The Last Laugh

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Nov 27, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The Last Laugh, FW Murnau’s silent classic from 1924, is very nearly the best of its kind. Silent cinema is so alien in comparison to contemporary film that the mere suggestion to watch a movie from this era can feel more like homework. This is not a fair perception, but black and white alone is difficult to convince some people to buy in. A silent movie is an even tougher sell. So, at this point, a film like The Last Laugh won’t be for the casual movie fan, but it’s more of an advanced studies piece.

But, it could easily be someone’s introduction to silent cinema.

The film follows an unnamed hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who is full of pride about his job, his duty. He lives in a squalid and dilapidated slum, but he commands the respect of all his neighbors because of his position and his uniform. He’s getting older, though, and his bosses are keeping an eye on him. Eventually, his superiors strip him of his uniform – and along with it, his identity, social status, and reason to live. Instead, he’s forced to work as a bathroom attendant.

Jannings’ performance is the key. As he is informed of his demotion – for being old and frail – he initially tries to showcase his bravado by lifting a heavy trunk over his head, but he can’t manage it and crumples onto the floor. Jannings crumples emotionally, too. At once a large presence, he is then ashamed of his fall from grace and appears to physically shrink as he hunches over and walks in a haze. It’s as though he’s attempting to disappear inside himself so not to invite jeers from his peers and community. It doesn’t work. He becomes a laughingstock.

Despite being close to a century old, Murnau’s fable is very lively with the camera. This isn’t some rudimentary set-up that essentially works as a photographed stage play, but instead uses a mix of camera angles and techniques to make the experience far more dynamic than potentially expected. It’s most surprising and impressive after the doorman has lost his job, but before he reveals his plight to anyone else. Having returned home, is niece is getting married and he gets blackout drunk. As he passes out while sitting in a chair in his own apartment, it cuts to an extreme close-up of his head in slight profile, chin resting on his chest after the image has begun to distort to simulate his drunkenness. A ray of light appears in the foreground that morphs into a new scene, all while the doorman’s head remains in the background. The light reveals a giant door, and thus begins a dream sequence of what used to be. The way it is shot and put together informs the viewer that the unfolding scene is literally in his head by creating an image that figuratively opens his mind on screen. It’s innovative, and both ahead of its time and wholly a piece of it.

Murnau’s visual storytelling prowess is on full display, and his excitable camera combined with Jannings’ exaggerated, larger-than-life performance help embolden it. Most silent movies still have dialog, using intertitles to communicate what was said. Very little added communication is used in The Last Laugh. There are moments where a letter is read, and it receives subtitles, but the rest of the film is left to mime. And it’s crystal clear.

And then there’s the awful ending. A bad ending should never ruin an otherwise great movie, but it can absolutely derail the experience. When a great ending is pasted on a bad movie, it can elevate it, possibly because the last thing on screen represents a positive. The Last Laugh features the opposite: one of the worst endings possible for the film that unfolded.

Spoiler alert for a 93-year-old movie: The final 15 minutes is a tacked-on undoing of the previous 75 so it could have a happy ending.  Wallowing in despair, it’s revealed in one of the only extended text-based sequences that a wealthy, elderly man had a will giving his entire fortune to the person who is with him when he dies. Guess what, it was the doorman-turned-bathroom attendant. His life is turned around, he’s happier than before. Money truly does buy happiness, the end. While injecting a sense of hope is one thing, this is such a ludicrous finale that it lands with a resounding thud.

An attached making-of documentary reveals some interesting tidbits of historical context, too. Apparently, The Last Laugh doubles as a military critique, especially the value placed on uniforms. The doorman’s entire existence is defined by his uniform and his place in a social hierarchy. He has his superiors, but also lords his own supposed eminence over those in his community. The end then acts as a correction. He’s learned the error of his ways, and has abandoned the uniform as a source of importance. Instead, the doorman has learned that the only thing that truly matters is money. Wait, that doesn’t make the ending any better at all.

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