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GREAT GABBO, THE (director: James Cruze; screenwriters: Hugh Herbert/based on a story by Ben Hecht; cinematographer: Ira H. Morgan; music: Lynn Cowan; cast: Erich von Stroheim (Gabbo), Betty Compson(Mary), Donald Douglas(Frank), Margie Kane (Babe), Marbeth Wright (Dancer), John F. Hamilton (Neighbor), George Grandee (Voice of Otto); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James Cruze; Kino Video; 1929-silent)
An early talkie that gets your attention because it’s so perverse.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An early talkie that gets your attention because it’s so perverse. It’s a peculiar musical, with the music being forgettable and the storyline being unpleasant. Director James Cruze (“The Covered Wagon”/”I Cover the Waterfront“/”Gangs of New York”) can’t do much with the slight story but let Erich von Stroheim act over-the-top loony as an unsympathetic abusive egomaniac throughout. It’s not a fun watch, but it’s irresistible. The talented ventriloquist Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim) drives his loyal assistant and lover of the last two years Mary (Betty Compson) away from him by constantly putting her down with verbal abuse and blaming her that he can’t get to the top. Mary has enough insults and leaves him in a second-rate vaudeville circuit venue in Patterson, N.J. and says goodbye only to the wooden dummy Otto (the ventriloquist’s softer side) .

Two years pass and Gabbo reaches the top alone and stars in a Broadway show called The Manhattan Revue. Mary is a singer/dancer in the same show with her partner Frank (Donald Douglas). When she meets Gabbo and Otto in a cafe the delusional ventriloquist, someone who talks only to his dummy, is more full of himself than ever since he’s become rich and famous, but he now thinks he loves Mary and schemes to get her back from Frank. When Gabbo tells her his plans, she tells him she’s married to Frank and loves him. Gabbo can’t handle rejection and cracks up and his personality is taken over by the dummy. In a mad snit Gabbo ruins the stage show’s finale by disrupting the musical number by going into an outburst onstage of how great he is. This gets him fired, and it ends showing his downfall and insanity as he walks out of the theater like a madman while the workmen are already removing the theater sign advertising “The Great Gabbo.”

This was von Stroheim’s first acting gig after flaming out filming Queen Kelly (1928). If this curio wasn’t so strange, it would be a bore.

The story by Ben Hecht is wooden, and the screenplay by Hugh Herbert is awkwardly pieced together with incongruous musicalnumbers that seemed meant for another pic.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”