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Life Irritates Art in These Stanley Kwan and James Cruze Talkies

Kwan’s art-house Center Stage and Cruze’s vulgar The Great Gabbo both touch on the tragic tropes of performers whose careers suck up their lives.

Center Stage
Stanley Kwan
Film Movement
8 June 2021
The Great Gabbo
James Cruze
Kino Lorber
13 July 2021

The Great Gabbo (1929)

Director: James Cruze

While Ruan Lingyu’s few surviving films have been floating around in battered shape, James Cruze’s early talkie The Great Gabbo has been available as incomplete public-domain eyesores, not preserving the musical segments that were part of its original attraction. Now here they are, or mostly, as we’ll explain.

Speaking of those chewed up and spit out by the studio machine, Erich Von Stroheim is the textbook example of a silent-era genius whose films were a battlefield with his studios. His studios “won”, releasing his films in heavily cut and re-edited forms that today dazzle and exasperate us.

Stroheim’s post-silent career found him hired as an actor by other directors, most famously by Jean Renoir in La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). He again played unhinged vaudeville artistes in The Great Flamarion (Anthony Mann, 1945) and The Mask of Dijon (George Blair 1946). His prolific acting career, which includes French and German cinema, deserves more investigation.

The Great Gabbo is one of these acting jobs, a particularly intense one on what became a dramatic standby: the ventriloquist whose personality breaks down, with his dummy being the wiser half. The source here is Ben Hecht’s story “The Rival Dummy”, as significantly rewritten by Hugh Herbert, so perhaps Hecht deserves credit for the long line of bonkers ventriloquist tales that have come down the pike since then.

In keeping with his public persona, Gabbo is as abrasive, pompous, and unlikable as any role played by the advertised “man you love to hate”. As he berates his girlfriend-assistant Mary (silent film star Betty Compson) in the rather protracted opening scenes, you wonder why she puts up with his abuse. She wonders, too, and finally quits him, although she regrets leaving the dummy, Otto. He’s the only one who says nice things to her.

The pre-Code nature of the plot includes the fact that Mary had lived with Gabbo for two years without the benefit of marriage. These dialogue scenes are shot in the stilted four-square style often visible in early talkies and which some people think defined the whole era. That’s not invariably the case, but it’s true that important silent director James Cruze displays no great command of composition or editing in this talkie debut from his independent company.

The story fast-forwards to two years after the split. Mary and Gabbo are now starring successfully in the same Broadway revue, with Gabbo’s ventriloquism as the headliner while Mary dominates the elaborate musical acts. Now that they’re more comfortable around each other, is a reunion possible? Probably not, for reasons having to do with Mary’s jealous partner Frank (Donald Douglas), although the real reasons will always lie with Gabbo’s personality.

The last half of the film is packed with big stage numbers, all or most of which were shot in an early two-color process called Multicolor. Most numbers had been chopped from the truncated public-domain eyesores to which I’ve referred, and which I remember seeing on local TV. That’s why seeing the routines is so revelatory, more for ambition than execution.

The only drawback is that the Library of Congress print, from an original negative, is black and white only (which is how most theatres of 1929 played it), so the Multicolor remains lost to time. Or does it? In May 2021, someone uploaded to YouTube what purports to be a color print, but possibly it’s computer-colored to mimic the imperfect Multicolor system.

Still missing is one particular number, “The Ga Ga Bird”, performed by a solo marionette Otto in front of chorines strutting in chicken costumes. Our only glimpse of that lost hallucinatory act comes in Gabbo’s climactic vision of superimposed highlights as he loses his remaining marbles. Perhaps headlining such a show would drive anyone to distraction.

As musical historian Richard Barrios points out in his commentary, the characterization of Gabbo not only subscribes to Stroheim’s persona but also to the autocratic and difficult reputation of Cruze, which made him so problematic at studios that he formed his own company. Cruze was married to Compson at the time, although they’d already filed for divorce, so the relations between Mary and arrogant self-styled genius Gabbo may channel her experience with Cruze. Once again, the subject is female stars and their directors and romantic issues, not to mention the transitory nature of stardom.

We’re driven to wonder how personal a project this was for Cruze, and the answer may be very personal. He continued to direct through the ’30s, most notably I Cover the Waterfront (1933), another pre-Code drama demonstrating the smooth studio command lacking here.

The reason for all the chorus girls and the endless numbers in The Great Gabbo, including one act with a spiderweb motif and the leads dressed up as spider and fly, is that 1929 and 1930 were cashing in on the talkie craze with these elaborate stagebound “all-singing all-dancing” spectacles, often in early color processes, so much so that audiences soon tired of the novelty.

You can see a splendid example of the species in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of a film from the same year, Glorifying the American Girl, directed by Millard Webb and produced by Monta Bell supposedly under the aegis of Broadway legend Florenz Ziegfeld. The cameo-studded extravaganza features performances from Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, and Rudy Vallee. The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration not only includes early Technicolor but pre-Code near-nudity and uses of the word “damn”. That disc also has commentary by Barrios.

Discussing one of the numbers in The Great Gabbo, Barrios points out that the columns supposedly have topless nude models acting as statues. Distance is a factor but it sure looks like it. Again, there’s nothing like a print of sparkling clarity to help us really see a film. This film has a couple of brief moments of nitrate deterioration but otherwise hasn’t looked so good since 1929.

While Center Stage is a work of art-house delicacy from Hong Kong and The Great Gabbo is a specimen of Hollywood commercial vulgarity with an unhealthy streak, both touch on well-known tragic tropes of public performers whose careers suck up their lives while a hungry public looks on, and the concept of artists who anger the owners and producers who feed off their careers. Both films also speak to talented women stuck in those worlds, trying to deal with men who have less on the ball than they do.

While The Great Gabbo would seem the less serious examination, it’s the one that literalizes the concept of control as puppetry. And, like Center Stage, it finally avoids melodrama in favor of pathos, so that its dominant message becomes sympathy for wasted lives.

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