The Great Gabbo (James Cruze / U.S., 1929):

Erich von Stroheim in Hollywood, doing penance for Queen Kelly. The concept of the implacable Teutonic auteur with a wooden doll on his lap is one of those ideas, like Lugosi and Karloff together in The Black Cat, one builds an entire movie around. As Gabbo the ventriloquist, Stroheim dons monocle and tailcoat in a bald vaudeville stage, impeccably detached from the seediness around him -- the imperial Zen touch displayed during the old smoke-and-drink-while-the-dummy-warbles routine steers this towards You Can't Cheat an Honest Man and Dead of Night, and also Sawdust and Tinsel. "If you're as great as you think you are, then why aren't you in a real theater," snaps his assistant (Betty Compson), who ditches him after being abused one too many times. Stroheim becomes the toast of Broadway ("what I might call, with all due modesty, the greatest ventriloquism exhibition of all time") while Compson stars in a Ziegfeldian revue bonanza; their paths cross but sorrow prevails. The musical numbers have their own clunky perversity: "Caught in the Web of Love" is particularly indicative of Singin' in the Rain's fond lampoon, with the drama furthered amid pirouettes by the heroine (decked out in housefly costume) and her partner (Donald Douglas as the spider, complete with fuzzy legs flopping from his mask) while James Cruze keeps it all in long-shot for a complete, delirious view. First and foremost, however, this is a laboratory experiment that isolates the Stroheim persona for all it's worth -- he shares an extended, sensitive chat with his valet in untranslated German before angrily dismissing him, punches Otto the creepy dummy only to hug it a moment later. Stroheim rushes to the stage in the final number, but the clattering of talkies by then has drowned out the Gothic side of the Twenties. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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