The Great Gabbo (1929) Poster

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good and unusual film marred by the musical numbers
MartinHafer29 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This was a very good film that could have been great had it not been a musical. But, in 1929 when the movie came out, Hollywood seemed to be producing tons of musicals (so they could show off the new medium of talking pictures) and a lot of stage numbers were used to stretch out the film. Unfortunately, they had a tendency to distract from the main plot and after a while got really tedious. I think showing bits and pieces of the musical numbers or eliminating them altogether would have been a good idea in retrospect.

Erich von Stroheim played "Gabbo", the world's greatest but seriously flawed ventriloquist. He could make his dummy "Otto" say nice things but he himself was a cruel, pompous jerk when the film began. The film starts with Gabbo unmercifully berating his companion, Mary, and blaming her for every little flaw in his act. It seems that he was just a mean-spirited perfectionist who felt a need to scapegoat someone. Well, after thoroughly mistreating her, she left him. Despite this, his act improved considerably and Gabbo was the star of Broadway within two years. But, he was also incredibly lonely and longed to have Mary back. And, as luck would have it, he ended up performing in the same show as Mary and had high hopes of getting back with her and telling her he loved her and was sorry for his past behavior. This aspect of the film and how it all worked out was the most satisfying and movie part of the film.

However, while the film ultimately concerned Gabbo and his ultimate loneliness over losing Mary, there is a strange aspect of the film that is never fully developed and I really wished it had been. You see, in the first 2/3 of the film, Otto seems way too real and creepy. He is able to move and talk rather independently of Gabbo--as if he is either REAL or that he is in fact Gabbo's alter-ego and he cannot separate himself from his dummy. Either way, it's strange that von Stroheim can eat and drink--all the while Otto talks and talks and even lectures Gabbo! It is highly reminiscent of the later film, MAGIC, as well as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, where the dummy turns out to be real. But, this entirely brilliant aspect of the film just vanishes as if they forgot to continue this subplot! Still, overall it's a highly originally plot for its time and a great curio. Plus, for 1929, the sound and picture quality on the new Library of Congress restoration released by Kino Video.

PS--As a homage to this film, THE SIMPSONS had an episode where a ventriloquist and his dummy, Gabbo, became a huge hit with the kids and briefly put Krusty out of work.
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"....and Otto makes three"
bkoganbing29 April 2017
As director and actor Erich Von Stroheim did some very weird films and The Great Gabbo is certainly one of them. In this Von Stroheim is a star attraction in a Ziegfeld Follies type stage review and he is fixated on Betty Compson who used to be his assistant in his act, but walked out on him because he treated her shabbily.

Now she is keeping company with Donald Douglas a young hoofer in the show. He's actually upset as well with her interest in Von Stroheim.

In a way it's hard to review this because just the name of Erich Von Stroheim brings up images of barbaric cruelty show on the screen. The name alone is sufficient to conjure up horrible images.

So Von Stroheim wants to set up house with her and his dummy Otto. As in most ventriloquist stories the dummy functions as an alter ego.

All this with the backdrop of a Ziegfeld type show. That was interesting and like Glorifying The American Girl, The Great Gabbo is a nice filmed record of what these shows were like on stage.

Although Von Stroheim is always interesting, The Great Gabbo's best value is as a record of the type musical revue so popular back then.
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Fine Performances Bad Music
Michael_Elliott12 September 2010
Great Gabbo, The (1929)

