“The girl’s quit the act. She left him flat!”
“Well, who’s that he’s talking to now?”
Director: James Cruze
Starring: Eric von Stroheim, Betty Compson, Donald Douglas, Marjorie Kane, John F. Hamilton
Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Hugh Herbert, based upon a story by Ben Hecht
Synopsis: A young ventriloquist’s assistant, Mary (Betty Compson), draws nothing but angry abuse from her partner, the Great Gabbo (Eric von Stroheim), despite her efforts to show her affection for him. Things do not improve when, during the pair’s nightly performance, Mary drops a tray while making her exit from the stage. Quelling his fury, Gabbo goes on with his act, which involves his dummy, Otto, singing while Gabbo smokes and drinks a glass of water. Once off-stage, Gabbo disgusts the theatre stagehands by launching another tirade at Mary; a stream of abuse that continues until the two are in their dressing-room. Mary makes an effort to stand up for herself, warning Gabbo that his blind egotism will lead to disaster. In the next dressing-room, another pair of performers, reluctant auditors of this scene, shake their heads over Gabbo’s treatment of Mary, while the woman refers to Gabbo’s habit of speaking to Otto as if the dummy were alive. Next door, the fight culminates with Mary threatening to walk out, and Gabbo retorting that he doesn’t care if she does—only to be left in a state of stunned dismay when she actually leaves him. Picking up Otto, Gabbo stares in a bewildered way out of the dressing-room…then rebukes Otto for trying to call Mary back. Gabbo continues to insist that he needs no-one but himself, and that, in any case, Mary will be back. Otto says quietly that he doesn’t think so. As Gabbo takes a drink in between bouts of abusing Mary, Otto begins a heartfelt speech about all the nice things that Mary did for both of them, even suggesting that Gabbo may have loved Mary. At this Gabbo erupts, threatening to smash Otto to pieces if he doesn’t keep silent. Gazing at himself in the mirror, Gabbo insists that he will be a success – a great success – and on his own… Time passes, and Gabbo does indeed become a feted Broadway star, enjoying his celebrity in nightclubs, where unblinking waiters set an extra place at his table each night for Otto and offer their best dishes to the dummy for approval. One night, amongst all the other amused onlookers, sit Mary and her new partner, Frank (Donald Douglas), who have a song and dance act in the same review in which Gabbo has found fame. Frank speaks scornfully of Gabbo’s unconcealed self-adoration, but Mary shakes her head sadly, saying that she pities him. Frank leaves for the theatre, but Mary stays behind. As Gabbo dines, Otto entertains the crowd with a song. Suddenly, Gabbo notices Mary…but it is Otto who asks the waiter to invite her to the table; Otto, too, who speaks warmly of how much they have missed her. Mary accepts a lift to the theatre from Gabbo. An unhappy Frank observes their arrival and, further angered by the discovery that Gabbo has filled Mary’s dressing-room with flowers, he forbids her to have anything more to do with her former partner. However, while Gabbo is performing, Mary goes to his dressing-room and arranges everything for him, just as she used to do. Finding this, Gabbo tells Otto rapturously that Mary is coming back to them. But Mary, after another scene with Frank, promises that at the first opportunity, she will tell Gabbo the truth: that she and Frank are married…
Comments: First Cobra Woman. Then Devil Bat’s Daughter. Now The Great Gabbo. By this time, it would be understandable if regular visitors to this site – both of them – were wondering whether I hadn’t rather lost the plot. To these long-suffering souls I can only say, firstly, that in the coming weeks I will be making an effort to get things back on track; secondly, that considering that my recent return to reviewing “legitimate” genre films gave us The Amityville Curse, perhaps a little cheating now and then isn’t such a bad thing; and finally, that although The Great Gabbo is certainly not a horror film – which is not to say that numerous individuals might not find it quite horrifying – it is a film whose historical significance goes a considerable way towards justifying its inclusion on this site.
And an historic film The Great Gabbo certainly is, it being the first ever example of what has proven to be one of the horror cinema’s most enduring scenarios, the ventriloquist with the split personality. As is often the case with seminal films, however, although the familiar framework is in place, the story plays out in a manner quite different from what subsequent experience might lead us to expect. Instead of the classic situation of a performer’s evil or deranged side showing itself through his dummy, The Great Gabbo takes the other tack: it is only when speaking through Otto that Gabbo is not an arrogant, abusive swine.
The result is a production that can probably be best described as a romantic melodrama – although truthfully, The Great Gabbo is singularly difficult to classify. Released in September of 1929, this is a silent-to-sound transition film par excellence – which is another way of saying that its makers tossed a bit of everything into it, up to and including the kitchen sink, and with very little regard for the coherence of the finished product. For those versed in the eccentricities of this era, an examination of the film’s advertising art is enough to set the alarm bells ringing. When a film of this time promoted itself as “The Gigantic All-Dialog, Singing, Dancing & Dramatic Spectacle”, or as an “All Dialog Musical Extravaganza”, whilst simultaneously bragging about its colour sequences (now sadly lost) and the vast numbers of its extras, you can bet that only minimal attention was being paid to the actual screenplay.
