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Strange little curio from the early talkie era
calvinnme | 04/05/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"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 musical 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. Just be prepared for the less than stellar audio and video quality. This movie has not been restored, so you have to deal with the typical technical problems of the early talkie era."