The Great Gabbo

Last updated

The Great Gabbo
Original theatrical poster
Directed by James Cruze
Erich von Stroheim
Screenplay by Hugh Herbert
Based on"The Rival Dummy"
by Ben Hecht
Produced byJames Cruze
StarringErich von Stroheim
Betty Compson
Cinematography Ira H. Morgan
Music by Howard Jackson
James Cruze Productions
Distributed by Sono Art-World Wide Pictures
Release date
  • September 12, 1929 (1929-09-12)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Great Gabbo is a 1929 American Pre-Code early sound musical drama film directed by James Cruze, based on Ben Hecht's 1928 short story "The Rival Dummy", and starring Erich von Stroheim and Betty Compson. [1] The film features songs by Lynn Cowan, Paul Titsworth, Donald McNamee and King Zany.


Originally released by Sono Art-World Wide Pictures, certain sequences were presented in Multicolor. However, current prints, restored by the Library of Congress and released by Kino International on DVD, exist only in black and white.


Brilliant ventriloquist Gabbo increasingly uses his dummy "Otto" as his only means of self-expression—an artist driven insane by his work. Gabbo's gimmick is his astonishing ability to make Otto talk—and even sing—while Gabbo himself smokes, drinks and eats. Gabbo's girlfriend and assistant Mary loves him, but is driven to leave him by his megalomania, superstitions, irritability, and inability to express any human emotion without using Otto as an intermediary. In Otto's voice, Gabbo accepts the blame for Mary's leaving and recounts all the things she did for him, but as Gabbo he denies his feelings and tells the dummy to shut up.

Two years later, Gabbo has become a nationally renowned ventriloquist. He is revered for his talent, even as he is ridiculed for his eccentricity: he takes Otto with him everywhere he goes, even dining out with him, providing much entertainment to the restaurant patrons. Despite his success he continues to pine for Mary, who is now romantically involved with another singer/dancer, Frank. With both Mary and Frank performing in a show in which Gabbo is the headliner, he attempts to win her back. Mary is charmed by Gabbo's new romantic behavior, driving Frank to angry fits of jealousy. As his courtship meets with continued success, Gabbo increasingly expresses his emotions to Mary directly, without using Otto.

One day Gabbo finds that in his absence, Mary has straightened up his dressing room the way that she always used to. Convinced that she wants to come back to him, he confronts her with his feelings, admitting his loneliness without her and in the process revealing that he has grown past many of his old failings, such as his superstitions and obsession with his personal success. However, Mary tells him that she loves Frank, and has been married to him since before Gabbo came back into her life. She says that she missed Otto but not Gabbo, and in a last farewell she says, "I love you" to Otto.

In profound frustration at this, after Mary is gone Gabbo punches Otto in the face, but immediately apologizes and embraces the dummy, weeping. He then storms onto the stage during the finale and loudly rants at the performers. He is forced off the stage and fired from the show. Mary tries to confront Gabbo afterwards, but he only looks at her sadly and walks away. Workers take down the letters advertising "The Great Gabbo" from the marquee as Gabbo looks on.



Touted in advertising as an "all-dialog singing, dancing and dramatic spectacle", this early sound film oddly interleaves stark drama with gratuitous full-length, large-scale, on-stage musical production numbers such as "Every Now and Then", "I'm in Love with You", "The New Step", "The Web of Love", and the now-missing "The Ga Ga Bird", which was filmed in color. The "Web of Love" number, in which the performers wear stylized spider and fly costumes, is occasionally shown on Classic Arts Showcase. Footage from the dance sequences was re-used with different music in The Girl from Calgary (1932).

The public domain version available on Internet Archive runs 68 minutes, while the original film ran 96 minutes, including the exit music. The opening credits mention "Color sequences by Multicolor", but those sequences are now either lost or have survived only in black-and-white form. Multicolor, based on the earlier Prizma color process, went out of business in 1932; its assets were bought by Cinecolor.

The quality and clarity of the film sound is notable.

