Early Talkie Proves Von Stroheim was no Dummy
By Don Stradley
In The Great Gabbo, a film that takes place in a show business netherworld where ventriloquists are feted like rajas, an egomaniacal headliner loses his mind and screams at the audience, “I will show you how to laugh!” At the climax of what appears to be a complete mental breakdown, he reveals that he has a sword. He wields it over his head, menacingly. We should’ve seen this coming.
Erich Von Stroheim plays the loon in a show stopping performance; he has been an appalling brute for the entire film — until his meltdown shows us the pain of his existence. He plays a ventriloquist known as “Gabbo,” and as usually happens when a movie is about ventriloquists, he has fallen apart mentally and is at odds with his dummy, a cute wooden brat named Otto. The man and the dummy are the toasts of Broadway and chauffeured around New York in a Rolls Royce, but Gabbo’s inner life is hell.
The Great Gabbo (1929) is at heart a backstage drama, presenting the foibles and struggles of show people. Starting out in a rundown theater in Paterson, New Jersey, it ends up with Gabbo headlining an extravagant Broadway revue. This Ziegfeld follies type of backdrop might not make sense to anyone now, but was the zenith of grand amusement a century ago, with long lines of chorus girls, hypnotic background sets, and popular songs of the day. In this milieu, Gabbo struts around like royalty. No one seems to notice that he dresses like a Prussian general.
The movie starts backstage in a ramshackle vaudeville house, where Gabbo is berating his loyal assistant-girlfriend, a sweet young woman named Marie. She has brought flowers to celebrate their second anniversary together. “Flowers are for dead people,” he groans. When she tosses a hat onto a bed, he roars in manic anger, frightened of the bad luck such a careless act can bring. Gabbo is consumed by old-world superstitions, coupled with an outsized ego and the sort of massive insecurities that will lead to his self-destruction. Other acts on the vaudeville circuit know Gabbo is unbalanced, but Marie stubbornly believes he has a good side. The problem is that Gabbo can only express it through wooden Otto, who sings about lollipops. Little Otto is also a bit lascivious, constantly winking and asking women if they’d like some company.
Naturally, Gabbo is such an a-hole that he dares Marie to leave him. When she finally walks out, he only sneers. In fact, he goes on to rise up the showbiz ladder, performing around the world and landing a plum gig on Broadway. He is such a success that even Otto has a special servant to carry him around. When Gabbo goes out to a fancy restaurant, he has the chef prepare a special dinner for the dummy. He’s gone batty, apparently. He’s become an enormous success, but has no one to talk to but Otto. We see Gabbo with a French manservant, and just as he’d done with Marie, he drives him away with verbal abuse. It’s lonely at the top for Gabbo, but after an encounter with Marie on Broadway, he hopes to win her back.
The Great Gabbo is in the tradition of stories about insane ventriloquists, a genre in itself that we know from plenty of movies and TV shows. But it is also a showbiz fable in the vein of Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), or Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999), where an arrogant performer is abusive to those around him and ends up alone and shattered. Yet Gabbo isn’t merely abusive; he has the added burden of a disintegrating mind. When his life crumbles down around him, he’s too crazy to be contrite. As he watches his name struck from the theater marquee, we’re not sure he really understands that his career is over or, at best, headed back to the fleabags of Paterson.
Gabbo wants Marie back, and is surprisingly charming when he wants to be, but his feelings for Marie can’t be described as love. He misses the way she made coffee for him, and the way she combed Otto’s hair. He also realizes she saw past his miserable exterior and knew he wasn’t an entirely bad chap. But during the second half of the film, when Gabbo is trying to win her over, Marie seems to have eyes only for Otto, polishing his nose and shining his shoes. In a jealous fit, Gabbo punches the dummy, only to weep an apology into Otto’s ear. With Gabbo’s shattered mental state on full display, it is Von Stroheim’s most stirring moment in the film.
Von Stroheim portrays Gabbo as a kind of gluttonous, showbiz animal, so confident in his talent that he cares nothing for the audience. It is only late in the film, when he draws his sword, that he even considers the audience as anything more than a nuisance. At one point we see Gabbo bowing to an audience that isn’t even there, so disconnected is he from the basic performer/customer relationship, as he probably is from all relationships.
In his cloak, top hat, and monocle, Gabbo is not a typical ventriloquist, and his act is hardly a typical ventriloquist routine. With Von Stroheim roaring and snarling offstage, or stuffing his face with sausages, he’s perhaps more unpleasant than screenwriter Ben Hecht had envisioned. And when he finally lets down his guard and smiles at Marie near the film’s end, is this the real Gabbo that she claims has always existed beneath his awful veneer, or is it merely the charm of a psychotic?
There is a relentless energy in the film, with Von Stroheim and director James Cruze
creating a statement about the madness of performing. Aren’t all actors merely ventriloquists of a sort, serving as their own dummies? Gabbo could’ve been any kind of performer – a singer, a comedian, a Shakespearean actor – but Hecht made him a ventriloquist for a reason, partly because there’s an intriguing visual element where a man sits with a wooden doll on his lap and makes him speak, and to show an artist who can only express himself through his work.
The circumstances behind the movie are interesting. Having run up the budgets on several films for Universal and MGM, Von Stroheim was effectively blackballed as a director. Therefore, he marketed himself as a freelance actor, hoping to one day direct again. Cruze, whose own directing career was on the decline, knew the moody Von Stroheim was the perfect Gabbo, and cast his own wife, pretty Betty Compson, as the long suffering Marie.
The production itself is impressive. While working within the poverty row confines of a firm called Sono-Art, Cruze created a facsimile of a spectacular Broadway revue. Much of the music and dancing is grating to us now, but the boop-a-do patter is appropriate for the time and works as a counter for the acid-tongued Gabbo. In his first talkie, Von Stroheim romps like a mad bull, slurping his coffee, constantly complaining and bragging. Though he’s not the director, it is tempting to see the film as Von Stroheim’s own commentary on how Hollywood had treated him, particularly in the final scene when he wanders down a dark street, a destitute man alone with his puppet. Von Stroheim’s biographers have said that he often took Otto home with him after shooting, and wanted to remake the film years later. The Great Gabbo may have been a trifle made when Von Stroheim’s career was in ruins, but it meant something to him.