away from himself.
He soon takes this act on an acclaimed European tour and returns as the most insufferable kind of megalomaniac – one with a Pedigree.
In our opinion, there are two fascinating aspects to The Great Gabbo.
The first is its reverence for sound, which is to be expected of a movie from 1929. (It was, after all, still early in the sound era.) Filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of sound here, as evidenced by the wooden doll’s unlikely ability to speak effortlessly while Gabbo eats and drinks.
Added to this veneration are ambitious musical numbers. Yup, you read that right: In this film of madness and celebrity, much attention is devoted to dance. You see, Gabbo’s act is the crowning glory of a musical revue, and nearly half the film is spent on these musical productions.
Unsurprisingly, dance doesn’t really mesh with the story, although it does add to the film’s schizophrenia. Gabbo’s life, like his severe military-esque wardrobe, is tightly constrained. When the film breaks into song, it’s something of a relief.
The second hallmark of this film is Erich von Stroheim’s performance. He’s been criticized for being stilted, but there’s authenticity in his performance, as though he’s his own cruel parody.
Which he is.
The Austrian-born von Stroheim was, during the silent era, an actor billed as “the Man You Love to Hate”. After WWI, he became a director of “enchanted realism” films, where characters became undone by their desires. However, von Stroheim, the director, made complex and expensive films which producers were increasingly reluctant to finance. (von Stroheim’s longest and most influential film, Greed, was originally eight hours long; MGM trimmed it to 2.5 hours.)
When von Stroheim fell out of favour as a director, he returned to acting. One of his most prominent roles is that of Gloria Swanson’s butler/ex-husband, Max, in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Gabbo, of course, is another of his notable roles and, when it comes to the last scene in the film, von Stroheim leaves us with a heartbreaking image. That this churlish and infuriating character should wring so much pity out of us is remarkable.
The Great Gabbo is an unconventional film, but we feel it’s worth it. It looks its age, but it remains surprisingly relevant.
The Great Gabbo: starring Erich von Stroheim, Betty Compson, Donald Douglas. Directed by James Cruze (& an uncredited Erich von Stroheim). Written by Ben Hecht & Hugh Herbert. James Cruze Productions, 1929, B&W, 92 mins.