“Little Otto there is the only human thing about you.”
An egomaniacal ventriloquist known as the Great Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim) treats his kind assistant (Betty Compson) so badly that she leaves him for another man (Donald Douglas) — but Gabbo (who begins to invest more and more of his personality in his dummy, Otto) never gives up hope that Compson may return to him one day.
This early “transitional talkie” — based on a story by Ben Hecht, and starring Erich von Stroheim in his first acting role after the end of his directing career — is a disappointing enigma. Despite its intriguing premise, the movie is utterly undone by deathly slow pacing, an underdeveloped plot, and countless extraneous musical revue numbers thrown in to pad the film’s running time. Gabbo’s performances with Otto are neither amusing nor remotely realistic, yet — in perhaps the most surreal aspect of the entire movie — Gabbo is supposed to be a world-class entertainer (?!). Far too much is made of the fact that Otto is somehow able to “talk” while Gabbo is eating, drinking, and smoking (we’re shown this “trick” no less than three times); in fact, we think there must be either fraud or something fantastical going on, but again, neither of these hints are ever explored.
Meanwhile, Von Stroheim — never the most nuanced of actors — is both heavy-handed and insufferably heartless as Gabbo: the insults he hurls at poor Compson in the opening ten minutes of the film are enough to make you want to throttle him, and he never (re)gains our sympathy. In fact, the entire screenplay is premised on Compson’s enduring pity for Gabbo, yet we can’t help thinking she’s nuts to give him the time of day. The creepy promise of Gabbo’s descent into ventriloquial madness isn’t adequately exploited until the very end of the picture, at which point it’s too little, too late. At least there are occasional moments of surreal hilarity scattered throughout the film — as when Otto sings a song about preferring lemon drops to lollipops because the latter get “all over icky”. Indeed.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A creepy — albeit sadly unfufilled — portrait of an obsessed ventriloquist
- Otto singing the truly surreal “lollipop song”: “I always drop my lollipop, and it gets all over icky”
- Some surreal performance sets
No, though most film fanatics will likely be morbidly curious to check it out. See “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment in Dead of Night (1945) instead for a truly creepy story about an obsessed ventriloquist.