The Great Gabbo is a terrific early talkie. Sure, the film is old and creaky, while its technical aspects are cheap and primitive. But the story, the music, and the performances always keep me hooked.
Directed by James Cruze, a top name in the silent era, from a story by Ben Hecht (continuity and dialogue by Hugh Herbert), 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 is perfect as the European vaudevillian performer with an obsessive dependency on his dummy. The only other actor I could picture in this role is Peter Lorre. (Otto, with his unblinking eyes and high-pitched voice, looks rather scary – but he’s still more likable than Gabbo himself.)
Betty Compson, the star of dozens of silent films, is appropriately bright and cheerful as the assistant who still loves Gabbo (or is it Otto?) even after finding another man who loves her and treats her with respect.
The film’s peppy music and production numbers brighten up an 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.
© Danny Fortune
The Great Gabbo (1929). Director: James Cruze. Screenplay: Story by Ben Hecht; Continuity and Dialogue by Hugh Herbert. Cast: Erich von Stroheim, Betty Compson, Donald Douglas, Marjorie Kane.