** (out of 4)

Early talkie has Erich von Stroheim playing Gabbo, a ventriloquist who breaks free from his assistant and then finds huge success on his own with his dummy Otto. After his success he runs into his assistant again who by this time is also famous and Gabbo thinks he can control her like he did when they first started. This here is a pretty confusing movie because it's not quite sure what it wants to do. The stuff with the dummy controlling Gabbo might make you expect a horror movie but these elements are very few. We have the personal drama of the assistant and her new husband. We have some plot about Gabbo being crazy. Then, for some unknown reason, the final thirty-minutes pretty much gets away from the Gabbo story and we get some incredibly long music numbers but more on them in a bit. There's not too much plot here but what little there is seems to come and go as the movie goes along as we switch gears so many times that it's pretty hard to follow what the filmmakers are trying to do. The best thing about the movie and the only real reason to watch it is for the performance of von Stroheim who is perfectly wicked in the role. He gives an incredibly strong performance here and you can't help but feel the hatred of his character as it seems to be really coming out of the actor. I'm sure this period in his life wasn't the greatest so this role gave him a chance to really let out some steam. Betty Compson, who appeared in THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK, is pretty good in her role as well but the screenplay gives her a lot less to do and doesn't have nearly as flashy of a role. I'm really not sure where the music numbers come from but I'm going to guess they were added after talkies became popular and Musicals started bringing people in. The film is pretty much doing its own thing when out of no where these dance sequences come up and they'll all incredibly bad, poorly staged and most of the time the voices are so high-pitched that you'll be wishing you were watching a silent. There's one incredibly strange one where the dancers are flies stuck in a spider web that's so bizarre it's pretty much a must-see. The sound quality here is certainly among the best I've heard from this era and considering how small the budget was I'm curious how they managed to do this.
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Watch it for von Stroheim
Leofwine_draca6 March 2020
Warning: Spoilers
THE GREAT GABBO is one of the earliest talkies and it certains makes the most of that opportunity for sound, featuring as it does an excellent turn from Erich von Stroheim a the thoroughly sinister and out-of-his-mind ventriloquist who has an unhealthy relationship with his own dummy. The film's background of musical extravaganzas and innocent chorus girls is bright and cheerful in itself, but it's von Stroheim who makes this work; the 'living doll' sub-plot would go on to be reworked to great success in the likes of DEAD OF NIGHT, DEVIL-DOLL and MAGIC.
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The not great film
Horst_In_Translation10 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
"The Great Gabbo" is an American movie from 1929, so this one is from over 85 years ago and of course it is a black-and-white film still. But it does have sound as the sound era was quickly progressing in his early years at this point. Just to put it in perspective, this film is from between the two great wars of the 20th century, came out 4 years before Nazis came into power. This shows how old it really it. According to IMDb, this is a German-language movie, but this is only partially true I believe. There is German dialogue in here, but it is very rare and the great majority of the dialogues are in English language. I guess this error is due to co-director and lead actor Erich von Stroheim being from Austria originally. He is in almost every scene during these slightly over 90 minutes. He plays a stage artist who works as a ventriloquist, but the more he keeps doing so, the more insane he becomes. I personally always found these little puppets or dummies (or whatever they are called) fairly creepy, so I can somewhat understand it. Add some romance (unrequited love?) and lots of music and you have this video in a nutshell. EvS's performance is probably the best thing about the film, but to be harsh one could also say it is the only good thing here. The music is not catchy, the story is not too interesting and I also must say I did not really care for the characters at all. For the most part this felt like a pretty uninspired work. I do not recommend the watch.
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He wants to be alone, and it's probably better for everyone if he is.
mark.waltz2 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
O.K., so Erich Con Stroheim ain't Garbo, but as Gabbo, he has the personality of somebody who belongs in solitary confinement. He is emotionally and verbally cruel to his beautiful girlfriend Betty Compson, and when she threatens to leave him, he simply acts like he doesn't give a damn. The very autocratic von Stroheim makes Otto Preminger look like a pussy cat, and while many of his later roles lacked in humor while playing very severe brooding older men, here he is actually quite funny. I don't think that there is anything funny about mental abuse, but the way von Stroheim plays the part, his character is so phony that he makes his dummy look real. Yes, von Stroheim plays a ventriloquist, although not a very good one. Even though his character is a headliner in vaudeville shows and eventually makes it to Broadway, it is obvious that he is not actually speaking when the dummy speaks. It is obvious through his singing that somebody else is doing that, and that makes this unintentionally funny.

Even funnier are the ancient musical numbers, some so funny and bizarrely staged that they have to be seen to be believed. "Every Now and Then" is actually one of the best numbers of the early sound era, with the chorus girls and boys wearing white in the front and black in the back, and when they turned it gives a very interesting effect. Another musical oddity is a musical number utilizing a giant spider web, resembling some of the most over-the-top musical numbers of this time, including the "Turn on the Heat" production number from 'Sunny Side Up", the giant idol dance from "Just Imagine" and Winnie Lightner's camp classic "Singing in the Bathtub" from "Show of Shows". Fortunately von Stroheim doesn't get involved in the dancing, only singing or pretending to, when his dummy is singing. Betty Compson is a very attractive and personable young lady, and when they are reunited when he headlines a Broadway revue where she is now part of a singing and dancing team, it brings on a break down for him that has to be seen to be believed.

Yes, Max from "Sunset Boulevard" is acting most melodramatic in an early musical that actually looks pretty expensive considering that it came from one of the Z grade studios of the era, Sono Art World Wide. A montage towards the end is an interesting blend of special effects and flashbacks, and von Stroheim shows off his overacting abilities in his attempt to show this characters possible destruction. So as a curiosity, this is very much worth seeing, & I have seen it several times. Actually each time I see it, it sorta grows on me even more, and I have to call this one of the big surprises of the early sound era. Some of the chorus numbers have so many singers and dancers in them there seems barely any room to move on stage, but these early movie musicals we're certainly not at all realistic in a Broadway sensibility.
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The "Von" could read the phone book for my applause.
JohnHowardReid16 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Copyright 10 December 1930 by James Cruze, Inc. Distributed by Sono Art-World Wide Pictures through Educational Exchanges. New York opening at the Selwyn: 12 September 1929. U.S. release: 1 January 1930. 10 reels. 8,049 feet. 89 minutes.

SYNOPSIS: An egotistical ventriloquist has a row with his live-in girlfriend/stage partner. They separate. A few years later, however, they are both appearing in the Manhattan Revue. But not together. And now the ventriloquist is the headliner.

NOTES: Although Mordaunt Hall accorded The Great Gabbo a rave review in The New York Times, he did not list the movie as one of the Ten Best of the Year. However, he did place it in his supplementary list.

In private life, Betty Compson was Mrs. James Cruze.

COMMENT: Just about every newspaper critic except Mordaunt Hall hated The Great Gabbo. True, it has shortcomings. But I love it. Anyone who enjoys spectacular stage numbers clothed with scads of dancing chorus girls will soon forgive the somewhat stagey off-stage scenes with Mr. Von Stroheim, Miss Compson (and the voice of Master Grandee). And even they are enlivened with a few ritzy songs.

In any case, the "Von" is such a consummate actor, he could read the phone book for my applause. My only complaints are that the picture runs just a mite too long and that the color sequences are printed up in black-and-white. Hopefully, this has now been rectified.
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Early dummy film
BandSAboutMovies27 June 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Based on "The Rival Dummy" by Ben Hecht, The Great Gaboo was released as an "all-dialog singing, dancing and dramatic spectacle" with huge musical numbers that stand in stark contrast to the plot and often stop the film's pace cold. There was even a scene shot in color, "The Ga Ga Bird", which is missing from nearly all prints of the movie today. The musical sequences are so big - "Web of Love" was used for years in other films and dance sequences was re-used with different music in 1932's The Girl from Calgary - that you may forget that this is kind of a horror movie.

Predating Dead of Night, The Twilight Zone episodes "The Dummy" and "Caesar and Me," Magic, Devil Doll and even The Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled," this is the tale of an artist - ventriloquist Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim, who in addition to being an actor - known as "the man you love to hate" - was also one of the first auteur directors, beloved by Surrealists and a man banned from Hollywood - he was unwilling to compromise his art for commercial cinema, while also being obsessed with the finest of details and more than willing to spend as much money as possible on his films despite scenes that were too shocking to ever be shown; yeah this is a run-on sentence but he's a personal hero) - who only speaks through his dummy Otto*.

Gabbo is amazing - he can make Otto talk and sing while he smokes, drinks and eats, which wows audiences - but he's a complete maniac who can only relate to the outside world through the dummy. His girlfriend and assistant Mary (Betty Compson) leaves him after years of suffering through his tics and complete hatred of the world.

Two years pass and Gabbo has become a star while Mary has moved on to a relationship with a dancer. The Gabbo she meets now is a complete man, one who relates to her with thought and romance. He confesses that without her, he realized his failings and worked to improve himself. She tells him that she is now married and they cannot be together, saying goodbye to Otto and not him. His life ruined, he explodes, punching the doll in the face before holding it, taking Otto to the stage where he ruins the show and loses his career.

Director James Cruze acted in, directed and or produced over 100 films in the silent era. Not much is known about his life before Hollywood as he told a different story to every interviewer. However, he sadly never was able to make the move from silents to talkies and after moving to work in Poverty Row studios like Republic, he killed himself in 1942.

I can't imagine how audiences reacted to this. It really is a horror film, with a deranged protagonist who can't relate to humanity that wants to desperately retain the two people who keep him sane - a woman in love with another man and his partner who is not even real. And then the music numbers! I love this movie for every odd thing it throws at me.

*Otto was hand-carved by Frank Marshall, the same artist who made Edgar Bergen's dummies.
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Who's the dummy... really?
CinemaSerf16 March 2021
The problem for Erich von Stroheim in the title role here is that his character's abilities to eat, drink - sing La Bohème, even - whilst his dummy "Otto" chats away merrily to the audience does quite come off on film. An out-of-vision voice is nothing new with this medium, so much of the potency of the joke - that might have worked more effectively in a theatre - is lost. What's left is a mildly amusing, sometimes even slightly sinister story about the eponymous character who works with the rather clumsy "Mary" (Betty Compson) on whom he picks on relentlessly. After one outburst, she packs up and leaves him... Success comes his way and soon they are reunited on a bill where she has a slot as a dancer - and he wants her back! Had the story focussed more on that plot line, and on the slightly macabre "Otto", it might have worked better - but for the most part it is a collection of mediocre stage performances accompanied by some cheerful enough, but totally forgettable ditties and by the time we have a chance to sink our teeth into the main theme of the film, I'd sort of lost interest. It's a hybrid of things, this - and James Cruze lost his focus early and couldn't quite recover it. I did enjoy the ending, though... always did hate puppets!
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LeonLouisRicci2 September 2021
A Bizarre, Surreal Combination of Elaborate, Extravagant, Eye-Popping Musical Staging and a Melodramatic Story of an Egomaniacal Ventriloquist Romance.

Viewed and Considered Separately the Duel Presentation Plays Fine.

Trouble is when put Together as a Montage it's about as Clunky as it Gets in these Early Sound Experiments.

Erich Von Stroheim Dominates the Thespians but gets Good Support with Betty Compson's Non-Musical Dramatics.

The "Dummy" Otto is Surprisingly Uninteresting and is Used Mostly Straight.

The Musical Stage Revue is Surreal, Art-Deco, Over-the-Top with some Startling Choreography and Knock-Out Visuals that were Filmed in Color, but the Footage is Lost.

Overall, a Great Portal into the Machinations of Film-Making at the Transitional Period between Silent and Sound.

A Visual Treat, but those Expecting the Breakdown of an On-the-Edge Ventriloquist that has become a Staple in Horror-Fantasy, will be Disappointed.
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Strange little curio from the early talkie era
AlsExGal19 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
This movie will probably be enjoyable mainly to those of us interested in the early talkie era of films. This movie is an odd combination of a Ziegfeld-like musical revue and a psychological study of a man's descent into madness, and was based on a story by Ben Hecht. It is not your melodrama set to music that you would typically see in 1929.

