Early talkies fascinate me. They are victims of rapid technological development, obsolete within just a few years of their first appearances, and in many cases lost to history. Because of limited sound-recording technology, the early talkies are derided for their primitive camerawork and clumsy narrative techniques. They often are pretty awkward, but that quality assures them of that accidental-documentary status that arouses my interest. Because they're compromised by limited technology, they can be relegated almost by default to the "cinema of attractions" outside the classical tradition of seamless narrative and the invisible directorial hand. At the same time, they're documents of the late 1920s, an early high point in American pop culture, and among their attractions are Art Deco production designs and the music of Tin Pan Alley. On top of all that, The Great Gabbo features the talking debut of Erich Von Stroheim.
By 1929 Stroheim was already a living legend twice over, first as "The Man You Love to Hate," the portrayer of evil Prussians during World War I, then as the archetypal tyrannically extravagant movie director. Hollywood itself had a love-hate relationship with him. The studios frequently fired him from movies in mid-production, but kept taking chances on him because, when everything came together, his pictures could be big hits. Here, however, he is only an actor, albeit the star of the film. He was directed by a man best known for the first epic Western film, The Covered Wagon. Stroheim regarded Cruze as a friend, and explained his approach to acting in another man's project by noting that, as he knew how to command as a director, he also knew how to obey.
Stroheim is Gabbo -- we never learn if this is a stage name or his real last name. He's an ambitious ventriloquist who shows off his talent by eating, drinking and smoking while Otto, his dummy, sings and jokes. He's also a struggling ventriloquist, performing in Paterson, New Jersey as the film opens. He has a tense relationship with his assistant, presumably also his girlfriend. He deals with his anxieties by playing the tyrant with her (and by indulging in superstitions), but Otto often expresses his conscience and his tender side. After Mary, the assistant, drops a prop on stage, his rages drive her to leave the act. She challenges him to explain why he's playing small towns if he's so great, and urges him to think more of others. As she leaves, Otto laments her departure, and Gabbo snaps, "Shut up! You know we can't call her back."
A theater couple have been listening in the adjoining dressing room. Wondering why Gabbo is angry so often, the woman speculates, "Must be something wrong with his stomach." "Stomach, nothing!" her husband scoffs, "Something wrong with his skull. He's got a screw loose, sure."
Time passes, and the same couple are at home, the husband reading Variety. He learns that Gabbo has become a success after all, performing in a Ziegfeld style revue in New York. Maybe Gabbo is better off as a one-man act. "I could do a single myself," hubby reflects, "But he was cuckoo." "I wish you'd get as cuckoo as he is," wife replies.
Go figure. Maybe Mary was holding Gabbo back, although it seemed like she was the only thing holding him together. Success though he is, Gabbo isn't above doing publicity stunts to promote the revue. He arrives at a nightclub in a limo, attended by chauffeur and footman, and takes Otto to dinner. He dines enthusiastically as Otto sings and mocks the waiters. And who should happen to be in the same club? It's Mary, who has also succeeded, though not alone. She has a male partner in a musical act that's part of the same revue Gabbo stars in. Frank comes across as a real jerk, instantly jealous of Mary's renewed attention to the newly suave Gabbo, who gets the house band to play, "I'm In Love With You," a tune from the show, while a spotlight shines on her. While Frank powders his nose or something, Mary visits Gabbo's table, where Otto tells her that "No one ever combs my hair like you," and Gabbo assures her, "Yes, Marie, we both miss you very much."
The remainder of the film is set during a performance of the revue. Elaborate musical numbers filmed from multiple camera angles are intercut with the plot, with Frank growing still more jealous as Gabbo sends flowers to Mary's dressing room. Gabbo prepares for his own act, very friendly toward Louis, his dresser until told that it's time to go onstage. It's as if his old anxiety hits him and he suddenly starts yelling at the dresser. finally firing him on the spot.
On stage, Gabbo is masterful. As "The Greatest Ventriloqil Exhibition of All Times," he's dressed like an old-school diplomat down to his medals and knee-breeches, as if to sell that he'd performed before the crowned heads of Europe. The act is actually a pretty standard one. Otto is your typical irreverent dummy who ribs Gabbo and subverts his pomposity. Unfortunately, Otto's voice (not Stroheim's) is too mild and childlike when it should be sharper or more raucous, and his rendition of his theme song, "I'm Laughing," is cloying. Overall, though, the act is amusing, as Otto taunts his master with zingers like, "If I keep quiet we both starve to death. Put that in your smoke and pipe it." When Gabbo stuffs his mouth with a handkerchief while Otto sings, the dummy comments, "Last year he used to swallow a tablecloth." But when Otto demands a hot dog from Gabbo's overloaded dinner plate, the star retorts, "Since I'm you, I'm eating enough for both of us."
The volume of musical numbers increases as the romantic plot approaches its resolution. This brings in some eye candy, as we see chorines changing costumes, briefly revealing their scanty undies, and some of the showgirls standing on pillars, seen only from a distance, seem to be nude. This was still tolerated, if not necessarily permitted, in 1929. There's also time for some Deco-psychedelia in the "New Step" number.
The drama comes onstage as Mary and Frank argue while performing the movie's most bizarre (surviving) number, "Caught In A Web of Love." It kicks in just past the 3:00 mark of this YouTube clip.
Seeing the tension, Gabbo thinks he has a chance, and wants it. But what Frank has been pressuring Mary to spell out to Gabbo, we finally learn, is that they're married. Gabbo's behavior from this point is actually quite understandable. Regardless of what the filmmakers intended, Mary comes off as an offensive tease here. The right thing to have done would have been to put Gabbo straight at the nightclub. But the writer apparently wanted to have a big shocking revelation at about this point.
I was expecting Gabbo to go into Tod Browning territory at this point, with the mad ventriloquist attempting to destroy the show and the stars, but mere destructiveness wouldn't let Stroheim go berserk as he does here. Let him show you how to laugh as only he can.
Given the movie's awful reputation, The Great Gabbo unsurprisingly ends up better than I expected. As a musical it's definitely nothing great, but even these pre-restoration clips should show that Cruze filmed them fairly creatively for the time. He shouldn't be punished forever for not being Busby Berkelely. On the DVD, the image is quite crisp and glossy and the sound quality is possibly as good as it ever was. But the main attraction is Von Stroheim, who proves that, as they said in those days, he "had a voice." It's more of a growling drawl than the stock Prussian accent people may have expected from him, and he's fluent enough in English to make himself sound both pompous and plebeian as he needs to be. He can also handle the emotional range from hopefully repentant to insane rage, though he succumbs occasionally to the early-talkie tendency to talk...more... slowly...than...he really... has to. People who know him only from Sunset Blvd. should check this out (you can see the whole thing for free online, albeit in pieces) to see what he could do at full power as an actor.
For me the whole movie was redolent of its era. Because of its supposed primtivism, it seems like a window into the actual 1920s. It's datedness is a virtue for anyone who watches the film out of historical interest, and its overall strangeness makes it worthy of interest for anyone looking for an unconventional viewing experience.