In fact, although the first third of The Great Gabbo manages to stick to the point in telling the tale of Gabbo and his fatally self-destructive behaviour, the remaining two-thirds of this film are probably as close as Hollywood ever got to producing a Bollywood movie; only instead of periodically interrupting the film’s action with an inexplicable five minute song-and-dance number, the makers of The Great Gabbo chose to serve up an hour of inexplicable song-and-dance numbers intermittently interrupted by five minutes or so of the story that we’re actually trying to follow.
(I should mention that the unenviable task of holding together this unwieldy concoction fell to James Cruze, who like many in the silent era was an actor and a writer as well as a director; and who has appeared at this site before, starring in She and Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.)
It’s hard to imagine Eric von Stroheim ever being overshadowed by anything or anyone, but the production numbers in The Great Gabbo come awfully close to achieving this remarkable feat. Of all the various film genres, the musical is perhaps the one that may best be described as an acquired taste. There are certainly many people who profess to dislike this form of cinema—although upon cross-examination it is often revealed that they really only dislike a certain kind of musical. (I have a friend who’s fond of telling me how she can’t stand musicals…and how her two favourite films are Cabaret and West Side Story.) That said, if you are ambivalent about this particular genre, a single viewing of The Great Gabbo might be enough to turn you into an inveterate musical hater; while if you’re a musical hater already, that same viewing could well induce catatonic shock. Everything here seems to have been structured upon the assumption that more is better, and that sheer weight of numbers can compensate for anything.
At one point, a simple two-part love song mutates into an elaborate dance production, with the singers interrupted by a chorus line that makes up in extent what it lacks in co-ordination, and which is interrupted in turn by another chorus line of even greater dimensions and even less synchronisation, which is itself interrupted by a small squadron of ballerinas apparently recruited from a treatment ward for sufferers of functional limb length discrepancy. And this, mind you, is what we get when they’re being relatively straightforward. When they try for “art” we end up with “Caught In The Web Of Love”, in which female chorines dressed up as insects hang from a gigantic web, as Mary (in fly costume) and Frank (in spider costume) perform interpretive dance in front of yet another (insectoid) chorus line; a sequence highlighted by what looks alarmingly like a genuine death-defying leap by Mary, when she throws herself headlong off the web and down into her partner’s thankfully reliable arms.
Yet the musical number that really lingers when The Great Gabbo is done is a far simpler one, that performed by Otto for the edification of his fellow nightclub patrons. The song in question is known variously as “By Special Request” and as “The Lollipop Song”, but its real title is “Icky”, and that’s exactly how you’ll feel after listening to this bizarre little ditty, which manages the impressive task of sounding completely salacious while not uttering a single objectionable word. (“Oh, it makes me sick the way it smears / And gets all over your hair and ears / And I always drop my lollipop / And it gets all over icky…”)
(While we’re on the subject, and in light of the various ties between Eric von Stroheim and Billy Wilder, I can’t help wondering whether Marilyn Monroe’s eyebrow-raising lament in Some Like It Hot, that she’s, “Always getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop”, didn’t have its origin here.)
But if you can make it through The Great Gabbo’s musical numbers, your reward will be the discovery of a performance from Eric von Stroheim that is considerably more shaded and interesting than you might anticipate. This was von Stroheim’s return to work after the debacle of Queen Kelly, and he must have come to it with mixed feelings—or perhaps, in the negative sense, with feelings entirely unmixed.
Von Stroheim’s performance here is, at least up to a point, a classic example of the stereotypical role upon which too much of his acting career was wasted; although there is a certain saving grace in the fact that the film wryly acknowledges as much, by way of Frank’s objections to the attentions that Gabbo is paying to Mary: “Kissing your hand – bowing down – clicking his heels – and all that imported baloney!” Von Stroheim had been trumpeted as “The Man You Love To Hate” ever since he tossed a baby out of a window in 1918’s The Heart Of Humanity, and The Great Gabbo wastes no time in reminding its audience of the fact.
The film opens with an extended tantrum from Gabbo, in which he abuses Mary for everything from getting the temperature of his coffee wrong to her failure to remember his various superstitions to her interfering with his game of solitaire. Crisis point is reached when, on top of the humiliation of having to perform in – ulp! – Paterson, New Jersey (poor Paterson! – it takes a real pounding here) – Gabbo’s act is disrupted when Mary drops a tray while exiting the stage. The tirade that follows starts backstage and continues in the dressing-room, to the disgust of its involuntary auditors.