Gabbo (Erich Von Stroheim) is a ventriloquist, apparently living with his girlfriend Mary (Betty Compson) who also helps him in his act. His mannequin, Otto, seems to take on a life of his own. At first you believe that Gabbo is only imagining Otto is talking, but very shortly you see that Otto is moving and talking from several feet away from Gabbo - but always in Gabbo's presence - regardless of whether other people are around or not, and these other people see Otto move and speak too. Everyone just attributes this to Gabbo's talent and eccentricity, nothing else. Gabbo is constantly berating Mary, complaining that his coffee is too hot or too cold, blaming his lack of success on her, and finally daring her to leave, which she does. Time passes, and Gabbo becomes the star of the Manhattan Revue, a successful Ziegfeld-like Broadway production, and a show in which Mary is also starring as a singer and dancer with her partner and boyfriend, Frank (Donald Douglas). Mary begins to make some friendly gestures towards Gabbo, which Gabbo happily interprets as Mary's desire to reunite with him. However, things are not as they appear in more ways than one, and when Mary tells Gabbo a secret she has been keeping he goes completely mad. Gabbo even punches Otto saying it is his fault that Mary has left him.

The musical part of the film has some lavish numbers that appear very typical of Ziegfeld's productions, although the famous showman had nothing to do with this movie. Besides the pre-Busby Berkeley dances in which the people in the chorus descend a staircase and then proceed to dance on the stage in a straight line with the camera either focusing on the dancer's feet or costumes but seldom both, there are some rather inventive numbers. One involves the dancers performing with some giant pinwheels raised in the background. Another one has the performers dressed as spiders that first sing while raised on a giant spider web, then some of them climb down and perform the rest of the act on stage. The odd staging and costumes in the musical numbers just add to the surrealistic mood of Gabbo's growing insanity.

It seems that since Otto's speech and motion are not figments of Gabbo's imagination, that perhaps Otto's personality is the "human side" of Gabbo. Otto is what Gabbo would be like if he was less self-involved. Mary seems to hint at this several times early in the film when she says that the only kind words Gabbo ever said to her came from Otto. At the end of the film, after Mary makes clear to Gabbo she will never return to him and why, Otto never moves or speaks again. It is as though Otto's lifelessness shows that any remaining humanity in Gabbo has burned out for good. Erich Von Stroheim was particularly good as Gabbo. Being both a director and an actor himself in both the silent and talking era might have helped him in this. If you are interested in obscure early talkies, I'm sure you'll like this movie.
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The Great Gabbo review
JoeytheBrit5 May 2020
A brilliant but cruel ventriloquist's inability to relate to those around him unless it is through his dummy costs him the love of the woman he loves. An endless round of inappropriate and uninspired musical numbers fatally weakens what might otherwise have been an effective short. Von Stroheim is great as the tortured ventriloquist, but the screenplay doesn't explore deeply enough the underlying themes regarding interaction and isolation.
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I feel sorry for Gabbo- he is being left behind.
kfo94942 May 2012
In order to properly understand this film you have to take yourself back to 1928-1929. You had only 20% of the theater's ready for sound performance. The rest of the film viewing arenas were still 'silent only' films. So in late 28 and early 29 films were filmed in sound and also in silent. This film was written for silent but was transformed to sound as the technology progressed in the late 20's.

So they made a film that was written for the silent era but transformed into the sound era. No one had written the rules of sound performances which lead for many awkward moments.

So without an underline music score or the thought of continuing dialog, the film was made. It is a seam between silent and sound. It is a learning tool for the next progression step.

An aging ventriloquist is trying to put a stop to history. He commanded money and respect in his time but cannot see that times are passing him by like a train. He wants to hold on to the applause and the bright lights of his youth. He wants time to stand still- a time where he commanded respect. But we all know that it is impossible.

The obvious love story is a front for more active and sinister activity. The puppet is just a metaphor. The real story is that times are a changing and people are going to be left behind. So it is for the Great Gabbo.

Sound is coming and there are going to be actors that cannot cope with the new form of communication. Such as Gabbo when he finds out that people prefer sound (musical) instead of vaudeville. It is a change of the seasons.

This is what I get from this film. Times are changing and some are going to be left behind. The Great Gabbo, even in 1929, seems old. A sad ending to a good movie.
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Before there was a Maxwell Freer...
theowinthrop25 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Erich Von Stroheim will always have his champions - there was a great artist in him. When I reviewed the fragments of "Queen Kelly" a few days back, I said that his method is time consuming compared to what a normal film editing/directing job is like, but it does hold one's attention closely. "Queen Kelly" had a melodramatic, impossible script. But "Foolish Wives", "The Merry Widow", and "Greed" had good scripts.

After "Queen Kelly" folded Stroheim had to find another job because he had a family to support (a wife and son). He had, originally, been an actor. In fact his early roles in World War I and post 1918 films was as "the man you love to hate" - the perfect German militarist swine, who while raping some French woman would silence that squawking brat of hers by flinging it out the window. He carried this into his own films: His fake rake-Russian Prince in "Foolish Wives" (gleefully looking through his pocket mirror at a woman undressing in back of him), or his German noble in "Blind Husbands", who plans to cuckold a fellow traveler. He did these actions with commendable panache (imagine throwing a baby out the window with style!). So he could act. In fact, in his later career, given a great director (Jean Renoir, Billy Wilder) Von Stroheim was superb as an actor.

So he returned to acting, and "The Great Gabbo" was the result. The criticisms on this thread are sensible. Anyone turning to "The Great Gabbo" to see the artistry of early talking picture musicals will run screaming from the room. To me the best songs are those dealing with Gabbo and his dummy "Otto". "Otto" singing any tune is a stunt, and one is willing to accept it as such. One is not listening to his tunes to recall them for later humming or singing purposes of one's own.

