All Stalking! All Singing! All Dancing!

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (SOUND)

For those who knew me back in the 1980s, my constant platitudes about a book called The Four Aspects of the Film were thought to be a self-induced fantasy. A book solely about sound, color, 3-D, and widescreen!? I MUST have made it up. Indeed, James L. Linbacher’s 1968 tome became (and still is) my movie Bible. In contemporary times (aka, the 2010s and 20s), Supervistaramacolorscope readers have been forced to constantly put up with my love of early talkies, Technicolor, 3-D and various aspect ratios. The beat, as they say, goes on.

Amazingly, a couple of studios have recently decided to give us collectors a treat, and present movie tech fans with excellent examples of all four. I, therefore, happily begin this month-long salute to Mr. Limbacher’s book (and my Jones) with…sound. And nothing could better underline that than the new superb 2K restoration of the astounding 1929 talkie THE GREAT GABBO, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Classics, utilizing the digitally-cleansed 35MM materials from the Library of Congress.

For most classic movie fans, THE GREAT GABBO is noteworthy not merely as an early talkie, but for the sound debut of Erich von Stroheim, who plays the title role. But there’s way more here than meets the eye…or ear. The movie is incredibly advanced for a 1929 talker. It uses multiple tracks, inventive (albeit primitive) audio mixing, and noise-free recording. It also doesn’t seem to be confined to those first sound “refrigerator” cameras (and is often quite beautifully shot by Ira H. Morgan). There are many angles, and cutaways; plus, possibly (on the audio side), the first large-scale use of dubbing.

And then there’s the plot.

Let’s face it, if anyone could have introduced the now-beloved insane ventriloquist scenario, it would HAVE to have been Erich von Stroheim. And, he’s all in it. Like any von Stroheim vehicle, the picture is quite frank about lust, sexuality, with dark detours into bondage and the maniacal results of rejection.

On their second wedding anniversary, fair-to-middling successful ventriloquist Gabbo, his dummy Otto, and his beautiful assistant/wife (and former singer/dancer) Mary begin one of their usual rows. But this time, the psychological verbal abuse is accompanied by physical violence. Otto, Mary correctly shrieks, is the only one [of you two] “with a soul,” all the while as Gabbo taunts, insults, and assaults her. Otto, smiling contentedly, creepily appears to agree. Mary leaves him, as Gabbo snarls a seething “good riddance, you are nothing without me!” adieu.

Time passes, and Gabbo, unlike what audiences would expect (aka, the without the love of a good woman chestnut…did we say this was a von Stroheim picture?), becomes an enormous success, playing the best houses, and reaping riches beyond his dreams. Mary hasn’t been idle, either. She has gone back to musical comedy, and has, along with her new lover, Frank, achieved stardom as well. And, now Mary and Gabbo are both headlining a lavish Ziegfeld-esque revue.

Gabbo, who has lengthy conversations with Otto, is convinced that Mary has come back to him. Otto, however, warns him about counting his chickens (the psychological effects of Otto’s mouth moving from across the room in these “talks” reflects and puts the audience smack dab inside Gabbo’s mania, and works perfectly). Mary, happy her ex is doing well, and still having some love for him, offers the madman gregarious companionship. Gabbo believes this will explode into a friends-with-benefits relationship, then a remarriage. But Mary has some secrets of her own – to say nothing of the fact that the ever-cautious Otto is, after all, a better judge of the human condition than Gabbo.

From just these narrative snippets, one can see that THE GREAT GABBO is no ordinary entertainment. Bizarrely, it was filmed by a small indie company, Sono-Art Worldwide, yet looks and plays wayyyy better than most ‘A’ talkies from the competitive majors. As indicated, it’s very fluent, both in dialog and technique (in pure technology terms, it wipes the floor with another doomed showbiz “von [Sternberg]” picture from the same year, The Blue Angel).

GABBO‘s greenlight and opulent financing, came via its director James Cruze. Like von Stroheim, Cruze began as an actor in the early Teens, then progressed to directing. Unlike von Stroheim, Cruze was nowhere near as talented (in either department), yet enormously prosperous (not a von Stroheim specialty either). His 1923 epic, The Covered Wagon broke all box-office records, and opened the door for the Super-Western (better illustrated via Ford’s The Iron Horse, Walsh’s The Big Trail, etc., both which owe their existence to Cruze). Cruze had no handle on cinematic human relations. His mantra: just make it BIG. As late as 1937, his Wells Fargo oater for Paramount defined his abilities: it’s basically a feature-length trailer.

The question then remains how, in essence, an uninspired second-unit director became so knowledgeable about interrelationships, sexuality, mental illness, and spousal abuse? The short answer: he didn’t.