(Well—mostly to their disgust: the couple in the next dressing-room, although sorry for Mary, seem to regard the ceaseless squabbling of “the Gabbos”, as they call the pair, as a soap opera enacted for their entertainment.)
It is a point in Gabbo’s favour, I suppose, that in spite of the unending torrent of verbal abuse that he pours upon poor Mary’s head, we never get any sense that he is also physically abusive. Still, the verbal stuff is quite enough for us, as it finally is for Mary. Her breaking point is reached when Gabbo responds to her threat to quit by telling her contemptuously, “I don’t care when you go or where you go, and the sooner the better!” Of course, no-one is more shocked than Gabbo when Mary takes him at his word. His parting shot is that he doesn’t need anyone, that he will become “the Great Gabbo” without her; hers, that she was getting along all right as a singer and a dancer before she met him, and will again.
Two years later, both prophecies have been fulfilled: “the Great Gabbo” is the headline act in a hit Broadway review in which Mary and her new partner, Frank, also have a leading role. Although success and fame are his, it is evident that the intervening time alone – alone, that is, except for Otto – has done Gabbo’s mental state no favours.
At the same time, other, less expected changes in his character have also been wrought. The first big surprise in The Great Gabbo comes in an odd little scene between Gabbo and his valet, Louis, who has inherited some (although not, we sincerely hope, all) of Mary’s previous duties. Opining that, “We all must have romance”, Gabbo asks Louis whether he has “a sweetheart”, then goes on to dispense what can only be friendly advice on the conducting of relationships.
This is a Gabbo we have not seen before, concerned and considerate; but as to the precise nature of that concern and consideration, and what advice he sees fit to give, many of us are none the wiser when he has done, as this exchange is conducted entirely in German! An interruption comes when Gabbo is called on-stage, and instantly Gabbo is, so to speak, himself again, ranting and raving and abusing his employers, the audience, and of course poor Louis—but this he does in English. (Von Stroheim’s little joke? Who knows?) The emotional climax of the film comes when, after courting her from a distance with flowers and having Otto sing to her at the nightclub, a chastened Gabbo declares himself to Mary, expressing his regret for the past and asking her to return to him.
For the most part a pedestrian effort, the script of The Great Gabbo does succeed with its depiction of the impossible romantic triangle at its centre. The scenes between Mary and Frank make us acutely aware that Mary has done what a woman is “supposed” to do, that is, given up on her real but untenable love and settled for second best with a guy who’s willing to put a ring on her finger. The sense of “if only” is still strongly upon her when Gabbo reappears in her life, however; enough so that she accepts his attentions a little too willingly, while at the same time treating Frank’s legitimate objections only as fodder for teasing and laughter. Consequently, you can blame neither Gabbo for getting the wrong idea, nor Frank for getting thoroughly steamed: Mary is guilty here of giving off some distinctly mixed messages.
Accepting at length that her reluctance to tell Gabbo the whole truth about her circumstances is being fair neither to him nor to Frank, Mary goes to Gabbo’s dressing-room to set him straight, only to have him pour his heart out to her. Mary listens in silence, regret for what might have been written all over her; and while we see the cruelty in her letting Gabbo go on, you can’t really condemn her for succumbing to temptation, and holding her peace as for the first time, the last time, the only time, Gabbo emerges from behind Otto, his alter ego, and speaks honestly of his feelings for her.
The Great Gabbo is a film full of blunders, both artistic and technical, but this scene alone goes a great way towards justifying its existence. This is a von Stroheim seen occasionally in the silent era, but hardly ever again in the sound era; a von Stroheim who could be romantic, tender and humble—and convincingly so. The upshot is that, rather than sympathising with this person or that person, the viewer emerges from The Great Gabbo feeling sorry for all three parties involved in the triangle. We even feel for Frank, who, to be blunt, seems like rather a prat early on, but who comes very much into his own as the story progresses.
The other remarkable thing about this scene is that it lifts The Great Gabbo into some rarefied company, as one of those very few films that presents an unpleasant or even violent relationship, and then bothers to explain it. I mean, how often do you see a film couple and wonder what on earth one party to it sees in the other, or why they put up with being treated like dirt? Generally no justification is ever given (beyond, that is, IITS©). Here, conversely, we do finally see that Mary was right all along; that beneath the temper and the selfishness and the conceit, there was indeed a lonely romantic, a “helpless fool” needing to be cared for and loved.
Alas for both Mary and Gabbo, this vindication of her two years of suffering comes too late. Mary must confess that she and Frank are married, and in love; even if such a feeling came to her after the event, and even if her feelings for Gabbo still linger. This abrupt demolishing of the castles he has been building in the air has exactly the effect on Gabbo that we might anticipate: in a word, meltdown.
