The Great Gabbo (1929)

This is a bit of a new challenge for me. I'm used to reviewing trashy sci-fi and monster movies, which are normally full of busty girls and exploding helicopters, films that you can pretty much turn your brain off and enjoy with a nice beverage. This one, however, is a musical (yes, yes, I know, I suffered a head injury recently...) from the golden age of talking pictures. 1929 was a tough year for America, the stock market was about to collapse in spectacular fashion, the Great Depression was looming over the horizon, and Pitt got crushed by USC in the Rose Bowl, but Hollywood was still cranking out legions of musicals, like Nero fiddling as the embers sparked to life in Rome. The Great Gabbo is one of those mass-produced musicals, a pretty pedestrian movie, and an even worse musical, but it does have a certain charm to it.

"The Great Gabbo" is the stage name for Gabbo Storch, played by 44-year old Erich von Stroheim, a legend in the early days of talking pictures, who most strangely I just saw as Rommel in Five Graves to Cairo (an outstanding movie, btw). He's a ventriloquist, and by all accounts a pretty good one. Though not so good as to justify his enormous megalomania and mercurial personality. Gabbo is the quintessential egotistical actor, so wrapped up in his own self-importance that he fails to see how others perceive him. He's John Travolta, he's Klaus Kinski, he's Marlon Brando, he's Russell Crowe, he's Justin Timberlake, and he's Roger Clemmons. If he was a woman he'd be Madonna, he'd be Paris Hilton, and he'd be Lindsay Lohan.

The Great Gabbo!

Gabbo is a short, balding Teutonic man, certainly not attractive but possessing an imposing forceful personality. His voice is loud and strong and tinted with a German accent, and when he gets mad he sounds like Colonel Klink yelling at Sergeant Schultz. He even wears a monocle! Awesome! Efficiency is his main focus it seems, demanding perfection from everyone and everything, obsessing about every little detail like Alfred Krupp at his forge.

Gabbo's only real friend is Otto, his hand-carved basswood ventriloquist dummy, and even he can't stand him half the time. Otto looks a bit like Opie Taylor and is always well-dressed in suit and tails. His voice, provided by an off-screen actor, is like a lilting singsong little boy and quite annoying.

The Just-As-Great Otto!

In the beginning, during the early years of Gabbo's rise to fame, he was in love with a beautiful young dancer named Mary, who was also his stage assistant. She loved him also, but someone with Gabbo's caustic and temperamental personality is excruciatingly difficult to live with. It didn't help any that for his part Gabbo kept his love for Mary unspoken, perhaps out of fear of the unknown or perhaps out of a lack of self-confidence in the one area he couldn't control. Whatever the reason, Gabbo loved Mary secretly, but visibly showed her nothing but scorn and contempt.

And yet, Mary stayed with him for a long time, perhaps magnetically drawn to his forceful and commanding personality, but hoping that deeper inside was a man she could cuddle and read Jane Austin with. All women love the "bad boy" because they think they can change him, and they all get hurt in the end.

Mary is played by 32-year old Betty Compton, who would go on to rack up a zillion movie roles in a length career, including being nominated for an Oscar in 1930, just a year after our movie was released. She was also married to our film's director, James Cruze, though she's a good enough actress for that not to have mattered. Mary is a very attractive woman, with a slim body and sexy athletic dancer's legs. She makes the 1920s flapper style look good, even those head-hugging slouchy hats. She could surely do much better than the frumpy ageing Gabbo, but that speaks more to her tastes in men than anything.


For the last two years, Gabbo and Mary have been working in a smalltime off-Broadway venue in Patterson, New Jersey, which is about as close to a fetid swamp as you can come. The show is pretty barebones, with Gabbo and Otto sitting in a simple chair on a mostly empty stage. Mary assists him, bringing drinks and props to him on stage. In one of the racier bits, Mary is dressed in a demure French maid outfit (!), the forerunner of all those glitzy skin-tight dresses that the magicians' assistants wear nowadays (just go to Vegas and see any show on the Strip for examples).

Mary as the maid with Gabbo on stage.

Eventually, Mary can't take the abuse any more and she leaves after a final fight. Gathering up all her courage, she walks out on Gabbo, vowing never to return. Gabbo is flustered, but his ego won't allow him to do anything than yell and demand she leave faster. This is an extremely difficult thing for Mary, as she loves Gabbo very much, and several times she almost changes her mind, but in the end she departs.

After she is gone, Otto and Gabbo have a man-to-man "talk". Otto basically tells him what a dumbass he is for letting Mary walk out, but Gabbo won't listen. Throughout the length of this film, Otto the dummy functions almost as an independent sentient being. In private and in public appearances, Otto speaks on his own, even while Gabbo is eating or smoking. Other people consider this to the be sign of a master ventriloquist, but we get the impression that something almost supernatural is going on. Why the filmmakers chose method this is not known, but the vagueness of it leaves it open for discussion. Is Otto acting as Gabbo's conscious? Is Otto a substitute for a son that Gabbo lost? Is Otto possessed by Satan? Is the CIA involved? Gabbo has a visible scar across his forehead, did he suffer some sort of injury during The Great War that has made him insane enough to talk to wooden dummies?

There's also an interesting little ten-second shot here, where Gabbo, in his sorrow, goes to take a drink of whiskey. To do so, however, he dips down almost out of sight behind an open steamer trunk lid, with only a glimpse of the bottle seen. This was the days of Prohibition, remember, and there were laws against drinking on screen. Imagine if we still had that law today, half the movies would never be made!

Drinking from the bottle.

Several years now pass as seconds on screen. After leaving Gabbo, Mary parlays her talents into a nice job as a singer and dancer on Broadway. She also finds a man to marry, a fellow singer named Frank. Frank is borderline Gabbo-like in his ego and arrogance, though he loves Mary openly, and they seem to have a fairly healthy relationship. Mary likes the strong, domineering type, remember.

For his part, Gabbo also finally hits it big. He too now has his own Broadway show, and has done so well that he's known as the "world's greatest ventriloquist". His shows sell out every night, foreign heads of state request his presence, and everyone in New York City knows his name. For an egomaniac like Gabbo this should be nirvana. Sadly, however, Gabbo is one of those people who can never truly be happy (or is only happy when he's miserable) so all this success has done very little to improve his grumpy moodiness. He still rants and rages about the smallest things, pushing his stage assistants around like Bismarck driving the Prussian cavalry into France.

We go now to a glitzy Manhattan restaurant, a large open place, with a full band entertaining the diners. The walls and doorways are in that beautiful art deco style that was so popular in the 1920s (I love art deco and am eagerly awaiting its comeback). The schtick is that Gabbo and Otto come here almost nightly as a publicity stunt (organized by his theater managers) to give a little free preview show to the diners so they will want to come to Broadway for the full act. This is another example of the spooky Jedi mind tricks that Gabbo uses to make Otto talk while he stuffs his face with truffles and lobster.

The restaurant.

This puppet is freaking me out! Puppets unnerve me anyway, but this one speaking on its own in that annoying little German boy voice makes my skin crawl. I keep expecting him to either jump up and start slashing everyone like Chucky or announce the annexation of Austria.

Coincidentally, Mary is also here and watches Gabbo from across the room with some wistfully longing looks. She's never given up her love for him, despite the years, and still misses him. Gabbo spies her eventually and calls her over to his table. Well, he has Otto tell the waiter to send her a flower.

Gabbo is also clearly nervous and excited to see Mary again, though he's still such a grumpy cad that he can't talk to her directly, but uses Otto. Mary and Otto have a little discussion, where the puppet tells her how much he missed her and Mary smiles in understanding.

It's time for Gabbo to go to his theater, and he offers Mary a ride there in his lovely chauffeured Royals Royce, the kind with the driver out in front exposed to the elements. seems that Mary is also performing at the same theater, but in a different show. Imagine the odds.

This car is surely worth a fortune now.

Gabbo goes to his dressing room and Mary to hers. Mary's husband Frank spied them coming in together and angrily confronts her. He doesn't like old flames popping up again and he accuses her of still caring for the old man. Mary just laughs off his worries and disarms him with her wit and charm. I'm impressed with Mary's spunkiness and independence. She doesn't need this man, or any man for that matter, and will visit and talk to anyone she pleases. That's refreshing, especially in a movie from this generation.

By the way, Frank is played by 24-year old Donald Douglas, who would later go on to have numerous roles in movies both great and small (though the only thing I can remember him being in was 1946's Tokyo Rose). I'm not sure I like him, though he hasn't really done anything wrong yet. I think it's just his greasy floppish hair.


