The Last Laugh (F.W. Murnau, 1924)

This movie lives and dies by Emil Jannings’s face.  Sure, “The Last Laugh” has moments galore of suspense, atmosphere, and perfection of staging, angles, and lighting that made F.W. Murnau the wizard that he was, but no image sticks out more than the fat, whiskered face of Jannings’s old hotel porter-turned-washroom attendant.  Watch in those opening scenes, the man’s immense pride at doing nothing more than helping old ladies to their cab – he’s no more than a servant, but that overly-elaborate uniform is his own personal badge of greatness.  Never mind that he’s now too old to lift a trunk off the top of a car and, winded, has to take a break in the lobby (something the prick of a hotel manager makes note of), look at that beaming red face (yeah it’s in black and white, but never mind that – this is a jolly, pudgy, red-cheeked face, I tell ya) and you feel his pride and his contentedness.  Never mind that he’s no more than a hotel porter, because that uniform is practically the thing of gods in his neighborhood.  As he walks down the street, helping a little boy who’s tripped and strutting his stuff, chest puffed out, with that face of the utmost (almost comical) seriousness, and how everyone around him looks at him in awe, he’s practically the mayor of this little side street, all because of a steady job and a pretty uniform.  Just as with “Sunrise,” “The Last Laugh” hangs its hat on exaggerated, expressionistic emotions, a staple of silent cinema, and it works – the way the girl beams that smile, for instance, as she writes the words with frosting on the cake, the porter looking on like a hungry, scheming little kid and practically licking his lips.  And with the highest of the high, there’s also the lowest of the low, as the porter loses his beloved job in favor of a younger and stronger man.  Suddenly that beaming, jolly, bearded face becomes shocked, dismayed, forlorn, and just about frozen into place as he gets the news of his demotion and can only sit there, practically comatose (his attempt to lift a heavy trunk to prove his boss wrong, and the after-effects, is over-the-top and extremely exaggerated, but heartbreaking).  It’s a massively full gamut of emotion, and Jannings’s face sells it all – scrunched up and beaming one moment, drooping and staring blankly ahead the next.

Of course, Murnau is just as responsible for making “The Last Laugh” as atmospheric and bursting with emotion as Jannings is.  Just look no further than the night after the porter loses his job – as he wanders the dark halls of the hotel in search of his precious uniform, that place that was grand and marvelous a mere few minutes before in the film is now maze-like, dark, and imposing, much like Count Orlok’s castle in “Nosferatu”.  As the porter sneaks his way through those hallways (in perhaps the first major tracking shot in all of cinema), a tiny light suddenly creeps closer and closer to the camera, increasing in size until we see that it’s the flashlight of the night man doing his patrols.  But even then, that man looks like a goblin or something (again, shades of Count Orlok), with that one tiny light in that dark hallway – this once-magnificent setting according to the porter is now terrifying, and Jannings’ slumping and slinking along where not long before he was marching along chest-out makes us feel his trepidation and fear that much more.  Or the night he gets shitfaced and deals with the hangover the next day, the camera all blurry and shaky from his point of view.  It’s something we’ve seen millions of times since, but I’d bet at least a buck that Murnau though of it first, and it’s so simple it’s absolutely brilliant – as is the montage of sneering, judgmental faces looking down upon the porter when his neighbors – the same neighbors who revered him until this point – discover his nasty secret of being forced to become a dreaded washroom attendant.  Hell, Fritz Lang used montages of eyes and faces just as intimidating in “Metropolis” and “M”, but this time around the victim of that scorn has our utmost pity – and all he did was commit the crime of getting old and losing his right to wear a fancy uniform.  Jannings’s porter goes through quite the epic journey in “The Last Laugh,” and he barely travels a few city blocks – it’s all about his ability to emote any kind of emotion on the dime, and about Murnau’s ability to turn a neighbor from a friend to a tyrant, or to turn a grand hotel hallway into a haunted house, or to turn a bright city street and skyline into an expressionistic nightmare, where a building practically falls on the poor mouse of a porter, from one scene to the next.  For a prime example of silent expressionism, the shifts in emotion and mood here are mighty impressive.

“The Last Laugh” might be most famous for, excluding one exception, having no title cards to illuminate dialogue or what-not – this is all about faces and mannerisms and images, words are irrelevant.   The movie does drag a little in the middle, which I suppose is inevitable when you’re relying completely on over-the-top, expressionistic images with barely a single spoken or written word to be found, but still, Murnau’s artistry and Jannings’s performance basicaly make the need for title cards irrelevant,   but the one that we do see is a fascinating one, as it gives way to the rather infamous ending to the film.  By telling us that the writer felt pity for the porter and felt the need to give him a happy ending, Murnau and his writer, Carl Mayer, basically admit how sorry they are to tack on an ending that doesn’t fit and was really just for marketing purposes, and they’re right.  Sure we pity the porter and what’s become of him, and want things to work out, but don’t you at least want the guy to earn it, make it feel genuine?  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the movie having a happy ending (even though the final image before the infamous title card is iconic, and haunting, and to end the movie with that image would have been incredibly brave, and poignant), but that happy ‘ending’ drags, and drags, and drags, and drags.  We get it, our man does indeed get the last laugh after all that hardship, no need to make that last laugh feel like it’s as long as half the film’s running length, and redundant at that.  Still, though, a good movie is about the journey, not the destination, and the porter does undergo a hell of a journey from riches (at least emotional riches) to rags, to unexpected riches again, with loved ones and the city itself changing face to correlate with those changes on the fly.  “The Last Laugh” might not be the atmospheric masterpiece that “Nosferatu” is, or the emotional masterpiece that “Sunrise” is, but it’s still Murnau nearly at the top of his game, at least when the executives aren’t fucking with his product, and even then, that expressive-as-hell face of Emil Jannings does enough by itself to tell a million separate stories.



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