From the novelette "The Rival Dummy" by fantasist Ben Hecht, & starring the peculiar Eric von Stroheim in the title role of The Great Gabbo (1929), this has sometimes been regarded as a horror film, about a man whose identity splits in two, half of him being his ventriloquist dummy.
But really the relationship between performer & puppet is not all that exaggerated, for Edgar Bergman's relationship with Charlie McCarthy (who was always set a place at the family table) was no less odd than that of Gabbo with his dummy Otto. Such behavior seems to have afflicted a great many professional ventriloquists.
Insofar as Gabbo has a villainous streak, it is more from ego than madness, & the crazier character is likely the nice heroine Mary (Betty Compson) who would seem to be in love with Otto (as the only expression of Gabbo's capacity for kindness), while disliking the relentlessly abusive Gabbo, who would never let himself be directly as senstive or vulnerable as Otto.
Gabbo understandably thinks Mary's irrational devotion to Otto has something to do with himself, but if it indeed has to do with him, it's not in the way of a marriage & a happy ever after as he has allowed himself to believe.
One big problem with this early talky is that Stroheim isn't actually a ventriloquist. Watching Otto sing & tell bad jokes while the great Gabbo drinks & smokes would be remarkable if Stroheim were really doing it.
But it's just a trick that requires camera & audio deception, not performer skill. It's the equivalent of a magic act where things disappear only because the director stopped the film & removed the object. A lot of time is wasted on this unclever nonsense, at a time when the real novelty was that films could have sound at all.
As classics go, it's frankly not that good a film, but odd enough to sustain some interest.
An appearance by Marjorie "Babe" Kane whose voice is almost indistinguishable from that of Betty Boop is more exciting than anything in the main part of the film.
Indeed, comedienne Babe Kane's flapper cousin Helen Kane was the original boop-boop-a-doop girl, the very singer Betty Boop was based on.
Pleasant if still rather imperfect are the musical numbers, of which there are several, two sung by Otto. The pokerfaced seriousness of the backstage drama very nearly cancels out a viewer's ability to realize this is supposed to be a musical, for the phoniness of the drama tends to undermine the charm of the singing, while the minor tunes undercut the tepid drama.
However one might fault the film, that central performance by von Stroheim is an outstanding study of an emotionally complex, cruel but lonely, suppressed man, striving helplessly through the persona of Otto to heal his own soured spirit.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl