Great Gabbo (1929)

“Ha-Ha-Ha, Hee-Hee-Hee, Ho-Ho-Ho, I’m Laughing.”

Theatrical poster for 1929's The Great Gabbo

This elderly piece of cinema follows the romantic and professional misadventures of ventriloquist Gabbo and his amazing dummy Otto. Gabbo (Erich Von Stroheim) is rather renowned for his skill in the ventriloquial arts, and that unfortunately has gone to his head. He is cruel, egocentric, and obsessed with the dummy. One might even go so far as to say that he is a little bit mad. Gabbo’s beautiful assistant-slash-girlfriend Mary (Betty Compson) has had to put up with his nonsense for far too long, and so she walks out on him. Being abandoned by Mary pushes him further over the edge, and in no time at all, Gabbo is treating Otto as if he were a real live boy. It’s the Pinocchio story, if the whole thing was nothing more than Gepetto’s delusion. Because of his talent, Gabbo rises to the top, but that just means he makes a louder crash when he falls.

Photo of Gabbo and Otto, as seen in 1929's The Great Gabbo

This is truly a bizarre movie from start to finish, and I don’t say that because of the plot. I say that because of everything else going on that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It is simply astounding how many full-length song and dance numbers that director James Cruze crammed into this movie, especially when you consider that most of them didn’t involve Gabbo in the least. I’m assuming that he was attempting to capture the feeling of being at one of the live theater events around which this movie revolves, but this definitely ventured into overkill territory, at least for modern audiences.

Beyond all the singing and dancing, there are also the extended scenes where Gabbo and Otto are performing. One or two truncated performances is to be expected, but we are shown endless minutes of stage time in which Otto tells mildly-amusing jokes while Gabbo drinks wine, smokes cigarettes, eats dinner, and shoves silk scarves into his gaping maw. They don’t wear on you quite as much as the musical numbers, but at a certain point, you’ve already seen everything that you need to see…and then you realize that you’re only halfway through. The movie is based on the short story “The Rival Dummy” by Ben Hecht, so I suppose they had to pad the running time somehow, but honestly, if someone were to edit out all of the fluff and foma, we would be left with a fairly decent 30-minute television episode—or perhaps 60-minute, as the same Hecht story was adapted for an episode of STUDIO ONE in 1949.

Gabbo losing his grip on reality is demonstrated most prominently in the scene where Gabbo and Otto go out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Otto is given his own seat and orders his own meal. Other patrons speculate that this is perhaps some wild publicity stunt, but the truth is not quite so mundane.

Although the creep factor is high, THE GREAT GABBO isn’t a horror film. It isn’t intended to be, and shouldn’t be judged by the same standards. I’m not quite sure what it is, or what it was intended to be, which makes it very hard to judge, indeed. Horror or not, it remains the great-grandfather of many an evil dummy film, though the roles are noticeably switched here. The ventriloquist is the rotten scoundrel in this equation, and it’s only when speaking through the dummy that Gabbo isn’t something of a right bastard. He has transferred all of his good qualities into Otto, leaving behind the showbiz equivalent of a ruthless shark, more than likely the only way that he felt he would make it to the top.

Well, that and by abiding by many a superstition. At the onset of the film, he goes off the rails on Mary because she set his hat on the bed, and at the finale, he purposefully avoids walking beneath a ladder, meaning, perhaps, that he hopes to someday reclaim his fame.

If Otto is viewed as being the warehouse for Gabbo’s good side, it’s easier to understand why Mary put up with Gabbo’s abuse for so long, and why she professed her love to the dummy and not to the man when saying her last goodbyes. But after Gabbo’s attack on Otto, and his near-immediate descent into madness, was there any of his good side left?

Gabbo punches Otto in a scene from 1929's The Great Gabbo

Sometime down the line, filmmakers would realize that the central conceit of this film could be manipulated into a much more interesting dynamic by switching the personality traits of Gabbo and Otto. There are dozens of evil dummy movies out there, but they all started here, whether they know it or not. THE GREAT GABBO remains a milestone in this peculiar subgenre for this reason, and for flipping the script decades before the script was even written.

There was, apparently, even more singing and dancing when the film was initially released. There was a sequence set to the musical number “The Ga Ga Bird“ that has since gone missing, and it is speculated that this scene was shot in color, as the opening credits proclaim “Color Sequences by Multicolor”, but all that remains is black and white footage.

And speaking of song and dance numbers, Otto is rather fond of singing, as well. He has a couple of oddball musical performances, which he delivers in a ghostly, child-like intonation that will haunt your subconscious for years to come. Although I have to say that the chorus to “I’m Laughing” is rather catchy—I’ve caught myself singing “Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho, I’m laughing” more times than I care to admit—it remains difficult to listen to “Icky (Lollipop Song)” with a straight face. The lyrics, at least when viewed through the prism of today, are far too suggestive:

“Oh, it makes me sick with the way it smears
How the stuff do stick in your hair and ears
With the lemon bean I’m always clean
But a lollipop, all icky
I’ve tried and tried, but never could find
A lollipop that’s even halfway refined
So, 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”

Not convinced? Imagine those words coming out of Nicki Minaj’s mouth, and then you will understand what I’m talking about. If someone were to tell me that ‘lemon drop’ is old Vaudeville slang for a clitoris, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

THE GREAT GABBO may be far from the public consciousness these days, but the star power within this film was not insignificant upon its release. Although Erich Von Stroheim was no stranger to being in front of the camera, his real passion existed behind it. He had directed nine films by the time that THE GREAT GABBO came about, but his obsessive auteur-ship proved to be the end of that half of his career. His demand for detail and perfection frequently caused shoots to go well over budget and over schedule, casting him in a negative light. Legend has it that he insisted hundreds of actors cast as Austrian guards in FOOLISH WIVES (1922) wear regulation military undergarments, despite the fact that these pieces of clothing were never seen on camera. Stroheim’s biographer Arthur Lennig, though, says this is merely a fabrication spun off from the director’s request that a single character wore monogrammed pajamas.

While waiting for Hollywood to warm back up to him as a director (which never truly happened), Stroheim reluctantly turned to acting in other people’s films. His character here is sometimes viewed as a parody of himself due to Gabbo’s outrageous demeanor, though it’s unlikely Stroheim would have knowingly added fuel to the fire that was keeping him out of the director’s chair. A few years later, however, he appeared as a very demanding director in THE LOST SQUADRON (1932), and there’s little doubt that Stroheim was satirizing himself in the role.

Photograph of the beautiful Betty Compson

Betty Compson, sometimes referred to as “The Prettiest Girl in Pictures” (and it’s difficult to argue), started off as a Vaudeville violinist before making the switch to film. She appeared in a number of short comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, starred with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN (1919), and racked up over 200 acting credits during her career. She was one of the lucky actresses to successfully transition from silent film into talkies, and in fact thrived under the advancement, becoming one of the busiest—and highest paid—actresses in the business. At the time of this film’s production, she was married to director James Cruze.

It should be noted that Stroheim did not actually practice ventriloquism, and the voice of Otto the dummy was supplied by another performer, which explains some of the more difficult-to-believe performance pieces. A genuine ventriloquist did nearly take on the role, though. According to The Montreal Gazette (October 8, 1943), famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had purchased the rights to THE GREAT GABBO in order to craft a comedic remake starring himself and his wooden cohort Charlie McCarthy. Sadly, this production never came to fruition.

Nobody mention this to Jeff Dunham.


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