A 94-minute public domain version is now available. [2]


The Great Gabbo opened to lukewarm reviews. Stroheim received good notices, but the film did nothing to further his career. [3] Photoplay called the film "a bitter disappointment... Cruze seems to have lost his sense of humor, and the lighting and scenario are terrible." [4] The New York Times review commented unfavorably on the technical quality of the color sequences. Historian Arthur Lennig wrote that The Great Gabbo "betrays little inventiveness and shows few of its actors to advantage." He notes that, due to obvious budget constraints, several line-flubs by cast members made it into the final cut. [5]


Sung by Marjorie Kane and Donald Douglas
Sung by Betty Compson and Donald Douglas
Written by Lynn Cowan and Paul Titsworth
Sung by Marjorie Kane and chorus
Written by Lynn Cowan and Paul Titsworth
Sung by Otto the dummy, with Erich von Stroheim
Written by King Zany and Donald McNamee
Sung by Otto the dummy, with Erich von Stroheim
Sung by Betty Compson and Donald Douglas
Written by Lynn Cowan and Paul Titsworth
(missing from known prints but major production number glimpsed among Gabbo's hallucinations)


Footage was used on Fractured Flickers in the segment "Hymie und Me" (Episode 14), in which the dummy is presented as a living, sentient comedian with von Stroheim as his straight man.

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>San Francisco</i> (1936 film) 1936 film by D. W. Griffith, W. S. Van Dyke

San Francisco is a 1936 musical-drama disaster film directed by W. S. Van Dyke, based on the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The film stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. MacDonald's singing helped make this film a major hit, coming on the heels of her other 1936 blockbuster, Rose Marie.

<i>Greed</i> (1924 film) 1924 film by Erich von Stroheim

Greed is a 1924 American silent psychological drama film written and directed by Erich von Stroheim and based on the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague. It stars Gibson Gowland as Dr. John McTeague; ZaSu Pitts as Trina Sieppe, his wife; and Jean Hersholt as McTeague's friend and eventual enemy Marcus Schouler. The film tells the story of McTeague, a San Francisco dentist, who marries his best friend Schouler's girlfriend Trina.

Betty Compson American actress

Betty Compson was an American actress and film producer who got her start during Hollywood's silent era. She is best known for her performances in The Docks of New York and The Barker, the latter of which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Erich von Stroheim Austrian-American actor and director

Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim was an Austrian-American director, actor and producer, most noted as a film star and avant-garde, visionary director of the silent era. His 1924 film Greed is considered one of the finest and most important films ever made. After clashes with Hollywood studio bosses over budget and workers' rights issues, Stroheim found it difficult to find work as a director and subsequently became a well-respected character actor, particularly in French cinema.

<i>Dead of Night</i> 1945 British film

Dead of Night is a 1945 black and white British anthology horror film, made by Ealing Studios. The individual segments were directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. It stars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Sally Ann Howes and Michael Redgrave. The film is best remembered for the concluding story featuring Redgrave and an insane ventriloquist's malevolent dummy.

"Caesar and Me" is episode 148 of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone starring Jackie Cooper as a ventriloquist. It is not to be confused with a similar episode "The Dummy", starring Cliff Robertson as a ventriloquist.

Krusty Gets Kancelled 22nd episode of the fourth season of The Simpsons

"Krusty Gets Kancelled" is the twenty-second and final episode of the fourth season of the American animated television series The Simpsons. It first aired on the Fox network in the United States on May 13, 1993. In the episode, a new show featuring ventriloquist Arthur Crandall and his dummy Gabbo premieres in Springfield and competes with Krusty the Clown's show. Krusty's show is soon cancelled. Bart and Lisa decide to help Krusty get back on the air by staging a comeback special.

<i>The Great Flamarion</i> 1945 film by Anthony Mann

The Great Flamarion is a 1945 film noir mystery film directed by Anthony Mann starring Erich von Stroheim and Mary Beth Hughes. The film, like many films noir, is shot in flashback narrative. The film was produced by Republic Pictures.

<i>The Wedding March</i> (1928 film) 1928 film

The Wedding March is a 1928 American silent romantic drama film written and directed by and starring Erich von Stroheim. It also stars Fay Wray and ZaSu Pitts. Paramount Pictures forced von Stroheim to create two films from the footage, the second being The Honeymoon. The Honeymoon is now considered lost, the only known copy destroyed in a fire in France in 1959.

James Cruze American actor and director (1884–1942)

James Cruze was a silent film actor and film director.

Multicolor Natural color motion picture process

Multicolor is a subtractive two-color motion picture process. Multicolor, introduced to the motion picture industry in 1929, was based on the earlier Prizma Color process, and was the forerunner of Cinecolor.

