When we first meet ventriloquist The Great Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim), he’s already a colossal self-centered jerk. He’s particularly brutal toward his pretty young assistant/partner Mary (Betty Compson), to the point where the other theatrical folk are noticing. Gabbo’s problem is that he thinks that because he’s a talented artist—and in fact his ventriloquist skills are remarkable, including feats like singing through his dummy Otto while smoking and drinking water—everyone else should feel lucky just to be graced by his presence.
Betty soon has enough and packs her bags. Before leaving, she tells Otto that “he’s the only thing around here with a soul,” a remark that will prove truer than she suspects. Left along to stew in his own bile , Gabbo has no one to talk with but Otto, who assumes the roles of his conscience. Of course, this is just Gabbo talking to himself, but it’s easy to forget that fact because Gabbo can control Otto remotely, through a rubber bulb, making the “dummy talks on his own” effect quite convincing. If you prefer a less scientific explanation of what’s going on, alternative interpretations are available.
Gabbo’s career prospers in Mary’s absence, and he publicizes the act through stunts like taking Otto dining with him in fine restaurants. The act becomes more complex: Otto no longer sits on Gabbo’s knee, but is seated separately from him, and his act has grown to including stunts like yodeling while Gabbo eats a full meal. Mary also finds a new path for her life, performing with and becoming romantically involved with a singer/dancer named Frank (Donald Douglas). But Gabbo wants Mary back, and maybe she feels something for him also—or did he wait too long to become a human being?
James Cruze is efficient in his direction of The Great Gabbo, which is no small feat considering the difficulties of shooting with the early sound cameras. Art direction by Robert E. Lee capitalizes on the Art Deco style popular in the day, and, as befits a show biz story, there are many scenes set onstage and backstage in theatres and nightclubs. Some critics consider this film a musical, due to the number of complete musical numbers included. In fact, the plot basically grinds to a halt at one point while multiple stage numbers are performed in succession, which is at odds with our modern expectations of how a film should be written. Of course, the director and crew were working with substantial technical challenges, and the industry as a whole was working out what a soundie should be, so the unusual pacing doesn’t bother me as much as it would had a later film used similar structure.
When The Great Gabbo was originally released, it included some color sequences, but they have since been lost, and in this release the film is entirely black and white. It’s seen here in a 2K restoration by the Library of Congress, and in general the audio and visual quality is pretty good. The scenes that appear the most dated are the presentations of staged musical spectaculars, but I feel safe in attributing the stiff cinematic techniques used in those scenes to the technical limitations of the equipment available at the time (the performances themselves are fascinating as time capsules of contemporary practices). Besides, without these early attempts, would Hollywood have been ready for Busby Berkeley a few years later?
The Great Gabbo, with a screenplay by Hugh Herbert based on a short story by Ben Hecht, may be the Ur-source for the many screen and television representations of ventriloquist dummies who prove to have a mind of their own, including Dead of Night(1945), Knock on Wood (1954), Magic (1978), and several episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Cruze’s film also gets namechecked in a 1993 Simpsons episode, which involves a ventriloquist’s dummy named Gabbo, so you know It’s still culturally relevant. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Great Gabbo is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. There’s just one extra on the disc, but it’s a good one: a commentary track by Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film.