The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Great Gabbo (1929). 94 minutes. Directed by James Cruze. Starring Erich von Stroheim (as Gabbo), Betty Compson (as Mary), Donald Douglas (as Frank), Marjorie Kane (as Babe), and John F. Hamilton (as neighbor). Screenplay by Hugh Herbert. Songs by Lynn Cowan, Paul Titsworth, Donald McNamee, and King Zany. Based on the short story “The Rival Dummy” by Ben Hecht.

After slogging through some of the early sound era’s underwhelming cinematic creations, I have finally found a late 1920s sound movie that is exceptional not for its technological achievements or for its storytelling, but rather because it is deranged from beginning to end. I am talking about The Great Gabbo, the 1929 backstage musical chronicling the careers of a ventriloquist named Gabbo (portrayed by legendary silent film director Erich von Stroheim) and his ex-lover in a Broadway musical revue. The Great Gabbo seems to anticipate later movies about show-business careers such as A Star Is Born and 42nd Street (1933). However, its love triangle (involving a ventriloquist’s dummy) is too unusual to be a direct anticipator of those later films, and moreover, its suitability as a cinematic ancestor to almost anything is undermined by the fact that there is not a single moment in The Great Gabbo that is not at least mildly unhinged. Most of the drama is uncompelling, owing in part to the wooden nature of early sound dramas, with their stationary cameras, poor blocking, and dialogue that feels not fully thought out. But while the spectacle of its backstage scenes and even its choreographed onstage scenes may be underwhelming, its frequently audacious energy cannot be unfelt. While early sound extravaganzas such as The Hollywood Revue of 1929 may strive to wow us with their star-studded musical variety, The Great Gabbo seeks to thrill us through its absurd and grandiose melodrama, which culminates in Gabbo’s downfall; but The Great Gabbo is also notable for its boldness when it nods, through Gabbo, at the collapse of von Stroheim’s own silent-era career. While I cannot exactly recommend The Great Gabbo, I can promise that for the intrepid viewer, it will be a wild ride.

The film begins with Gabbo, a ventriloquist, and his assistant (and lover) Mary sharing time before Gabbo’s stage performance. Gabbo is cruel to Mary, and although Mary shows affection for Gabbo and his puppet, Otto, she leaves them both at the end of the performance. We fast-forward two years to a bigger, grander stage production, where Gabbo is performing as a headliner who smokes, drinks, and eats while he throws his voice, and Mary is a successful featured singer and dancer who appears in a musical number about spiders and flies. Gabbo believes that he can woo Mary back, and she shows affection towards him and Otto, but eventually Gabbo learns that she is married to the featured male singer in the show and uninterested in rekindling a relationship. Enraged, Gabbo snaps and runs onto the stage during the finale, screaming at the performers. Although Mary tries to intervene, he will not respond to her. In the film’s final moments, Gabbo wanders outside of the theater, fired and disgraced.

As we watch Gabbo’s ventriloquism career implode while Mary becomes a Broadway mainstay via her performance as a singing fly, The Great Gabbo takes on a kind of A Star Is Born quality—but only if A Star Is Born had been written by people who were very high. The fact that The Great Gabbo equips its protagonists with utterly underwhelming creative gifts, sans any trace of a sense of humor or perspective, underscores its peculiarly altered state, a dramatic plane on which insects, voice throwing, and onstage gargling are considered the stuff of Greek tragedy. But A Star Is Born is not the only film that The Great Gabbo anticipates: it also somewhat foreshadows 42nd Street (1933) insofar as they both chronicle the life and times of artists on- and offstage. The Great Gabbo, however, is much too weird to be a true part of the lineage of that more mainstream and acclaimed cinematic tradition either.

