Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Great Gabbo, 1929

There's not really too much I can say about The Great Gabbo (dir. James Cruze). It's too much an odd conglomeration of early talkie genres, an almost expressionist psychodrama with a burgeoning exuberance in musicals now that sound was available. The fascinating story of the regal, tyrannical, daft ventriloquist's tortured unrequited love and descent into mad despair is lost halfway through by number after interminable number of singers and dancers caught in spider webs dressed as flies.

Yet the story and acting we do see create an unusually enjoyable movie when the pacing and plotting's right. Erich von Stroheim, looking eerily the same upper middle-age he appeared in Sunset Boulevard some twenty-one years later, is not your typical film actor: he speaks slowly, deliberately, with that deliciously detached yet somehow passionate reserve you'd expect from the legendary director. Maybe because he is so atypical in what we consider an expressive Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff role, he makes Gabbo distinctly sympathetic for all his cruel, autocratic nature.

Aside from little Otto, his dummy (voiced by George Grandee), the only human voice of reason in his life is his assistant Mary, played by Betty Compson. He treats both Mary and Otto--the latter of whom in the movie is his own voice speaking back to him, of course--with a masterful contempt. When Mary leaves, Gabbo awakens from his megalomaniacal stupor and begins to thaw, letting the compassion symbolized by Otto seep into his own self, softening his character. Of course, his only goal in doing so is to win back Mary.

And thanks to Betty Compson we see why. What's so refreshing about Mary is that she's no delicately gorgeous, saintly ingenue with mewling supplication you'd expect from such a character. Compson is every inch of her what you'd expect from a wisecracking, vivacious chorus girl: cute but not classically beautiful, with a high, almost nasally voice that can belt out a fun little tune but certainly no drawing-room ballad. She's kooky and silly, yet there's such a candid sweetness to her that keeps her, for all her bleached hair and mischievous eyes, from ever crossing over to tawdry.

This is a movie of flipped expectations. Gabbo is deservedly left flat at the beginning by the woman he loves. We anticipate he'll spend the rest of the movie embittered and unsuccessful. Instead, he becomes the top attraction on Broadway, and learns to be a gentler, more understanding person. Therefore, when the denouement comes, and Mary gives him her answer about whether or not she'll return to his act, we expect him to respond in the same pattern of his reformed character: gently, understandingly. What happens instead takes the movie to another stranger place we weren't expecting against the backdrop of bright, forcefully cheery musical acts and comical backstage extras. We're left wondering how much of a facade his kinder front was; in fact, we wonder if his brusque tyranny is in fact also a facade, a brash front to hide his madness.

Even Donald Douglas as Frank, Mary's jealous partner, reverses our expectations some. He's loud, boorish, and demanding; yet at the end, when Mary again speaks her mind about her feelings, aren't we a little softened toward him? Or is it again thanks to Compson, sweetly unassuming, who brings out the best in not only her costar's characters but maybe even her costars themselves?

Well, looks like I did have some stuff to say. But the movie--odd, often frustrating, confusing, yet magnetically watchable because of von Stroheim's unique blend of obsessive egomania and sensitivity along with Compson's charm--could probably speak for itself far better:

(Thank you, Library of Congress and TheCinemaVampire!)

"Look, Smithers! GARBO is coming!"
"...Yes, sir."