<i>Alraune</i> (1952 film) 1952 film

Alraune, later renamed Unnatural: The Fruit of Evil, is a 1952 black and white West German science fiction film directed by Arthur Maria Rabenalt, based on the 1911 novel Alraune by German novelist Hanns Heinz Ewers, starring Hildegard Knef and Erich von Stroheim. The film involves a scientist who creates a woman (Knef) who is beautiful and yet soulless, lacking any sense of morality.

Slappy the Dummy Villain in the Goosebumps book series

Slappy the Dummy is a fictional character and antagonist in the Goosebumps children's series by R. L. Stine. He is one of the series' most popular villains, the main antagonist of the Night of the Living Dummy saga and the mascot of the franchise. He is also the main antagonist of the Goosebumps movie and its sequel, where Stine describes him as a "ventriloquist's dummy with a serious Napoleonic complex". He comes alive by these words: "Karru Marri Odonna Loma Molanu Karrano", and they can be found on a sheet of paper in Slappy's jacket pocket. After coming to life, Slappy will try to make the person who brought him to life serve him as a slave, to the point that he will frame that person for bad things that he does.

<i>Viennese Nights</i> 1930 film

Viennese Nights is a 1930 American all-talking pre-Code musical operetta film directed by Alan Crosland and starring Alexander Gray, Vivienne Segal, Walter Pidgeon, Jean Hersholt, Bela Lugosi and Louise Fazenda. It was photographed entirely in Technicolor and released by Warner Brothers. Viennese Nights was the first original operetta written especially for the screen by Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg. It was filmed in March and April 1930, before anyone realized the extent of the economic hardships that would arrive with the Great Depression, which had begun in the autumn of the previous year. Although not a box office hit in the United States, the film had long box office runs in Britain and Australia. It is one of the earliest sound films to have a short pre-credit sequence.

<i>Blind Husbands</i> 1919 film directed by Erich von Stroheim

Blind Husbands is a 1919 American drama film directed by Erich von Stroheim. The film is an adaptation of the story The Pinnacle by Stroheim.

Sono Art-World Wide Pictures

Sono Art-World Wide Pictures was an American film distribution and production company in operation from 1927 to 1933. Their first feature film was The Rainbow Man (1929), while one of their most prominent was The Great Gabbo (1929) starring Erich von Stroheim and directed by James Cruze for James Cruze Productions, Inc. One of the last films distributed by the company was A Study in Scarlet (1933) starring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes.

<i>The Lost Squadron</i> 1932 film

The Lost Squadron is a 1932 American pre-Code drama, action, film starring Richard Dix, Mary Astor, and Robert Armstrong, with Erich von Stroheim and Joel McCrea in supporting roles, and released by RKO Radio Pictures. Based on the novel The Lost Squadron (1932) by Dick Grace, the film is about three World War I pilots who find jobs after the war as Hollywood stunt fliers. The much-later The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) employed a similar theme. The Lost Squadron was the first RKO production to carry the screen credit "Executive Producer, David O. Selznick".

<i>The Green Temptation</i> 1922 film by William Desmond Taylor

The Green Temptation is a lost 1922 American silent melodrama film directed by William Desmond Taylor and starring Betty Compson. It was written by Julia Crawford Ivers and Monte Katterjohn based upon the short story "The Noose" by Constance Lindsay Skinner.

<i>Locked Doors</i> 1925 film

Locked Doors is a 1925 American silent romantic drama film directed by William C. deMille and starring Betty Compson. It was produced by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed by Paramount Pictures.

<i>The Dance of Death</i> (1948 film) 1948 French film

The Dance of Death is a 1948 French-Italian drama film directed by Marcel Cravenne and starring Erich von Stroheim, Denise Vernac and Palau. It is based on August Strindberg's The Dance of Death.


  1. The AFI Catalog of Feature Films: The Great Gabbo
  2. "The Great Gabbo". Public Domain Torrents. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  3. Lennig, Arthur. Stroheim (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) p 295. ISBN   0-8131-2138-8
  4. Kreuger, Miles ed. The Movie Musical from Vitaphone to 42nd Street as Reported in a Great Fan Magazine (New York: Dover Publications) p 111. ISBN   0-486-23154-2
  5. Lennig, p 292.