Instead, the dominating force of "The Great Gabbo" is the masterful, high strung, egomaniac Von Stroheim. He does make himself the world's greatest ventriloquist, and rises to head a show. But the man has serious emotional flaws, and one senses they are not entirely his own fault. He cannot relate easily to people, even Betty Compson (who did care for him) because he can't trust them. They are flawed or they fail him at critical moments. One wonders what caused him to become this way, but it is a flaw of the script that it is never explained.

That he dismissed Compson due to an error on her part is true, but he still carries a strong desire for her. But she's found another, and it sends him into a tailspin.

"The Great Gabbo" saved Von Stroheim. Aside from a talkie disaster he directed ("Walking Down Broadway", a.k.a. "Hello Sister!") he never directed any film again. He did have some affect in some of his B-features in the 1940s, such as "The Mask Of Dijon", where some critics have noted his touch in various scenes. But it wasn't directing. When he tried to suggest ideas for "Max Von Mayerling" in "Sunset Boulevard", Billy Wilder listened respectfully but did not use them.

Instead he would be an actor for the rest of his career. And he would turn in "Von Rauffenstein" in "Le Grande Illusion", "Field Marshall Erwin Rommel" in "Five Graves To Cairo", and "Max" in "Sunset Boulevard". Not a bad final reckoning for the loss of a great directorial career. And it was "Gabbo" that started it.
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Entertaining if somewhat prehistoric
MOscarbradley14 May 2019
This is the one in which Erich von Stroheim plays the crazy ventriloquist controlled by his dummy. He's "The Great Gabbo" and, as befits Mr von Stroheim, he's completely over the top but then OTT was what made him famous, in film and in life. The movie itself is entertaining enough, even if it goes down the musical-comedy route and isn't the chiller we might have expected. Betty Compson is fine as the girl Gabbo is in love with and who drives him to even greater levels of distraction than he might otherwise have reached.
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A Chip Off the Old Block
richardchatten5 March 2020
My grandfather always used to chuckle when he recalled this film, since the soundtrack got out of sync when he saw it, like the premiere of 'The Duelling Cavalier'.

Immaculately turned out as ever, von Stroheim in the title role - like Mel Ferrer in 'Lili' - is only able to display his sweet side through little Otto; but you know that this time round it's all going to end in tears.

In addition to the three principals who make up the rather dour central triangle (if you don't count Otto), Margie Kane occasionally enlivens things by shaking a leg in the extravagantly daft Pre-Code musical numbers (originally in colour) arranged by Maurice Kusell and designed by André-ani that punctuate the thing, boasting "an ensemble of 350".
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Bad and Worse
Cineanalyst22 July 2005
This is bad. Erich von Stroheim stars as a malevolent ventriloquist in "The Great Gabbo", and one can certainly draw parallels between his once auspicious directorial career and the fate of Gabbo. Additionally, there's the other plot of a woman who easily makes it on Broadway as singer and dancer, with all the generic backstage drama of the early movie musicals. Anyhow, the drama and musical plots are horrendous and made worse together.

Most of the early talkie backstage musicals (including this one) are awful--creaky, lacking inspired film-making, lousy musical numbers, bad acting and insipid, hackneyed story-lines. Early in his career, Ben Hecht even wrote this one. A few witty lines, like those he later wrote for screwball comedies, might have enlivened this movie. This type of picture isn't supposed to be dramatic; or, this type of drama doesn't work as a musical.

Stroheim plays his typical tragic man-you-love-to-hate character, but it's out of place--and probably wouldn't have made a decent film alone. He proved himself a capable actor elsewhere (e.g. "La Grande Illusion", "Sunset Blvd.", as well as in films he directed). The musical numbers and backstage dramas make this already worthless story more ridiculous. Neither would have been worthwhile alone, but together, this picture fails enormously.
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a pre-code musical noir!!!!
kidboots14 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Now Erich Von Stroheim is regarded as one of the all time great directors but back in 1930 he was almost unemployable. He had been sacked from "Queen Kelly" (1928), at the star's (Gloria Swanson) insistence. He was then hired to star in "The Great Gabbo" and the film showed audiences what a wonderful character actor he was. People could see and hear him yelling, preening and huffing - sounding exactly the way he looked!!!

Erich Von Stroheim plays Gabbo, a conceited meglomaniac, who has a ventriloquist act that he performs on the vaudeville circuit. During one performance, his assistant and live-in love Mary (Betty Compson) drops a tray and is forced by Gabbo to find another job. She leaves him with the advice "We only take out of this life what we put into it!!".

Otto, the "dummy" seems to have a life of it's own - he is Gabbo's conscience and talks to him about his bad decisions. Before Mary goes, she questions why, with such a good act, he is still playing vaudeville. Gabbo decides to do something about it and 2 years later he is the toast of Broadway in "The Manhattan Revue". When they go out to tea at an exclusive restaurant Otto sings "The Lollipop Song" - "and it gets all over icky" - much to everyone's delight. They see Mary at a table with Frank, her new partner. They are playing at the same theatre.