Anyone familiar with von Stroheim’s work, and, who has seen THE GREAT GABBO immediately comes to the conclusion that the brilliant movie-maker not only had a hand in the story and screenplay, but in the directing. That’s putting it mildly. In a nutshell, James Cruze never made anything this good before or after GABBO. One cannot downplay von Stroheim’s penchant for the aforementioned psychological aspects of his/this work. Visually, he gets away with as much as he can, but his genius for implication was/is unsurpassed. We can actually feel Gabbo’s battling lust, desire and pain – surrounded by the constant array of gorgeous, scantily-clad showgirls in the revue. He doesn’t physically pursue them, but he is consumed by them (he even managed to convey a sense of smell/scent, which definitely would have been von Stroheim’s fifth aspect of the film).

The use of sound, too, is spectacular. Von Stroheim didn’t actually “do” Otto; that was done off-camera by George Grandee. Yet, they seem so believably connected, that the better part of Gabbo’s personality is never questioned (and anyone who’s seen Singin’ in the Rain knows that dubbing or directional recording in 1929 wasn’t a given…or, realistically, as easy as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor make it seem). Von Stroheim didn’t get directorial credit because, as a director, he was poison – known for going above and beyond the realm of logic, spending money like an out of control flood, and jettisoning (what was considered) good taste into the abyss. Long story short: Cruze is essentially von’s beard. Prove me wrong. The scenario is soooo von Stroheim, being aided in the the story department by the ubiquitous Ben Hecht, with some dialog credited to comic actor Hugh Herbert (“woo-woo” indeed). Von Stroheim likewise worked his rapacious magic on some of the songs in the tuneful score by the appropriately-named King Zany, along with Donald McNamee, Lynn Cowan, and the no doubt childhood-taunted Paul Titsworth. One, in particular, is worth repeating: “Icky (The Lollipop Song).” As sung by Otto, the ditty, on the surface about candy confection, recounts the messiness of sexual discharge (“I’d rather suck a lemon drop because a lollipop gets all over icky”). Another ballad “Laughing” becomes the theme of the movie.

While von Stroheim is obviously the whole show, THE GREAT GABBO nevertheless includes a game cast of supporting players, most prominently costar Betty Compson (a very big star at the time, and the female lead in von Sternberg’s 1928 masterpiece Docks of New York). Also on-hand are Donald Douglas (as Frank), Bo Peep Karlin, Harry Ross, Eddy Waller, Earl Burtnett and the Biltmore Orchestra, and, as a dancer, Rosina Lawrence.

The background ambiance and atmosphere of THE GREAT GABBO is equally impressive – well-staged and choreographed (Maurice L. Kussell) musical numbers, including several sung by Babe Kane (unQuestelably, the real Betty Boop). They, sadly, were filmed in MultiColor, a Technicolor rival, and none of this material currently exists; fortunately, we can at least see these sequences here in black-and-white (although one number, “The Gaga Bird” has been lost), but we can’t help but wonder what it truly looked like; MultiColor, like 1920s Technicolor, was a two-color process, but blue and yellow (rather than magenta and yellow), so it must have looked odd. What is intriguing about the process was, that, unlike Technicolor, MultiColor didn’t require special cameras; its bipack magazines could be loaded into a standard 35MM rig (MultiColor went out of business in 1933, later to re-emerge, with refinements, as CineColor). Fingers crossed, maybe one day footage will surface. It should be noted that an elaborate spider number, featuring half-naked females trapped in a giant web backfired, once the picture went into roadshow release. Premiering at the prestigious Selwyn Theater in New York, Cruze’s publicist thought it a great idea to recreate this number by building a living billboard. The result: a block-wide rooftop spider web with writhing, live (practically) nude women stopped traffic dead in its tracks. The entire construction had to be dismantled after a couple of days.

Like so many indie movies, THE GREAT GABBO fell into public domain, the results ranging from barely watchable to atrocious. It’s stunning to see a near-pristine 35MM print in 1080p High Definition (only slight black patches of decomposition twice briefly invade the otherwise crystal-clear surroundings). The audio is absolutely distortion-free and quite dynamic (the movie was available in both sound-on-film and disc version; this 1.33 presentation hails from the latter).

There’s a terrific supplement on this Blu-Ray as well: second audio commentary by motion-picture scholar Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, one of the best (if not THE best) book on the transition to sound period.

An engrossing, freakish schizophrenic nightmare, THE GREAT GABBO is a must for collectors of the macabre and fans of talkies, pre-Code, von Stroheim, and 1920s cinema.

THE GREAT GABBO. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/The Library of Congress. CAT # K25509. SRP: $29.95.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s