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.
Newly restored by the Library of Congress — public domain versions have been out for years in much worse quality — The Great Gaboo is now available on blu ray from Kino Lorber.
*Otto was hand-carved by Frank Marshall, the same artist who made Edgar Bergen’s dummies.