A Fever Dream Double Feature.
Anybody seeing James Cruze’ early talkie operetta-revue melodrama nightmare THE GREAT GABBO, must immediately despair of ever finding a partner-film, a companion piece with which it might be paired. Some films, it seems, are destined to live alone. GABBO, the tale of a horribly arrogant ventriloquist free-falling into insanity, played with barely-suppressed inertia by Erich Von Stroheim, is based on a story by the great Ben Hecht, who ran away before actually writing it, leaving script duties to Hugh Herbert, which is quite a come-down. The IMDb suggests that the H.H. in question is THIS GUY, the infamous “woo-woo” man, whose presence disgraces so many golden age movie romps, but I think the likely culprit is F. Hugh Herbert, prolific author of appalling comedies like Otto Preminger’s THE MOON IS BLUE. The same incessant smug goddamn quipping is in evidence.
So, althought the idea may have originated in the brain that powered the hand that held one-half of the pen that wrote The Front Page, what we get is at best echt Hecht. But it is 100% GENUINE HERBERT, as anyone who has struggled through its unpleasantly lengthy, static dialogue scenes can attest.
At any rate, the casting of Erich Von Stroheim as a cross-talking comedian vent act is something that must have been dreamed up on the dipso ward, and the idea of playing out Gabbo’s tragedy against the backdrop of a musical revue featuring singing insects and dancing poultry suggests a story department recruited from bedlam.
But do not despair! A worthy counterpart to THE GREAT GABBO exists, and with supreme symmetry the movie gods named it THE GREAT FLAMARION and cast Erich Von S once more as the Great One.
FLAMARION is a much better movie, since it has Anthony Mann behind the camera. It’s fascinating to watch him at work, enlivening his dubious material within a tight B-movie schedule, with tension-packed compositions and electrifying camera moves — except even he can’t really get the thing up on its feet, no matter what he does. THE GREAT FLAMARION staggers along, burdened with a script so predictable it’s perversely surprising. Von plays a variety act sharp-shooter. Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea are the married stooges who stand still while he blasts cigarettes from their mouths. Hughes seduces Von, but it’s nakedly obvious she doesn’t love him. Never was a femme so fatale. We wait for her to suggest he bump off her troublesome hubby by cunningly FAILING TO MISS during the act. She does. He does. The deed done and passed off as an accident, he arranges to meet her in a Chicago hotel. We wait for her to not show up.
At this point, we get a surprise! No, she doesn’t show up. But Von does a little dance! We weren’t expecting THAT. It’s like a big hand reaching out of the screen and offering us a cupcake.
Then Von realises he’s been had and seeks revenge. He gets it, and dies.
So far, so predictable, but what puts the tin lid on it is the FRAMING STRUCTURE, which makes the outcome clear before the story has even started — Von lies dying, perforated with his own slugs, having throttled the cheating vixen. Which means the entire movie is a playing out of storylines that have already been tied up. Orson Welles begins OTHELLO with Desdemona and Othello dead and Iago in chains, but he has the benefit of more involved plotting and characterisation, plus he may have assumed the audience would have some familiarity with the story he was telling anyway. The title THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO provides a strong hint. The book-ends of THE GREAT FLAMARION constitute a different and much dumber kind of design. They testify to the faint hope of starting the movie with a bang, since if it simply played out chronologically the opening would be unbearably flat and suspenseless. Promise them murder then hope they’re too listless to leave their seats.
Mann-fans will nevertheless find much to enjoy in the sharp framing and dynamic camera moves. Von’s general absurdity as romantic lead makes him diverting, and like Bela Lugosi he can provide unexpected hilarity with sudden moments of naturalism. And, uniting the film with GABBO once more, there’s the thrill of BICKERING — both films feature prolonged, depressing scenes of married couples sniping horribly at each other, apparently a staple of entertainment in the eyes of the screenwriters.