Marjorie "Babe" Kane then sings "Every Now and Then" with Frank and afterwards it gets the full production treatment with dancing girls and men in top hats. Gabbo hasn't changed his autocratic manner - his new dresser is ready to walk out but Mary intervenes. Mary feels sorry for Gabbo and tries to do a few things for him - gets his coffee etc. Frank gets the wrong idea as does Gabbo, who thinks Mary is coming back to him. Otto then sings "I'm Laughing" during the show. This song and "The Lollipop Song" have a very European sound. "The Ga-Ga Bird" is missing - at this point you see chorus girls removing bird costumes. Also at the end there is a montage of all the songs in the show and there is a scene of girls dancing in bird costumes - you also hear a bit of the music as well. Next there is a big production number "I'm In Love With You". I think the last couple of reels were filmed in "Multicolor" - just the look of the stage and dancers. The next number is "The New Step" featuring "Babe" Kane and dancing chorus girls in a whizz bang production with psychedelic curtains and a revolving bulls- eye. The songs just keep on coming.

"When You're Caught in a Web of Love" is astounding. An amazing acrobatic dance (it is so obvious that it is not Betty Compson dancing). There is also a conversation being carried on, stopping only when she is being thrown around, and then resumed when she is still. The dance starts off on a big spider's web and the dancers then jump down. It would have been glorious in color. All the chorus girls dressed as butterflies and dancing, not always in time but that is part of the charm.

When Mary tells Gabbo the truth - that she and Frank are married and if she misses anyone it would be Otto, who always had a kind word for her - Gabbo is completely derailed mentally. He has a complete break down and ruins the finale and the ending shows him walking forlornly away with Otto as his name is being taken off the theatre marquee.

I think the problem with the musical numbers during the last part was that they didn't seem to be incorporated into the plot. Even if there had been some clichéd dialogue "This is our big chance", "I hope we make it" - it would have made the last 20 minutes less awkward.

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The Great Erich Von Stroheim!
BaronBl00d20 March 2001
This film about a ventriloquist who lives a self-imposed life of lonliness because of his personality is absorbing, different, and dated. Shortly produced after The Jazz Singer(1927), the film is an early talkie with all the characteristics of an early talkie. It has somewhat stilted stages, little camera movement, and most annoying, a bunch of Busby Berkley type musical numbers that have little to do with the plot. All that notwithstanding, the lead role of Gabbo, a man who lives to be successful no matter what it takes, who is willing to forsake personal happiness to achieve, who runs the scope of emotions in minutes, is played with gusto by that wonderful actor(and even greater director) Erich Von Stroheim. Von Stroheim uses all his European charm(and decadence) as the man who shares life and lives with and through his dummy Otto. There are no supernatural aspects about the relationship with Gabbo and Otto. The movie is in no way a horror picture(although very often advertised as such). It really is a story of the problems a man has exhibiting his emotions, living with others, and living with himself. Some of the scenes are very well-done, including the last shot as we see Gabbo avoid a ladder. The rest of the cast is effective with Betty Compson as a love interest doing a fine job, and Donald Douglas as a lead singer/romantic figure being absolutely absurd. If for no other reason, see the film to see Von Stroheim in action. There was no one like him.
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Betty Compson Sings
drednm11 November 2007
Bizarre in the extreme but a highly entertaining film about a mad ventriloquist and the woman who loves him.

Erich von Stroheim makes his talkie debut as the spooky/mad ventriloquist who often speaks through his dummy (Otto) and eventually goes totally mad. Betty Compson plays his harried assistant who is finally driven away through his cruelty and madness. But they meet up again 2 years later when von Stroheim has become a star.

We get several scenes about the masochistic relationship between the stars played out against the background of a big New York revue. There are several terrific 20s songs in this film and one unforgettable production number with Compson and Donald Douglas as a fly and spider perched on a giant web.

The film also boasts the zippy Marjorie Kane who intros "That New Step." Von Stroheim is good and has a surprisingly light accent, but Compson steals the show as the pathetic assistant who can't understand him. She also gets to sing "I'm in Love with You" and adds one more talent to her resume of skills. Compson was also a concert violinist (see INSIDE THE LINES).

Compson and von Stroheim are excellent and the whole production becomes more and more surreal as it goes on. Certainly worth a look even if one number is missing (the "Ga Ga Bird") as are the Technicolor sequences. The whole film is black and white. The number "Every Now and Then" is tops.

Compson was one of the busiest actresses in Hollyword during the late 20s and early 30s.... she's a gem.
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Gabbo and his "Otto" ego
lugonian27 April 2001
THE GREAT GABBO (Sono-Art, 1929), directed by James Cruze, adapted from the story "The Rival Dummy" by Ben Hecht, stars famed director and actor Erich Von Stroheim in his talkie debut as an egotistical ventriloquist named Gabbo, or should I say, THE GREAAAT GABBO. He not only performs on stage with his dummy, Otto, (Gabbo's better half) but talks to it in his dressing room, on the street and in restaurants, with the dummy himself talking back to him, especially when Gabbo is drinking water, eating or smoking a cigarette. He has an assistant named Mary (Betty Compson), with whom he constantly finds fault in her efforts. ("My coffee is too cold/ My coffee is too hot!" etc.) During one performance she accidentally stumbles and drops a tray, which infuriates him to criticize her action, causing her to walk out on him. As time passes, Gabbo increases his fame by becoming a featured headliner in the Manhattan Revue where Mary now performs as a singer and dancer along with her new partner named Frank (Donald Douglas). In spite that he is more conceited than ever, Gabbo decides he wants Mary back with him, but something happens that will cause Gabbo to go completely insane in a dramatic climax that disrupts the show.