Part of what sets The Great Gabbo apart from both films is that the star first ascending and later descending throughout this drama—namely, Gabbo—is not merely a performer with grand career aspirations as we might expect. Instead, he is also an insufferable beast and boor, oozing with a pomposity and arrogance made all the more laughable considering that his chief claim to fame is that he is a ventriloquist, that lowest common denominator of vaudeville acts. Yet the more of him we see offstage, the more we might long for those onstage scenes when he is at least behaving himself. The first episodes of Gabbo and Mary living their unhappy domestic life together are just long displays of abuse at the hands of Gabbo. We hear so much yelling and dehumanizing; Gabbo, it becomes clear immediately, is a demanding creep who, among other things, spits out Mary’s coffee, utterly repulsed when it fails to meet his exacting standards. It is hard to believe that perky Mary would really put up with this existence, and it is challenging to understand what would attract her to such a gasbag.

The Great Gabbo also distinguishes itself by introducing a third party to the love story at the center of this show-business drama. The unpleasantness of Gabbo in those offstage scenes may seem hard to match—that is, until we meet Otto, a fairly horrifying wooden dummy with nefarious eyes and a squeaky, pre-pubescent voice that land any scene involving him squarely in the uncanny valley. Through Gabbo’s relationship with Otto, the lines between performance onstage and life offstage blur, especially because Gabbo talks to Otto and responds to himself in Otto’s voice even when not in the theater. The result is that Otto appears to be eerily imbued with a life force of his own. For example, when Gabbo goes out to a restaurant, he brings Otto along and interacts with him over dinner; the two sit at opposite ends of a wide table amongst the general public. Not only does the scene supply us with an image of ventriloquist and dummy out on the town, as if this is all perfectly normal, but it also pushes at the boundaries of taste when Otto sings “Icky (The Lollipop Song).” The strange lyrics chronicle Otto’s efforts to avoid the messiness of that particular confection while they simultaneously offer an unpleasant glimpse at his physical body:

Oh, I’d rather suck on a lemon drop
Than to try my luck with a lollipop,
‘Cause I always drop my lollipop,
And it gets all over icky.

Oh, it makes me sick with the way it shmears,
And the stuff will stick in your hair and ears.
With the lemon bean I’m always clean,
But the lollipop—oh, icky.

Apparently this is Otto’s signature musical number, and the restaurant band must see Gabbo and Otto regularly in this context, because with a wink of the eye, Otto can signal to the band to strike up “Icky” and Gabbo kicks into high performance mode.

There is a special scrubbing of the psyche that must be implemented after prolonged exposure to this grinning doll that sometimes appears to move and speak on its own offstage, and also, it must not be forgotten, invites us to contemplate its body when it is covered in candy residue. In a competition, Otto wins for most perverse on-screen puppet of 1929. It is no coincidence that The Great Gabbo influenced two of the great Twilight Zone episodes: “The Dummy” and “Caesar and Me” both involve nightmarish ventriloquist-dummy relationships that end with the dummies overpowering their human counterparts.

It must be admitted, however, that some of Otto’s power to frighten us, whether intentional or unintentional, is diminished by how utterly ridiculous Gabbo’s stage act involving him is. Gabbo’s ventriloquist shtick is based less on a routine of jokes and punchlines and more on Gabbo eating, imbibing, and smoking while he ventriloquizes. Perhaps because the water-drinking and smoking may seem like familiar ventriloquist tricks, The Great Gabbo accentuates the eating angle. Presumably we are meant to be amazed by Gabbo’s gastronomic demonstrations, which put the term “over the top” to shame: far from content to merely nibble on food to demonstrate his skills, Gabbo chows down on giant feasts as part of his performances, in one case gobbling a giant platter of Austrian food replete with piles of sausages and a whole cooked lobster. The eating onstage is ludicrous, but consider how eccentric it becomes offstage—for before Gabbo eats so copiously as part of his act, we watch him consume the large meal in the aforementioned restaurant shortly before the curtain goes up. That Gabbo plans to eat onstage afterwards and makes plans for a late dinner to take place following the show in a private dining room at the restaurant with Mary suggests that none of this eating and performing is truly filling.

Watching Gabbo’s performances, I was left to wonder who the poor, uncredited soul is who must prepare Gabbo’s onstage spread for him every night, but perhaps even more, I was puzzled as to who would actually believe that Gabbo is making Otto speak in these moments. The ventriloquizing is quite obviously a movie-created farce involving a high-pitched voiceover and is not an actual part of Erich von Stroheim’s performance as he dines in the guise of Gabbo. We know the act is not real or possible, and yet The Great Gabbo insists on showing it to us over and over again, without doing any work to make it seem more real or more possible.

