Review: The Great Gabbo (1929)

How best to describe The Great Gabbo?

Picture this: Erich von Stroheim as a ventriloquist. (Here, this might help.)

For much of the film, he’s dressed like the Phantom of the Opera from the waist up (tux tails, evening cape) with a monocle, and like George Washington from the waist down (satin knee-high britches, white tights, and shoes with heels, large buckles and lace.)

He smokes almost constantly and has this Three Bears-type obsession about drinking tea that’s not too hot and not too cold.

Did I mention he’s a ventriloquist?

His dummy’s name is Otto.

Otto is the outlet for Gabbo’s sensitive side. Otherwise, Gabbo is pretty much a jerk and you wonder why sweet Mary (his assistant/girlfriend) doesn’t leave him.

Eventually, she does.

Gabbo and Otto become the toast of Broadway. Their act consists mostly of Gabbo stuffing things in his mouth while Otto dithers on. Be amazed!

Bizarre musical numbers parade across the screen:
– Dancers are walking, they’re walking, they’re walking, across the stage and back again, and up the stairs and down again. Look how they can all walk around!
–  The cast dresses as insects caught in a web, writhing and flipping around. How else to better set off a tune about being “caught in a web of love?” It concludes with a pretty amazing acrobatic dance number, where Mary, who’s now the star of the show, contorts herself like the finest Chinese acrobat. Cirque du Soleil the early, early years.
– A good dance number means you dance faster, faster, FASTER!!

And then there’s The Lollipop Song.

Ah, the oh-so-creepy, slightly suggestive, “did he just sing what I thought I heard him sing???” ode to the hard candy on a stick. Allow me to set the stage for this one–

Otto and Gabbo are dining together in the middle of a tony New York restaurant. They’re both dressed in tuxedos with tails. A diner in the restaurant makes a request for The Lollipop Song, so Otto (the odd little wooden dummy) sings this tune while a white gloved Gabbo stuffs himself on lobster.

And it goes like this…

Oh I’d rather suck on a lemon drop
Than to try my luck with a lollipop,
‘Cause I always drop my lollipop,
And it gets all over icky.

Oh it makes me sick how the way it smears
And it gets all over your hair and ears,
And I always drop my lollipop,
And it gets all over icky.

I’ve tried and tried, but never could find
A lollipop that’s halfway refined,

So, I’d rather suck on a lemon drop
Than to try my luck with a lollipop,
‘Cause I always drop my lollipop,
And it gets all over icky.

If you’re not intrigued by now, there’s nothing more I can say.

Seriously, if you’re at all a fan of classic film, Erich von Stroheim, early talkies, or films that are just plan bizarre, YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM!

Finally, like many early films, sections of The Great Gabbo have been lost. Every once in a while, someone will stumble upon a reel or complete film that was thought gone forever. This bit of trivia from IMDB is one of the best I’ve ever seen:

The “Gaga Bird” production number is presumed lost. Please check your attic.

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One thought on “Review: The Great Gabbo (1929)

  1. zelle says:

    thanks for this article. I’m going to see Great Gabbo during the week but didn’t know all that you mention and frankly, I really am looking to watching it now .
    good day.

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