James Cruze | The Great Gabbo

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James Cruze

James Cruze directed both silent and sound films in 1920's and 1930's Hollywood.

The Great Gabbo

The Great Gabbo (1929) is the great granddaddy of all those stories about strange ventriloquists. It has been much imitated ever since.

Dances and Dreams

The imagery in The Great Gabbo echoes that of earlier Cruze films. The dance numbers seem especially close to the dream sequence in Beggar on Horseback.

One dance number in The Great Gabbo shows humans taking the roles of insects and spiders, crawling up a huge web. This recalls the human-like frogs in Beggar on Horseback. Both films have elaborate, but not realistic, costumes, which suggest such an animal-human fusion.

Another dance number in The Great Gabbo involves both the leading man and many of the chorus in a formal cutaway for the men. The dream sequence in Beggar on Horseback also centers on a wedding, with androgynous figures half in male formal wear, half females in bridal gowns. There is also the strange wedding in The Mating Call. Another number in The Great Gabbo involves clothes that alternate big areas of black and white, both within costumes, and between adjacent men and women in the chorus line. This too has something of the same graphic effect as the half-and-half wedding costumes in Beggar on Horseback.

Men are in uniforms in The Great Gabbo, including what seem to be bellboy outfits in a dance number, and the paired chauffeur and footman-dummy handler in the restaurant sequence. This echoes The Mating Call, where the hero also starts out in uniform. The uniforms, while dashing, seem to mock their wearers, because all of these men seem completely powerless. All of the outfits seem to be fancy dress military uniforms.

The dance numbers feature the two leads dancing, backed up by a large chorus. This seems like a standard film convention. But it also echoes scenes with the vigilante group in The Mating Call, which show individuals on trial before a large group of similarly costumed people.

Murnau and Sunrise: Influences on Cruze

Other imagery in Beggar on Horseback seems unique to this film, as far as I can tell with what I know about Cruze's work. The spectacular revolving disks behind a dance number, are among the most abstract and geometric backgrounds anywhere in American film. A giant spiral disk recalls spiral imagery in other filmmakers. Please see the article on Fritz Lang's M (1931) for more details on "spirals in the movies". If I had to guess, an ancestor for Cruze's spiral could be the spiral sign on the building in the vision of the city at the start of Murnau's Sunrise (1927).

At the end, when Stroheim has a mental breakdown, he sees mental imagery that consists of previous scenes in the film, projected onto "windows" within the current screen. This recalls a bit the mental imagery at the start of Murnau's Sunrise (1927), which appears in a rectangular window-like region on the top of the screen. However, Cruze goes beyond Murnau to combine this imagery into multiple "windows" within the frame. He also varies the size of the windows in creative ways. This is an ingenious bit of innovative cinematic form.

Both of these possible influences from Murnau build on the vision sequence near the beginning of Sunrise. While other directors were struck by Murnau's camera movements, Cruze seems to explore the potential of cinematic visions, set forth by 1) unusual sets (the spirals) and 2) the use of mental imagery, formed by windows within the frame.