The Great Gabbo (1929) – James Cruze

Despite his landing in the Killer Dolls section of DK Canada’s Monsters in the Movies, Otto, the ventriloquist dummy featured in The Great Gabbo doesn’t really take anyone’s life, but he does aid in the descent into ruin for his partner, Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim).

Gabbo is an angry man, with the voice of his dummy the only outlet for his less destructive comments. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the duo, and the love of their lives, Mary (Betty Compson). They’ve been together for two years, but Gabbo begins to think that she’s holding them back, and has caused too many mistakes.

He breaks up with her, though she always loves his dummy, and speaks to Otto more often that Gabbo. But she is also ready to get on with her life, and embrace her own chance to shine on the stage when she joins Frank (Donald Douglas) in his act.

As time passes, Gabbo begins to truly miss Mary, and thinks he may try to win her back. His conversations, all with Otto, seem to feed into his growing madness, as well as his desire to be a top name performer.

He gets his wish, headlining at theatres, but finds he still shares the stage with Mary, and he is increasingly intent on winning her back. But Mary has plans of her own, and in the end, Otto may be all that’s left unscathed, and still sane.

It’s a gentle story, a drama, with a few musical numbers. The dummy act doesn’t work very well because you don’t get a sense of Gabbo actually performing in front of an audience, even with the cuts to show a full theatre.

And it’s not a scary story to be sure, it’s just a sad one because nothing works out for Gabbo, and its all his own fault. He is angry and so consumed with what he thinks he wants that he will lose everything before its over.

There are scarier dolls to come, and this one, in that context, feels like a bit of a breather before leaping into the truly spooky dolls that are coming.

I was also unable to quite settle into von Stroheim’s performance. It’s not necessarily unbalanced, it just doesn’t feel as layered or profound as it could be. It’s all played on the surface.

Still, it’s an interesting film and while it doesn’t put ventriloquist dummies into the scary department that other films have put them in, this is definitely not a dummy you want to talk to or hang around with, his appearance is quite disconcerting.

And there’s more dolls to come as I dig deeper into DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies. Pick up a copy for yourself today and find something monstrous to watch tonight!

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