When we consider that Gabbo is unendingly hungry for affection and attention, boastful of an act that is fundamentally unreal, and teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it is only natural that our minds wander to Mary: the sole human being that Gabbo is shown having some semblance of a relationship with, and seemingly the only person who could possibly help him escape from the prison of his own mindset. Mary becomes a successful star performer in the revue in between breaking up with Gabbo and encountering him two years later. Yet her affection for Gabbo remains the same—or rather, her affection for Otto remains the same, for Mary’s attachment to Gabbo is primarily expressed as a kinky affinity for Otto. She paints his little nose, she combs and straightens his hair. Otto returns what we might call “love” to her in his own strange way: the only sweet things Gabbo has said to her, he has said through Otto, she notes.

Too bad that we do not get to hear what those sweet things are (then again, maybe it is for the best). Instead we hear Otto say things such as “You are me!” to Gabbo in one of those mystifying moments where he sounds thoroughly possessed. If only it were as simple as “You are me!”—perhaps then Mary could stay with Gabbo and Otto forever, for both Mary and Gabbo (via Otto) appear to wish that Gabbo were Otto. The fact that they express such a desire contributes to our sense that both are kissed with lunacy, and for much of the film it is not clear how this issue is going to be resolved. In the end, much as Mary would like to mediate her relationship with Gabbo through Otto, she must deal with Gabbo alone, and because Gabbo will no longer deal with her, he effectively is all by himself. Even Otto ceases to speak as Gabbo spirals downwards.

As if a ventriloquist, his dummy, and their lover were not quirky enough as a combined topic for a feature film, let me not omit to mention that The Great Gabbo is a musical, with numerous strange song-and-dance points of interest. Songs like “Every Now and Then” involve Ziegfeld-inspired maidens walking up and down a long staircase, and showgirls wearing an odd assortment of costumes, including some in Little Bo-Peep attire. In all of the musical numbers, there are many lines of strutting girls, with shots of them kicking up close and at a distance. The repetitive nature of what we see suggests that the filmmakers thought all of this walking and kicking was pretty impressive stuff, but it has the effect of making the numerous shepherdesses twirling around look fairly silly.

The most thought-provoking (or perhaps just confusing) musical number must be “The Web of Love,” in which we see a giant web made of rope, complete with singers and dancers dressed as spiders and flies, with some of them hanging off of the web as they sing. This is no doubt one of the performances that is most meant to engage us in the spectacle of sound film. Mary and her new husband sing, argue, dance, and climb the web as this number proceeds. Unfortunately, the warbling and belting that Mary contributes brings undesirable high drama to the world of the spiders and flies, rendering all of it completely incapable of being taken seriously. This becomes especially true as Mary’s husband (dressed as a spider) begins to toss her (dressed as a fly) up and down, eventually carrying her on his back with her legs wrapped around his neck as he makes his way up to the center of the web.

Inexplicably, there are stationary chorus girls in this number who do nothing other than stand on the sidelines wearing patchwork dresses, fright wigs, and face masks. What on earth are they supposed to resemble? I thought at first perhaps moths, but this seems like a woefully inadequate descriptor. They contribute bizarre visual support to a performance that in all other ways is already a bizarre spectacle. Yet even with the outlandish costumes and glittering spider silk, “The Web of Love” struggles to match what it offers in terms of the new sound technology with what it offers visually—as is the case in all of The Great Gabbo’s musical numbers, the camera remains stationary throughout, taking as its sole reference point the proscenium arch of the stage, through which it unexceptionally frames all of the activity that we see. This is a world away from the Busby Berkeley musicals that were just around the corner, those glorious celebrations of the female form with their extravagant stage productions that transformed into performances seemingly as large and encompassing as the whole globe.

