The Great Gabbo

The Great Gabbo

Original theatrical poster
Directed by James Cruze
Erich von Stroheim (uncredited)
Produced by James Cruze
Written by Hugh Herbert (continuity & dialogue)
Based on story "The Rival Dummy" by Ben Hecht
Starring Erich von Stroheim
Betty Compson
Music by Howard Jackson (musical arrangement)
Lynn Cowan
Paul Titsworth
Donald McNamee
King Zany
Cinematography Ira H. Morgan
James Cruze Productions
Distributed by Sono Art-World Wide Pictures
Release dates
  • September 12, 1929 (1929-09-12)
Running time
96 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Great Gabbo (1929) is an American early sound film musical drama film directed by James Cruze, based on a story ("The Rival Dummy") by Ben Hecht and starring Erich von Stroheim and Betty Compson.[1]

As originally released by Sono Art-World Wide Pictures, the film featured sequences in Multicolor. The current prints, restored by the Library of Congress and released by Kino International on DVD, now exist only in black and white.


The movie follows brilliant ventriloquist "The Great Gabbo" (Stroheim) who, as he spirals down into madness, 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 (Betty Compson) loves him, but is driven to another performer (Donald Douglas) by Gabbo's deteriorating personality.



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 here.


The Great Gabbo opened to lukewarm reviews. Stroheim received good notices, but the film did nothing to further his career.[2] Photoplay called the film "a bitter disappointment... Cruze seems to have lost his sense of humor, and the lighting and scenario are terrible."[3] 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.[4]


The film's basic plot and themes would later be resurrected many times, most famously in the British film Dead of Night (1945), two episodes of the popular television series The Twilight Zone ("The Dummy", Season 3, Episode 33, and "Caesar and Me", Season 5, Episode 148); and the 1978 Anthony Hopkins film Magic. Footage from the film itself was used on Fractured Flickers in the segment "Hymie und Me" (Episode 14), in which the dummy is presented as a real living comedian with von Stroheim as his straight man. An episode of The Simpsons, "Krusty Gets Kancelled", featured a ventriloquist's dummy by the name of Gabbo. The Batman villain Ventriloquist (and his dummy Scarface) are arguably based on the Great Gabbo, depicting the madness that comes from one person living two personas. In Capcom's game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All, the character Benjamin Woodman may have been based on the Great Gabbo as well. There have also been a number of sports personalities called "The Great Gabbo", including American baseball announcer Leo Lassen, Major League Baseball pitcher Frank Gabler and Ed Dorohoy, ice hockey centre for the Montreal Canadiens.


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)

See also


  1. The AFI Catalog of Feature Films:The Great Gabbo
  2. Lennig, Arthur. Stroheim (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) p 295. ISBN 0-8131-2138-8
  3. 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
  4. Lennig, p 292.

External links

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