Backstage, we get the best scene in the movie, as Gabbo and his "dresser" have a personal moment. A dresser is one of those jobs that has disappeared with time, but it's basically a male personal assistant. Gabbo is still giddy from meeting Mary again and he asks the dresser what he knows about love. The dresser, a middle-aged man in a butler's uniform, has a wife and offers some advice. The two of them then lapse into German, their native tongue, as they talk. A few English words sprinkled here and there help those of us who don't speak German, but I find the scene unique and probably indicative of the cultural identities of the movie-going public in 1929. At the end of the scene, Gabbo, being Gabbo, goes back to berating the dresser for shoddy work before storming out on stage to thunderous applause.

Gabbo and the dresser have the best moment in our movie.

And now on to Gabbo's stage show, held in this opulent Broadway theater before throngs of cheering patrons. The simple chair and glasses from his off-Broadway days have been replaced by a gilded baroque Chesterfield chair and cut crystal Champaign goblets. The show itself is pretty good, with more of the same Otto-speaking-independently stuff and Gabbo faking charm and wit when you can tell that he really just wants to scream at everyone and send his Panzers across the Polish frontier.

Gabbo, now dressed like Napoleon III, is poised to rule the world with his stage show.

Once his act is over, he goes back to his dressing room. There, to his pleasant surprise, he finds that Mary has slipped in and arranged his things just like the old days. Gabbo is ecstatic and is determined to not let her go this time. He'll tell her of his love the next chance he gets. Oh, I just know this isn't going to end well for him.

Meanwhile, back on stage we have the showcase musical number of this film, the only one of the six or seven numbers worth mentioning. It has a weird insect theme, with a large spider web of rope set up behind the stage, with dancing girls dressed as bugs high-kicking in unison in the foreground. On the rope web are Mary and Frank, also dressed as spiders in skin-tight glittery costumes. I know, I know, it sounds like a gay burlesque show in South Beach, but it really is much better than it sounds. Mary and Frank come down to the stage eventually and do an extremely impressive dance routine. Mary proves herself to be as flexible as a 11-year old Korean gymnast, contorting and twisting her slim body in ways that you wouldn't think possible for a human being. Frank, for his part, lifts, twirls and dips Mary with graceful fluidity and some ripped bicep muscles. All in all, this number is worth the price of admission.

Spider web!

That over, Mary goes to see Gabbo in his dressing room. Gabbo and her have a very honest and personal discussion about their past and their future. Gabbo is now openly fawning over her, any reservations he once felt about expressing his love have now been replaced by the liberating feeling of delirious attraction. Oddly, it's Mary who begins to pull away the more they talk. It seems that her memories of Gabbo from years ago were better than the reality of him here in person. She just "wants to be friends". Ouch.

Eventually, Mary leaves him and goes back to Frank. We see that they truly do love each other, despite this foolishly rekindled obsession Mary had for Gabbo. Anyone who has been married for any length of time can tell you that things like that happen from time to time, and it's a testament to Mary's moral character that she made the right choice.

Frank and Mary reconcile.

Gabbo is beside himself with sorrow for having lost her again. The cruel stab of fate that led Mary back to him for a brief moment has only made the aching pain he's always had for her that much more intense. Gabbo is in full bore helpless impotent rage mode now, frothing and yelling like Guderian mired down before the gates of Moscow. Not even Otto is safe from his wrath now.

Otto feels his pain.

On stage, the finale goes on without him and Gabbo goes nuts. He storms out on stage, wading through the dancing girls to scream at the audience, "You don't know how to laugh! You don't know how to laugh!". Stage hands have to haul him off as people murmur and gasp.

The manager fires him on the spot, despite all he has done for the theater. Gabbo dejectedly leaves, unceremoniously carrying Otto upside down by one foot. Mary tries to console him, but his mind is so far gone that he just looks right past her. The final scene is poor Gabbo, out in the street, looking forlornly as workmen remove his name from the marquee. Truly a sad end to a once-promising career.

Gabbo faces his uncertain future alone.

All in all not a bad movie, even for a musical. The downcast ending was surprising, but well done. I'd recommend this one, if for nothing more than those cool 1920s flapper girls.

The end.

Puppets freak me out.

Written in June 2007 by Nathan Decker.

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