The Last Laugh (1924)
The Last Laugh
Directed by F.W. Murnau
"Here our story should really end, for in actual life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death."
In 1924 German Director F.W. Murnau released his film, Der Letzte Mann, which translates into English as The Last Man. By the time it reached the United States, it would be entitled the Last Laugh for reasons that will become apparent. Read on!
After the relative success of Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau was searching for a different kind of story to tell. He made a few films before he landed on the Der Letzte Mann. He wanted to free the camera from the tripod and give it motion. To unchain it from its moorings and let it go! To that end, he teamed up with cinematographer Karl Freund, and they invented new ways to shoot a movie.
Before I go on, this is the birth of the way movies get shot today. There is no place the camera can't go. Butin 1924, it was one shot facing the action—a play with title cards. In Fort Lee, New Jersey, Maurice Tourneur shook things up. It was 1918 and his film The Blue Bird contained several techniques we now take for granted. He pointed the camera into a window to see the action inside. Tourneur placed some branches in front of the camera to make the woods seem more ominous. Finally, the main character turns to the camera and tells the audience to look in their heart for the Blue Bird of happiness. It may not seem like much now, but it was a huge deal a hundred years ago.
By 1924, many people were thinking of ways to move the camera while shooting in Hollywood. The Western Dolly was, first and foremost, the most straightforward device to move the camera while shooting. It can go over earth or studio floors. It's a table with four inflatable rubber wheels and a push bar. The camera, operator, and assistant can stand on it while (Get ready, folks) the "Dolly-Grip," pushes it. (Yes, the dolly grip is the very important grip that supervises the whole dolly team, which is a bunch of grips assisting in laying track. Some dollies move on track, leveling said track, securing said track, and holding various cables that need to proceed with the camera.) The Dolly is also a great item to move all your stuff from location to location. And anybody can do that - except the director. That movie crap is heavy!
But the Germans had ideas. Over complicated, mounted track systems? Check! Pully-operated elevator camera booming tools? Check! They were having a field day. Murnau and Freund used them all and more. In one shot, Freund had the camera mounted to his body, and he rode it from the street into the hotel set and onto the elevator. These guys were going nuts with innovation. How would it work? Who knows?
If I were a betting man in Germany in 1923, I would have lost big time. Why? The Last Laugh is about an old man, played by Emil Jannings, who was only forty-six at the time, as the doorman of a fancy Hotel. He is a star in the neighborhood and respected because he wears a uniform and has a job. It is a sad story as the hotel's management decides to replace him with a younger man. He has to turn in his great coat. He is broken. But not to worry, the company always takes care of its own! He is taken to the men's room, given a stack of hand towels, and told that this is your kingdom now!
Bleak. Busted. The former doorman goes home. The whole neighborhood, those no-good busybodies, notice he has no uniform. He loses status, and he loses respect. Even his kid disrespects him! What a revolting development, and then he has to preside over dinner after telling them he is now a bathroom attendant. Oh, how the mighty has fallen.
Warning SPOILERS AHEAD.
And now a bit about the actor Emile Jannings. Old Emile was the first actor to win the Academy Award for best actor for not one, but two performances, Victor Fleming's (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind) The Way of All Flesh and Josef von Sternberg's (The Blue Angel, Morrocco) The Last Command. There is a nasty rumor that academy voters had chosen Rin Tin Tin as the best actor, but the Academy ruled that Rinny was a dog and therefore not an actor. He was a great actor. Even though he was a Nazi, and probably because of that little quirk, many of his films are lost. Fleming's The Way of All Flesh went the way of most Nitrate film and decomposed or combusted spectacularly but has so far eluded re-discovery.
Here comes the Spoiler: Before I progress, if you went to film school before 1990, there is a good chance you have seen this film. The great William K. Everson showed me this film in his cat-infested Greenwich Village apartment. He then showed it to the history of film class.
Back to the Spoiler: If you are an anti-spoiler, don't keep reading. I'm giving you plenty of warning. It's not like I'm telling you that Goose was infertile, and Maverick is really Rooster's dad. I'm not doing that.
You have been warned. It's on you. Damn the torpedoes, here we go!
On the first day of his new job in the men's room of the hotel, the former doorman walks down the end of a long row of toilets to a short stool where he sits with a stack of towels in one hand. Completely broken! His sorrow fills the very air of the theater as the film slowly fades to black. This is a very slow fade to black, one of the slowest. The depression gets ladled on your very soul.
At this point, you are ready to put a bullet in your brain. The title card appears, "Here our story should really end, for in actual life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death." Just as you reach for the gun mentioned above to put yourself out of your misery, the card fades, and a new set of images appear on the screen. People are laughing! Not just a tee-hee, but real belly laughs, guffaws, chortles even. What's happening, you ask?
As our sad-sack former doorman languishes in the men's room, a really rich guy has a heart attack or stroke whilst on the can. His will is very particular in that whosoever is with him when he kicks the bucket receives the whole shebang. Guess who? Now he is a hero again! Wealthy beyond his dreams. In a petty act of revenge on his old employers, he moves the whole family into the hotel! There goes their star rating!
The relief one feels at the climax of the Last Laugh is indescribable. It is an actual roller coaster of emotion. The film is a perfect and possibly the first and best example of the emotional manipulation possible in motion pictures. I find it hard to believe that the audience's psychology was ever a concern for directors besides entertaining the viewers. Until 1924, most of the viewer's emotional response was aided by the medium's novelty (they were still new), you cried or laughed, and the relatively simplistic approach to storytelling just took you there. I know there are more complex films, but none that decode it quite like The Last Laugh. The dramatic turn from sorrow to joy is miraculous and a lesson to all filmmakers who followed.
Note: Before talking pictures, world cinema was just cinema. Just by changing the title cards, any film made anywhere could be enjoyed by audiences worldwide. The addition of sound created a problem, and today we honor a foreign movie each year that has impacted audiences, not hindered by the language stumbling block. Or else they are good at reading and watching at the same time.
Second note: In the first photo, the crew is shooting a scene of Emil Jannings, as the doorman, in The Last Laugh in front of the hotel. In the background, you can see a crew struggling with a ladder while building a city block for another film. You can't do that in talkies. Silent films were a flurry of activity when the need for new movies was endless.