Thursday, June 30, 2016

Film Reviews: The Great Gabbo & Blind Husbands

"The Great Gabbo"  *** (out of ****)

Erich von Stroheim proves he's no dummy in the dramatic romance "The Great Gabbo" (1929).

In "The Great Gabbo", directed by James Cruze, Mr. Stroheim stars as the brilliant ventriloquist Gabbo. Gabbo and his wooden friend Otto, have yet to make a name for themselves. In Gabbo's mind the acclaim is long over due. If he hasn't reached fame and fortune yet it is only because of others around him. An ignorant public unable to appreciate his genius, a foolish agent that doesn't book him in better venues and perhaps even because of his assistant / girlfriend, Mary (Betty Compson, in real life Mrs. Cruze), who sometimes stumbles on stage and is slow to reach her cues.

"The Great Gabbo" would seem to be the story of a struggling artist who feels unappreciated by society and misunderstood by those around him. But there is a dark side to this story. The only person that can understand Gabbo is Otto. Otto serves as something of Gabbo's conscience. After Gabbo and Mary have a terrible fight that ends in her leaving him, it is Otto that tells Gabbo he will be sorry to see her go. Gabbo may not realize it but he is in love with Mary.

Now "The Great Gabbo" becomes a story of an artist with a dual personality. An artist that can only express himself through his creation and is unable to show his feelings in public as himself. In the right hands with the right actor, "The Great Gabbo" could have had elements of macabre. Imagine for a moment if Lon Chaney had been cast in the lead. Mr. Chaney did play a sinister ventriloquist in another movie, "The Unholy Three" (1930) but what a missed opportunity "The Great Gabbo" proves to be.

Mr. Stroheim may be better know to some as a director. Prior to the release of this movie Mr. Stroheim directed "Greed" (1924) and "The Wedding March" (1928), two of his most famous films. In "The Great Gabbo" he showcases what a good actor he was. He had a dominating screen presence (and according to some he had one off-screen too) that commanded your attention. He made a career out of playing characters of nobility. Although that wouldn't describe his character in this movie, pay attention to Gabbo's proud nature. He stands tall and sits up straight. Gabbo may be a struggling artist but Mr. Stroheim plays the part with a rarefied air.

For whatever "The Great Gabbo" does right in the first half of the movie the second half gets everything wrong. The movie is practically split in two; one half a serious drama about a disturbed artist and the second half a Hollywood musical. The rationale for this is easy to understand if you are familiar with the time period. In 1929 the movies learned to sing, the Hollywood musical was born with the release of "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929), which would win the Academy Award for best picture. Soon a flood of movie musicals were released. Among them "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929) and "On With the Show" (1929). With the advent of sound, the musical was a wholly new genre created. But the market became over saturated. As Hollywood usually does, it went overboard trying to cash in on a fad. As with most fads interest dissipated causing movies originally intended as musicals to be stripped of all or most of their songs. Two famous examples include the Joe E. Brown comedy "Top Speed" (1930) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1930). The latter was based on a Broadway musical which had a Cole Porter score (the song "You Do Something To Me" was written for it) and all songs were removed.

Clearly "The Great Gabbo" is attempting to cash in on the musical fad too but how unnecessary. By the second half of the movie Gabbo realizes he is in love with Mary and wants to win her back. Gabbo is now a famous Broadway star. Unknown to Gabbo, Mary is in love with another man, Frank (Donald Douglas) a singer and dancer. As fate would have it, the three of them are playing at the same theater. This second half becomes a story of unrequited love with endless possibilities. Will Gabbo find out about Frank? Will he seek revenge? Will "The Great Gabbo" turn into a "Phantom of the Opera" (1925) story? Here is where all your dramatic tension can rise and we can see the decline of Gabbo's mind instead the movie focuses on musical numbers.

With all of its flaws the movie is worth watching for Mr. Stroheim's performance. He comes out looking the best compared to everyone else involved. Co-star Betty Compson doesn't come off as a believable person. She does not display a wide range of emotions which at times leads the audience to wonder, what are her true intentions? Ms. Compson achieved her own fame being nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in "The Barker" (1928) and also appeared in Josef von Sternberg's "The Docks of New York" (1928).

"The Great Gabbo" would make a nice double bill with "Magic" (1978) starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist who is also a victim of his own dummy.

"Blind Husbands"
 ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Blind Husbands" (1919) is a ridiculous melodramatic love story written and directed by Mr. Stroheim, based on his story "The Pinnacle".

On the surface "Blind Husbands" wants to appear to be a "forward thinking" movie about adultery. The movie's opening title cards tell us one of the main reasons marriages end in divorce is due to "alienation of affection" as often wives end up cheating on their husbands. Instead of condemning the "other man" the movie dares to ask, why? What about the husbands that no longer pay attention to their wives?

"Blind Husbands" does nothing more than perpetuate old gender stereotypes and cliches and is not forward thinking at all nor does it possess any "universal truths". In many ways the movie resembles Cecil B. DeMille's "The Cheat" (1915) as both movies imply women are more easily susceptible to temptation. And gives us the old cliche that all women seek the love and attention of a man as men become bored with their wives and love in general. And before someone says, boy, these movies from 1919 are sure sexist, let me remind you of the novel and the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" as one example. These same stereotypes exist today. Nothing has changed.

This time around Mr. Stroheim plays his usual nobleman, an Austrian officer, Lieutenant Steuben, the man who tempts Margaret (Francelia Billington) from her husband, Dr. Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) while the married couple is on vacation in the Alps in the town of Cortina.

"Blind Husbands" does not seem aesthetically or thematically as ambitious as either "Greed" or "The Wedding March". A majority of the third act takes place on a mountain as both Steuben and Dr. Armstrong go mountain climbing, in what one can assume was meant to be a symbol of masculinity. It is not as striking as the Death Valley sequence in "Greed".

The movie runs a modest 91 minutes yet it feels longer. The movie could have used some editing. Another problem is we don't believe in the romance between Steuben or Margaret nor do we believe Dr. Armstrong doesn't love his wife. The movie makes such giant leaps in logic and feels heavy handed with its message.

The movie unquestionably has its place in the history of cinema since it was the directorial debut of Mr. Stroheim but it does not compare to Mr. Stroheim's later work. Worth watching if you are a serious student of film but has little value to anyone else.