The underwhelming scenes offstage and the bewildering musical numbers onstage should not occlude from us the fact that from its very title to the language that we hear characters use, The Great Gabbo is on a mission, and that mission is to tell us a story about greatness. In the nightclub scene we hear the admiring murmurs of the dinner patrons as they look upon Gabbo with curiosity, even awe: “I think he’s great!” and “They say he’s great!” they comment. We even hear Otto praise his food using similar terms (“It’s great!”). The idea of greatness is tossed around so freely, so easily during this scene that we might independently begin to wonder what it all means. Indeed, the very idea that a ventriloquist can be great—in the way that Alexander the Great could be, or the way that the Great Depression, which would take root in the very year that The Great Gabbo was released, would be—seems patently absurd. What is great about Gabbo is not his art or the magnitude of his accomplishments but rather the extent of his self-importance and bombast. I am reminded of the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld, about legendary theatrical producer Florenz Ziegfeld, which similarly equates greatness with inflatedness, both in terms of its storytelling and in all aspects of its famously extravagant production.

But whereas The Great Ziegfeld does not attempt to undo any of Ziegfeld’s (or its own) greatness, The Great Gabbo actually deflates Gabbo in the film’s conclusion when Gabbo goes mad and sabotages the revue’s climax. Proclaiming that “They can’t have a finale without us!” Gabbo launches himself onto the stage, raving, “You don’t know how to laugh!” In his delirious tantrum, he inflates his own importance beyond what we have already seen, but the onlookers are no longer amused. As the finale continues around him, with the singers and dancers inanely reprising “Every Now and Then” in a seemingly endless loop, he looks especially siloed and out of sorts, and is left standing with Otto, who slumps at an angle, resembling a sad doll. Gabbo is fired—this is surely the end of his career, and as we watch as he emerges from the theater alone in the lamplight of the street, we see two workers already removing his name from the marquee.

Not only does The Great Gabbo remove whatever greatness was attached to Gabbo, but it also implicitly does this to the man who portrays him, Erich von Stroheim. Gabbo inexplicably dresses in the fine white uniform of an Austrian military officer, complete with medals, monocle, breeches, and clanking saber. Generally speaking, this was the attire favored by von Stroheim in his silent-era directing days. Yes, von Stroheim was that silent-era director—the one with the affectation for monocles and who strove to manage sets with unbending military precision, even as his productions infamously spiraled out of control, becoming ever larger and more bloated. His masterpiece Greed (1925), for example—an epic tragedy about a California dentist—originally ran for almost eight hours before the studio seized it and edited it down. So von Stroheim, known for his extravagance and actually billed in the 1920s in advertisements for his films as “The Man You Love to Hate,” understood a thing or two about greatness in all senses in which I am discussing it: Greed is genuinely a great film in all of its surviving forms (and presumably in its lost eight-hour version), and von Stroheim was also well known for personally bringing arrogance and pomposity to the execution of all of his silent-era projects. (For more on von Stroheim’s life and career, I recommend the excellent Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim [2004] by Richard Koszarski).

Like Gabbo’s name, von Stroheim’s name was taken down from the marquees; the silent era passed into the sound era, American cinema changed dramatically, and the appetite for the films that were von Stroheim’s forte weakened. But even before then, the studio hierarchy had begun to bring its hammer down on von Stroheim’s extravagant productions, and his career languished when the industry decided he was more difficult to work with than was worth it. It is hard, then, to watch as The Great Gabbo deflates Gabbo the ventriloquist and not see von Stroheim the director reflected in Gabbo, for Gabbo is a stand-in for von Stroheim—both in attire and in attitude, but also in terms of a creative career that goes awry and the accompanying public rejection of a former “greatness,” in whatever way we choose to understand that word. Perhaps it is uncomfortable to see, but it is also decidedly provocative for the way that it forces us to see von Stroheim acting out a kind of micro-version of his own personal and professional tragedy.

To what extent von Stroheim cogitated the implications of this outlandish affair for his career is unclear. In a ventriloquist movie, as long as you are not playing the dummy, I suppose you come out on top. And whatever we might think of The Great Gabbo–that it is unbelievable, perhaps, or even bonkers—it is too weird to be dumb. That compliment may not be direct, but then neither is anything in the world of ventriloquism, and in that world I shall leave Gabbo and Otto to eat and sing for the rest of their days.