Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

[Automatonophobia] The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Great Gabbo - Theatrical Poster
The Great Gabbo Poster
This elderly piece of cinema follows the romantic and professional misadventures of ventriloquist Gabbo and his amazing dummy Otto. Gabbo (Erich Von Stroheim) is rather renowned for his skill in the ventriloquial arts, and that unfortunately has gone to his head. He is cruel, egocentric, and obsessed with the dummy. One might even go so far as to say that he is a little bit mad.

Gabbo's beautiful assistant-slash-girlfriend Mary (Betty Compson) has had to put up with his nonsense for far too long, and so she walks out on him. Being abandoned by Mary pushes him further over the edge, and in no time at all, Gabbo is treating Otto as if he were a real live boy.

This is demonstrated most prominently in the scene which takes place some two years later, where Gabbo and Otto go out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Otto is given his own seat and orders his own meal. Other patrons speculate that this is perhaps some wild publicity stunt, but the truth is not quite so simple.

This is the same scene where Mary is reunited with the talkative duo. She has become something of a success herself, landing a gig as a dancing girl for a fancy New York revue, and has taken a new paramour, Frank (Donald Douglas), who is none too happy with the attention that Otto and Gabbo begin to shower upon Mary.

The Great Gabbo - Gabbo Punches Otto
Gabbo Punches Otto
Gabbo believes that now that Mary has proven herself, she will be willing to return to his life. He is completely disheartened when he learns that Mary is not going to leave Frank for him, and not only that, but the two of them are married. When she says goodbye, she does so only to Otto. "I love you," she tells the dummy. "I always have...and I think I always will." In a fit of rage, Gabbo punches Otto in the face, but he is promptly remorseful when he realizes that he has nobody else left in the world. Gabbo storms the stage of the theater during the closing number, loses the last tenuous grip he held on reason, and shouts insanities at the audience until he breaks down in tears and is dragged from the stage. He is quickly fired for his outburst, and a destitute Gabbo watches in shame as his name is removed from the marquee.

This is truly a bizarre movie from start to finish, and I don't say that because of the plot. I say that because of everything else going on that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It is simply astounding how many full-length song and dance numbers that director James Cruze crammed into this movie, especially when you consider that most of them didn't involve Gabbo in the least. I'm assuming that he was attempting to capture the feeling of being at one of the live theater events around which this movie revolves, but this definitely ventured into overkill territory.

Speaking of song and dance numbers, Otto is rather fond of singing, as well (though he mercifully refrains from dancing. I do believe that would be concentrated nightmare fuel). He has a couple of oddball musical performances, which he delivers in a ghostly, child-like intonation that will haunt your subconscious for years to come. Although I must admit that the chorus to "I'm Laughing" is rather catchy—I've caught myself singing "Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho, I'm laughing" more times than I care to admit—it remains difficult to listen to "Icky (Lollipop Song)" with a straight face. The lyrics, at least when viewed through the prism of today, are far too suggestive:

"Oh, it makes me sick with the way it smears
How the stuff do stick in your hair and ears
With the lemon bean I'm always clean
But a lollipop, all icky
I've tried and tried, but never could find
A lollipop that's even halfway refined
So, I'd rather suck on a lemon drop
Than to try my luck with a lollipop
'Cause I always drop my lollipop
And it gets all over icky"

Not convinced? Imagine those words coming out of Nicki Minaj's mouth, and then you will understand what I'm talking about. If someone were to tell me that ‘lemon drop’ is old Vaudeville slang for a clitoris, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Beyond all the singing and dancing, there are also the extended scenes where Gabbo and Otto are performing. One or two truncated performances is to be expected, but we are shown endless minutes of stage time in which Otto tells mildly-amusing jokes while Gabbo drinks wine, smokes cigarettes, eats dinner, and shoves silk scarves into his gaping maw. They don't wear on you quite as much as the musical numbers, but at a certain point, you've already seen everything that you need to see...and then you realize that you're only halfway through. The movie is based on the short story "The Rival Dummy" by Ben Hecht, so I suppose they had to pad the running time somehow, but honestly, if someone were to edit out all of the fluff and foma, we would be left with a fairly decent 30-minute television episode.

The Great Gabbo - Gabbo and Otto: Portrait of Terror
Gabbo and Otto: Portrait of Terror
This isn't a horror film. It isn't intended to be, and shouldn't be judged by the same standards. I'm not quite sure what it is, or what it was intended to be, which makes it very hard to judge, indeed. Horror or not, it remains the great-grandfather of many an evil dummy film, though the roles are noticeably switched here. The ventriloquist is the rotten scoundrel in this equation, and it's only when speaking through the dummy that Gabbo isn't something of a right bastard. He has transferred all of his good qualities into Otto, leaving behind the showbiz equivalent of a ruthless shark, more than likely the only way that he felt he would make it to the top. Well, that and by abiding by many a superstition. At the onset of the film, he goes off the rails on Mary because she set his hat on the bed, and at the finale, he purposefully avoids walking beneath a ladder, meaning, perhaps, that he hopes to someday reclaim his fame.

Once viewed as Otto being the warehouse for Gabbo's good side, it’s easier to understand why Mary put up with Gabbo's abuse for so long, and why she professed her love to the dummy and not to the man when saying her last goodbyes. But after Gabbo's attack on Otto, and his near-immediate descent into madness, is there any of his good side left?

Sometime down the line, filmmakers would realize that the central conceit of this film could be manipulated into a much more interesting dynamic by switching the personality traits of Gabbo and Otto. There are dozens of evil dummy movies out there, but they all started here, whether they know it or not. THE GREAT GABBO remains a milestone in this peculiar subgenre for this reason, and for flipping the script decades before the script was even written.


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