Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Great Gabbo

THE GREAT GABBO             B           
USA  (92 mi)  1929  director:  James Cruze, von Stroheim uncredited

Ladies and gentlemen, I have the privilege to appear before you in what I might call, with all due modesty, the greatest ventriloquism exhibition of all times.                        
—The Great Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim)

Shot in the era of early talkies, when the studios were under pressure to crank out talking pictures before they even learned how to use the cumbersome equipment, and while the result is a highly uneven film, it’s notable on several counts.  First, it’s a time capsule look at the Vaudeville era, where the charm of these old musical numbers are priceless, choreographed in an odd hybrid of styles, all of which predate Busby Berkeley, but heavily costumed dancers fill every inch of the frame, using a sense of constant motion in order to dazzle the audiences back in the 20’s.  Just as a note of comparison, this film was released the same year as the very first Marx Brothers movie, THE COCOANUTS (1929), where both feature plenty of overblown musical numbers that include both amateurish and near operatic singing voices.  Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, adapted from his 1928 short story The Rival Dummy, described as “a macabre adventure into the strange workings of an unbalanced mind.”  But the real showpiece of this film is the slow psychological deterioration of a world class ventriloquist, The Great Gabbo, played by the legendary director Erich von Stroheim.  The eccentric nature of his performance is simply off the charts, yet his aristocratic mannerisms, so prevalent in THE GRAND ILLUSION (1937), are fully developed here, wearing a white Tuxedo with white gloves, with honorary medals stuck to his chest, not to mention his customary cigarette and eye monocle.  His distinct pronunciation of every Hecht word lends credibility to his view of himself as a legendary star, even early in his career when he’s playing in dives.  Betty Compson, the director’s wife, though they divorced a year later, is Mary, the faithful girlfriend with the shrill, high pitched voice that makes her sound dumber than she really is.  But she can’t compete with the real love of Gabbo’s life, his dummy Otto.  Though Mary is considered a second rate performer, her career is thwarted by slavishly taking care of Gabbo and Otto. 

As a director, Stroheim was known for his extravagance and painfully slow working methods, where studio executives often had to step in before shooting was finished due to cost overruns, where his career as a director was all but finished when he was prematurely fired working with Gloria Swanson in QUEEN KELLY (1928), which forced him to return to acting.  As a scene constructionist, however, Stroheim was far more sophisticated than many of his contemporaries, using magnificent crane shots, often blending subjective points of view, using surrealistic flourishes, including Technicolor shots.  When this film was initially released, certain sequences were color tinted, where the title sequence indicates “Color sequences by Multicolor.”  Unfortunately, Multicolor went out of business and all color tints have been lost, so the only available version is not what the director originally intended, though we do get a hint of Gabbo performing his routine through a spectrum of colors here in this overly faded version, The Great Gabbo: Erich von Stroheim's Astonishing Yodel  YouTube (2:33).  Gabbo is a world class egomaniac, where he tyrannically orders Mary around, complaining about each and every thing she does, where if it’s not done perfectly, she’ll hear about it, which eventually drives her away, as Gabbo believes she’ll amount to nothing without his star status.  “If you're as great as you think you are, then why aren’t you in a real theater?” she quips before walking out on him.  Gabbo’s act is pretty impressive, even to the point of absurdity, as he can eat a five course meal, drink an entire glass of water, smoke a cigarette, and even swallow a scarf as he is performing the voice of the dummy, who even occasionally breaks out into song, all seemingly impossible, which of course is the basis of his legendary stature as the world’s greatest.  As a publicity stunt, he eats in the same classy restaurant with Otto, both receiving world class service, literally holding the audience in the room spellbound by the audacity of his nerve, seen here, The Great Gabbo - 1929 - by request  YouTube (15:27), where he cleverly reunites with Mary after a two year absence, leading to a Rockettes-style musical number “Every Now and Then,” featuring Frank (Donald Douglas) and Babe (Marjorie Kane), another high-pitched, Betty Boop/Shirley Temple sounding singer.

There is unfortunately not enough Stroheim in the film, both in front and behind the camera, as the overly conventional main story continually finds its way to the theatrical stage, where separately Mary and Gabbo have both become big name stars, and the director delights in shooting big production numbers, mostly from a distance with almost no camera movement, where the peculiar nature of many of these musical numbers only adds to the odd delight of the film. There is the great Art Deco style and grand theatricality of I'm In Love With You (1929)  YouTube (6:47), starring the duo team of Mary and Frank (Donald Douglas), though by the end the chorus isn’t even dancing, but simply walking in formation, or That New Step (1929) YouTube (2:59), again featuring Babe, where the German Expressionist sets seem directly stolen from the stage of THE CABINET OF DR, CALIGARI (1920).  Perhaps most amusing is the bewilderingly spectacular and oftentime hilarious spider-and-fly set design of Caught in the Web of Love (1929)  YouTube (6:57), featuring Mary and Frank, eventually taking a turn into what eventually became the Mickey Hargitay/Jayne Mansfield body sculpture nightclub act.  And while these strange set pieces are charmingly memorable, none of the other stock characters hold a candle to the diabolical flourish of Stroheim’s performance, where at one point he goes into unsubtitled German with his dresser, which appears to be his way of showing flattery, but in an instant he’s turned on the dresser as well with more wicked insults and verbal abuse.  But when things don’t go as planned, Gabbo has socially isolated himself from all others, who he snears at with haughty contempt, leaving him only the dummy for companionship.  Locked in the dual worlds inside his own head, his mind deteriorates until he grows delirious, as if trapped with no escape, where mixed surreal images are superimposed on top of one another to create a delusional state of madness, The Finale - The Great Gabbo 1929. YouTube (7:29).  Gabbo’s ruthless nature is startlingly exposed, suddenly tempered with a childlike vulnerability, where his comeuppance is poignantly sad, where by the end we finally see the man (child) behind the mask. 

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