Aside from long stretches of dialog and no underscoring, a common practice in early talkies, "The Great Gabbo," though not considered a musical, has its share of production numbers. What makes this 1929 movie stand out among other musicals at that time is that the orchestration during the stage numbers doesn't sound at all like the usual 1920s score but more-so something from the Ziegfeld Follies. The choreography, compliments by Maurice L. Kusell, unfortunately, does not have the creativity of a Busby Berkeley, for that mainly the girls on stage simply walk back and forth carrying umbrellas, do some dancing and ballet, but there are never any closeups and the camera seldom moves or intercuts, making some of the eight to ten minute production numbers appear to be a little longer than its time length. The tunes itself, however, aren't really bad to listen to, although none of them became popular on the Hit Parade. The opening credits listing mentions sequences in Multicolor, but the entire movie itself can be seen today only in black and white.

The songs (By Paul Titsworth, Lynn Cowan, Don McNamee and King Zany) from the existing film print include: "I'm Laughing" and "The Lollipop Song-Ickey" (both sung by Otto); "Every Now and Then" (sung by Marjorie Kane and Donald Douglas); "I'm in Love With You" (sung by Douglas and Betty Compson); "The New Step" (sung by Kane); "Caught in the Web of Love" (sung by Douglas and Compton/ chorus); "I'm in Love With You" (dance number); and a finale that includes a montage of dance numbers, including the cut number of "The Ga-Ga Bird" which is shown briefly. Of all the songs, only "Caught in the Web of Love" has a slow score, but a production number that sets Douglas and Compton as human spiders dancing in front of a giant spider web. "I'm in Love With You" is one of the better songs presented in the movie, that would be sometimes edited out from some TV prints. Marjorie "Babe" Kane (famous for her role as WC Fields' daughter in the comedy short THE DENTIST in 1932) supplies some comedy, songs and taps.

THE GREAT GABBO is Von Stroheim's show all the way, monocle and all, but not the voice that accompanies his dummy, Otto. In spite of slow spots, it's an interesting drama, original in theme and premise. One wonders if Rod Serling, host of TV's "The Twilight Zone" of the 1960s, had seen this movie, since there is an episode that I recall that involves a performer obsessed by his dummy and having conversations with it, for which the dummy runs and later ruins his life and career.

I last saw THE GREAT GABBO on Cable TV's The Nostalgia Channel in the early 1990s, and it used to be one of the movies shown on Public Television's SPROCKETS back in the early 1980s. This rarely seen antique, a real curio at best, can be found on video cassette through various distributors. For a best VHS or DVD print with clearer picture and sound quality, with restored opening and exit music (but minus the reported color sequences), the best recommendation is to obtain a copy from the KINO Video Company. (**)
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A poetic, philosophical, profound musical... you'll probably hate it ;)
rooprect27 April 2007
Once again I am dumbfounded at how a great movie can get such a low rating on IMDb. All I can guess is that most of the voters were expecting to see a Gene Kelly-type musical. If this describes you, then leave now. "The Great Gabbo" is about as ANTI-musical as a musical can get. It is a heavy, ponderous, gripping story with more drama than Francis Ford Coppola could ever eke out of a reel of film. It is a compelling and surprisingly complex journey into the mind of a bizarre man.

This is the story of a misunderstood artist whose canvas is a puppet. But whereas the stereotypical story of the misunderstood artist depicts the protagonist as a static character, Gabbo is a highly dynamic individual who keeps us guessing throughout. Is he a good man? Is he a bad man? Is he sane? Is he mad? These questions are not answered until the spectacular & powerful finale, and even then there is much room for speculation.

(As an aside to you Kurosawa fans, the structure of this film is much like Kurosawa's 1952 classic "Ikiru", at times slow but building up to a powerful and unforgettable finish. And the final image deserves its place in the Louvre.)

Regardless of if you're prepared for this type of experience, one thing is for sure: the amazing performance of Erich von Stroheim will burn itself into your mind forever. This film, being one of the early talkies, does not mix much dialogue and music. That is, the spoken scenes are done in silence with no music underneath (much like the 1931 Fritz Lang masterpiece "M"). This means that the actors must carry the entire scene on their shoulders, like in the old days of Shakespearian soliloquies. Erich von Stroheim rises to the challenge in this minimalist setting, and HE DELIVERS. In some scenes he makes you hate him. In others you love him. He can elicit pity as well as admiration. What a roller-coaster ride! Pitted against the heavy drama, the musical numbers seem jarring and incongruous at first. But on further reflection we realize that this emphasizes the bipolar, schizophrenic nature of the subject. Just like Gabbo, a man divided between two worlds, this film divides itself between Broadway musical and psychological thriller. This movie was at least 80 years ahead of its time, if not more.

