- The Great Gabbo (1929) movie overview: Silent era veterans Erich von Stroheim and Betty Compson deliver quality performances in James Cruze’s creaky but still engrossing early talkie.
James Cruze’s terrific – if disturbing – early talkie The Great Gabbo features excellent performances by Erich von Stroheim & Betty Compson
The Great Gabbo is a terrific early talkie. Sure, the independently made film is old and creaky, while its technical aspects are cheap and primitive. Yet the story, the music, and the performances always keep me hooked.
Directed by top silent era filmmaker James Cruze (of the blockbuster The Covered Wagon), from a screen story by Ben Hecht (The Front Page) and with continuity and dialogue by Hugh Herbert (best known as an actor; e.g., Gold Diggers of 1935), The Great Gabbo follows an arrogant ventriloquist – that’s the Gabbo of the title (Erich von Stroheim) – who abuses his girlfriend-cum-assistant (Cruze’s then-wife Betty Compson) one too many times.
After his beloved finally walks out on him, Gabbo slowly descends into madness, transferring all his soul and compassion onto his dummy, Otto. Ultimately, it is Otto who helps to keep Gabbo grounded.
Erich von Stroheim, whose directorial credits include the 1924 classic Greed, is perfect as the European vaudeville performer with an obsessive dependence on his dummy. The only other actor I could picture in this role is Peter Lorre.
I should add that Otto, with his unblinking eyes and high-pitched voice, is rather scary. Even so, he’s still more likable than Gabbo himself.
Betty Compson, the star of dozens of silent films (considered for a Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the 1928 part-talkie The Barker), is appropriately bright and cheerful as the assistant who still loves Gabbo (or is it Otto?) even after finding another man (Donald Douglas) who loves her and treats her with respect.
‘Drama and power’ hold up
Another plus is the film’s peppy music and production numbers, which brighten up the otherwise disturbing plot.
One funny scene has the chorus girls changing their costumes in the wings before the curtain goes up, while the delightfully daffy “Web of Love” number – in which the dancers are dressed up as spiders and insects climbing a great big web monstrosity – is a welcome respite to the bleak proceedings.
But lively production numbers or no, The Great Gabbo was probably too depressing for 1929 audiences still reeling from the jazz age. But looking at it some 80 years later, its drama and power still hold up.
The Great Gabbo (1929)
Director: James Cruze.
Screenplay: Continuity and Dialogue by Hugh Herbert.
From a screen story by Ben Hecht.
Cast: Erich von Stroheim. Betty Compson. Donald Douglas. Marjorie Kane.
“The Great Gabbo: Creaky But Intriguing Early Talkie” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“The Great Gabbo Movie (1929) Overview” endnotes
Erich von Stroheim The Great Gabbo movie image: James Cruze Productions | Kino Video.
“The Great Gabbo: Creaky But Intriguing Early Talkie” last updated in September 2021.