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Last Laugh, The (1925)
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by Jay Seaver

"You will be amazed, and that's just for the mustache."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: "The Last Laugh" is a remarkable movie in almost every respect, from the central performance to the direction, and the way studio interference changed the ending. It is, in many ways, a film about a tiny story told in the grandest possible style, deservedly considered a classic.

That small tale is that of the doorman at the Atlantic Hotel (Emil Jannings), who has been the job for a long time and takes a great deal of pride in it and the fancy uniform he wears; he is generally liked in his working-class neighborhood as well. One morning, just a day after the manager sees him need a rest after moving a heavy trunk, he arrives at work to find that another man has replaced him, and he had been reassigned as a lowly bathroom attendant. Though expected to turn in his uniform, he spirits it away so that he can wear it as he leaves his apartment and returns at night, lest his neighbors learn if his demotion.

If you have never seen this particular F.W. Murnau classic, open another window and find a picture of Jannings and, in particular, the mustache he sported in the film. That is some amazing facial hair, and in some ways it exemplifies what is going on with this prideful character as much as anything else Jannings and Murnau do: It is a surface-level affectation that impresses when seen in its full glory, but which requires a great deal of preparation and maintenance to be just so; make that difficult and it's a shambles. Jannings's theatrical performance emphasizes that about the man himself, not so much adding and collapsing when his point of pride is taken away, hobbling through the movie with such exaggerated feebleness that a modern audience used to seeing little but naturalism will perhaps scoff, seeing it as either scenery-chewing or as evidence that the manager did not go far enough. Let it sink in a bit, though, and Jannings is doing exhilarating work, communicating with terrific clarity but still having a level of nuance that reveals itself when Murnau zooms in to show detail.

Murnau does that frequently, using nearly every movie-making tool at his disposal, although it's the one he skips - dialogue with inter titles - that is the most amazing. He tells this whole story through the characters' actions, body language, and facial expressions, and it's thrilling; though many silents will immerse the audience so well that a viewer will remember hearing the dialogue, Murnau creates something where the audience never had to flip a switch in his or her brain even for a moment, and in some ways that fees him and cinematographer Karl Freund to do more fluid things with the camera. They also go for the grotesque at times, such as when the screen becomes a seeming kaleidoscope of eyes and mouths, all human flesh that cannot be escaped.

In some ways, the film is about grotesquerie of an economic sort, as both the job lost and the one gained are kind of absurdly unnecessary, either getting people the sort distance from a cab to the hotel's front door or preventing them from picking up their own towel; it's almost absurd when someone runs off to complain about the job being done poorly. It's indicative of a class system that forms an ugly pyramid, although there is no virtue to being at any particular level, especially when one witnesses both the respect given just for being near the upper class and how viciously one is torn down for trying to hang on to that status.

Which plays into the bizarre last act, where the studio demanded a happy ending and Murnau gave it not just the most absurd one possible, but was apparently sarcastic about it, using some of the film's only on-screen text to basically say "this is fake, something done just for the movies". On top of that, it's rather off-putting, an apparent reminder that anybody will be a glutton given the chance, with even the generosity looking overdone. It's an odd thing - Murnau made something in line with the rest of the movie in terms of point of view, but it feels ham-fisted compared to the rest.

That epilogue may not be on every version of the film - silents can be especially mutable like that - so if you see it without that bit, just ignore that last paragraph. Either way, it's an essential movie, as some of what's daring in 1924 still feels exciting to watch today.

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originally posted: 05/31/15 17:55:46
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  05-Jan-1925 (NR)
  DVD: 30-Sep-2008

  N/A (U)


Directed by
  F.W. Murnau

Written by
  Carl Mayer

  Emil Jannings
  Maly Delschaft
  Max Hiller
  Emilie Kurz
  Hans Unterkircher
  Olaf Storm

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