That's all I'll say because the rest is best experienced as a surprise. This is the best film I've seen in a long time, and the only reason why I'm rating it an 8 instead of a 10 is that, sadly, the original colour scenes were lost, and some of the scenes are in need of restoration on my DVD copy. We can only dream of what it was like to see "The Great Gabbo" as it was originally shown in 1929.
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don't be silly, everyone knows!
ptb-826 May 2006
Clunky solid gramophone sound and some sensational Ziegfeld stage numbers make this early talkie musical drama a real treat for viewers forgiving of 1929 movies. Vile schizophrenic ventriloquist brute, Von Stroheim, with his very creepy dummy (like the terrifying one in the DEAD OF NIGHT sequence with Michael Redgrave) seem somehow to be the toast of the stage. This 1929 showcase for both the technology of the day and the stage and screen stars rightly celebrated over the period are shown to be both fascinating and versatile as this film progresses. Other comments on this site will tell you the story and some criticize it's 1929 limits, but really THE GREAT GABBO is an excellent film of its day that rightly and clearly shows the force of Von Stroheim and the expert stage and screen dance entertainment popular in the 20s in the Ziegfeld sequences seemingly filmed right in front of a real stage. If you have seen THE BOYFRIEND the 1970 Ken Russell comedy you will get an idea of how fabulous THE GREAT GABBO must have looked in color. Most of the massive stage scenes are pale in my B/W copy and clearly are those sequences in Multicolour which the opening credits alert us to (be missing). Betty Boop sister Majorie Kane appears and most of the musical numbers are hilariously delightful, crowded with teens leaping about and bumping into each other in a great array of all sorts of fantasy costumes. The silliest and most enjoyable of which is a spider and fly number in which the above quote is hissed during a squabble in between verses. THE GREAT GABBO is a major find for students of 20s art deco, early talkie technology and very strong and effective acting. Von Stroheim must have been such a pain to Hollywood, a brute on screen and off. This film is full of wow! scenes. Highly recommended for anyone wanting further insight into the era. Other films worth seeing that add to the experience are GLORIFYING THE American GIRL, and THE 1929 SHOW OF SHOWS. The sound on my DVD copy is very good.
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A sad comedown for a great talent
wmorrow595 August 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This film marked the talkie acting debut of Erich Von Stroheim, a great talent on the verge of a sharp professional decline. The plot concerns the rise and fall of a self-centered stage ventriloquist, and offers a sad parallel with the career of its star. I take no pleasure in saying that this is one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, and I certainly don't blame Von Stroheim for its shortcomings. The Great Gabbo was a low budget effort produced at the very dawn of the talking picture era, and it suffers from the common defects of many early talkies: the pacing is leaden, the dialog is clunky, and the performances are stiff and self-conscious. In a couple of cases actors obviously fluffed their lines, but the budget apparently didn't allow for re-takes.

These technical flaws might not matter so much if we were given a decent story and some interesting characters, but the script is flatly written and repetitive, and the central figure is deeply unsympathetic. From the first moments of the first scene the point is made that Gabbo the ventriloquist is a sour, abusive egomaniac, but we never learn why, and he never changes. So why should we care what happens to him? It's also noticeable that although he's a stage ventriloquist Gabbo lacks a sense humor and his act isn't funny, even when we're told that Gabbo is wowing Broadway audiences. We have no sympathy for him (sympathy for Erich Von Stroheim is another matter), and the other characters are superficial.

It doesn't help much that the filmmakers took advantage of the backstage setting by adding gratuitous musical numbers. Even if you enjoy popular music of the 1920s, as I do, these numbers are dreary and, in a couple of cases, unintentionally funny. Prime example: "Caught in a Web of Love," staged in an enormous spider's web with the performers dressed as insects. To top it off, the juvenile lead happens to be wearing his ludicrous spider costume while he gravely discusses what we would call 'relationship issues' with the leading lady, who is dressed as a housefly. That scene does earn points for sheer weirdness, however.

In my opinion the only sequence that works is the last one, and it works not in relation to the movie itself but as a sad metaphor for Erich Von Stroheim's career. (Warning: possible 'spoiler' ahead.) As Gabbo loses his mind backstage during a performance he becomes enraged at the sound of the jazz played by the orchestra, and covers his ears screaming, "Stop it! Stop that music!" again and again. For a moment he's no longer Gabbo, he's Erich Von Stroheim, icon of the silent screen, driven mad by noise. Ultimately Gabbo is led away from the theater as his name is taken off the marquee. It doesn't take much imagination to view that moment as symbolic of what was happening to the man playing him, off camera.
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A Strange Little Psychological Musical Drama...
Stephen_A_Abell18 January 2018
This is a strange little number because it's a pretty dark subject matter, which at times is pretty chilling to watch, but then they throw in lots of songs. I'm not too sure what the Directors were going for when they filmed this. I say this because it's evident, at times, that quite a few scenes were added later... and I cannot figure out why.

I really like the idea of the mad ventriloquist. In this stories concept, he is in love with his assistant, Mary (Compson), though finds it hard to fully converse with her. As The Great Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim), as he sees himself, he's nasty, offensive, and disagreeable. However, when he speaks through the dummy he can be loving and charming. It's this fissure that eventually leads to his mental breakdown.

I know that the musical moments are there because it's set in the vaudeville and theatre life, though for most of the time these feel more like padding - filling out time. I think this could be remade and be an actually powerful movie. Reduce the musical side and expand on the breakdown. There are times in this movie where chills ran down my spine. The part where Mary walks out on The Great Gabbo and the Dummy calls her softly back, to be reprimanded by Gabbo is both heartbreaking and creepy as hell.

The film, in general, is entertaining, though I have to say I found the number of musical intermissions too much. These are also 1920's musicals so are not so relevant today. Also, the dancing isn't up to par with bigger productions. Though I have to say the scene where Mary throws herself off a giant spiders web to be caught inches from the ground is breathtaking. I would say, for all creepy doll fans and those who like a psychological edge to their dramas, it's worth a watch.
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