Well—a kind of meltdown, anyway. In truth, the climax of The Great Gabbo gives us something less than the really extravagant von Stroheim explosion that we’ve all been looking forward to. Instead, having gone nuts in his dressing-room and tried to “murder” Otto – and having wept bitterly over the broken little body – Gabbo forces his way on stage and disrupts the show’s big finale (we can only feel grateful to him), humiliating himself and getting sacked for his pains. Prior to this, however, is a sequence for which anyone who has struggled through the film to this point will undoubtedly feel a profound appreciation: as Gabbo parts company with what’s left of his reason, excerpts from the film’s musical numbers become stuck in his head. Unable to banish these “visions” from his mind, Gabbo goes completely insane…
In the history of the horror movie, The Great Gabbo is important as the first “deranged ventriloquist” film, but the relationship between Gabbo and Otto never works as well as it should. Their act consists primarily of Otto chatting and singing to the audience while Gabbo eats, drinks or smokes (all three activities look like the real deal: von Stroheim probably enjoyed this aspect of the film, at least). This would be a great act if there were anything remotely believable about it, but the film makes no real attempt to convince us that Gabbo is, or even could be, manipulating the dummy as shown. On the other hand, although there are plenty of times when Otto seems to be moving and speaking on his own, there is no sense that the dummy is “alive”, such as most later ventriloquist film’s give us, despite what might be going on in Gabbo’s head. These moments seem to be the result not of intent, but of plain old careless film-making.
(The other thing I feel compelled to mention here is that Otto, with his perpetually raised eyebrows and bulging eyes, is frickin’ creepy—and even more so once Gabbo has attacked him, and punched one of his eyes out, or rather, in. It’s a funny thing about ventriloquist films: the less creepy the dummy is intended to be, the creepier I usually find it. I have the same problem with the Child’s Play films: the original “Good Guy” doll always seemed scarier to me than Chucky in any of his incarnations.)
Psychologically, the ground is firmer. Having decided, in his pursuit of fame and fortune, that nice guys finish last, Gabbo uses Otto as the outlet for all those annoying positive emotions and sentiments that, he obviously considers, will only get in the way as he heads for the top. The unanticipated side-effect of this is that Gabbo has trapped himself with a conscience that cannot be silenced—or that, with a strange, displaced kind of honesty, he will not silence. For all that he rants and threatens, Gabbo does not lift a hand as Otto reproves him for his drinking and his temper, and forces him to face the fact that he loves the woman he has driven away. “Little Otto, there, is the only human thing about you,” Mary says sadly, just prior to walking out. Two years later, when Gabbo steels himself to ask tentatively, “Did you—miss us?”, Mary replies, with a dry double meaning, “I missed Otto.”
But in distinction from the other films of this genre, the transfer of personality is not complete, nor is Gabbo unable to control his relationship with Otto. What Gabbo does, he does voluntarily, as is made clear to us when, at last, he does speak to Mary as himself and for himself. And as he does so, the two sides of his personality fuse: once Gabbo has spoken, Otto never speaks again. The tragedy, of course, is that all this comes too late. Devastated by Mary’s rejection, Gabbo does finally become violent—but it is Otto he attacks, not Mary or Frank. This brief outburst is both ludicrous and moving. It ends with Gabbo clutching the shattered remnants of his own better nature, weeping as his final mental breakdown approaches…
These days The Great Gabbo strikes the viewer as a film of missed opportunities. However, it must be kept in mind that its makers set out to give the audience, not a horror film, but an “All-Dialog, Singing, Dancing & Dramatic Spectacle”; to condemn it for not being what it was never meant to be is hardly fair. For all of the film’s faults, its central premise was one that struck a nerve—and continues to do so in one form or another right up to the present time.
(By the time The Simpsons got hold of it, of course, one of those curious cultural compressions had occurred, giving us a dummy named “Gabbo”.)
The difference between The Great Gabbo and its descendants lies in the realisation by later film-makers that by reversing the psychological basis of the story, they entered upon a realm of true horror. Again and again over the following decades, writers and directors would return to the same scenario: the ventriloquist who might or might not be mad; the dummy that that might or might not be alive…
The various re-workings of this theme all have their adherents: the Twilight Zone episode The Dummy and its Alfred Hitchcock Presents counterpart, The Glass Eye; the low budget British production, Devil Doll; the ambitious but overblown Magic; while contemporary film-makers have recently gone to the well again with Dead Silence. But for many people, myself included, the outstanding example is that found within the 1945 British anthology movie, Dead Of Night, which gives us an unforgettable performance by Michael Redgrave as the tormented ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, and a dummy, Hugo Fitch, who will haunt your nightmares… This sequence frightened me half to death the first time I ever saw it, many years ago, and still gives me cold chills to this very day. If there is in fact anything scarier than a clown after midnight – and mind you, I said if – then that one thing might well be a ventriloquist’s dummy at any time of day…