The Great Gabbo (1929)

I’m fairly sure there’s no way this can be called a great movie, indeed I’m not even sure you can call it a good one. Will you settle for “kind of fucked up”? That’s reasonable. I try not to view films of this vintage as strange just because of their age, but this unquestionably is; it has all the stiffness of a 1929 talkie but also a disquieting weirdness I can’t quite compare with anything else of its period. This page offers a rather more thorough breakdown of the film than I’m really willing to provide, so go there; the film really is kind of a mess in many ways, and 96 minutes of it is surely too much. But oh that’s some high strangeness early on there, in the scene where Stroheim converses with Otto, his ventriloquist’s dummy, in his dressing room, and, even better, the following restaurant scene where Stroheim eats his dinner and Otto not only converses with the waiter but sings a song for the other diners. This is astoundingly odd (to say nothing of the actual content of the song), and the fact that the film never really explains how the fuck Gabbo actually does this in these scenes only enhances their oddity (I know Stroheim himself didn’t do Otto’s voice, another actor did, but how the character does it is another thing). It is a shame the film doesn’t quite maintain the strangeness of that first half hour (apart from the “Caught in the Web” musical number), and I’d probably have found it unwatchable were the lead role played by someone less compelling than Stroheim. But I don’t think I’ve been as fascinated by such a mess of a film since I saw Demonlover back in 2005; there’s a saving wrongness to the thing that makes it harder for me to dismiss it as a merely bad film than I suspect it would be for most viewers.


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