THE LAST LAUGH, F.W. Murnau's classic study of a hotel employee's humiliation, is unusual on two counts: it is a silent movie without explanatory intertitles; and it's a tragedy that ends on a totally unexpected, outrageously upbeat note of vindication.
When the demands of his job become too much for him, the aging doorman (Emil Jannings) of a large hotel is demoted to men's room porter. That night, he wears his doorman's uniform home in an attempt to keep the news of his degradation secret from his family and neighbors.
The next day, after discovering the truth when she brings him his lunch, his aunt (Emilie Kurz) hurries home to relay the shocking news to his daughter (Maly Delschaft). A malicious neighbor overhears their conversation and immediately spreads the gossip throughout the apartment house, and in no
time, the old porter's plight is the talk of the block. That night his arrival home is greeted by the mocking laugher of his neighbors, the tears of his daughter, and the scorn of her fiance (Max Hiller). He returns to the hotel, surrenders his doorman's uniform, and retreats to his work station,
where he slumps despondently in a chair as the night watchman (Georg John) comforts him.
A miracle happens. An eccentric millionaire has stipulated in his will that his entire fortune will go to the person holding him when he dies. That individual turns out to be the old porter in the washroom, who celebrates his windfall by living it up in the restaurant of his former place of
employment accompanied by his friend the night watchman. After embracing and lavishly tipping the new lavatory attendant, the old porter tips the entire hotel staff, summons a carriage with his doorman's whistle, and rides off in triumph.
THE LAST LAUGH is the most celebrated of the handful of silent movies released without expository or dialogue titles. (The film does contain a few indigenous graphics but only one of them, a newspaper report of the porter's inheritance, is narratively indispensable.) We know that THE LAST LAUGH's
characters--unlike the people in THE THIEF, a 1952 sound movie without dialogue--sometimes speak to each other because we can see their lips moving. But the tale being told is so elemental and its presentation so adroit that we do not need titles to tell us what is going on.
Widely regarded as an expressionist masterpiece, THE LAST LAUGH might more accurately be described as a realistic fable that frequently uses expressionistic techniques to evoke and underline the feelings of its protagonist--in contrast to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) or METROPOLIS (1926), in
which expressionistic distortion seems to have spread from the characters' psyches and infected the film's narrative eye. And despite its moments of pointed satire, this profoundly humanistic film is not a morality play. Vain, prideful, and foolish as the picture's porter may be, he is far too
kindly a figure to function as the stooge in a cautionary tale about the wages of sin.
Emil Janning's portrait of him is unforgettable. Like Lon Chaney, another of the silent screen's most gifted character actors, Jannings was a master of quiescent body language; he could express a wide range of emotions without moving a muscle. As THE LAST LAUGH's old porter he is humiliation
personified. Shame has knocked him literally lopsided, and for long stretches of screen time, he just stands there, frozen solid by despair. At times he looks like the tragic hero of a filmed opera pausing to deliver mute arias that are rendered in voice-over rather than live.
Sixteen minutes before its conclusion, the movie proffers its first and last intertitle, a wry apology for the happily-ever-after epilogue to follow. Critics, Marxists, and other grouches have been bemoaning this cop-out conclusion for decades (though no one seemed to mind when Ingmar Bergman ran
a similar reverse at the end of THE MAGICIAN). If not fully digestible, however, THE LAST LAUGH's deus ex machina is defensible. Unlike Warner Bros.'s 1930 adaptation of Moby Dick, to cite one of many examples, this is not a case of a downbeat ending being displaced by an upbeat one. THE LAST
LAUGH's concluding sequence can be received not as a reversal but as a distinct addendum that the fully forewarned viewer is free to accept or ignore--or as an instructive reminder that every once in a while, even one of the world's most abject losers lucks out and gets the last laugh. As the
lottery ads say, "Hey. You never know."
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- Rating: NR
- Review: THE LAST LAUGH, F.W. Murnau's classic study of a hotel employee's humiliation, is unusual on two counts: it is a silent movie without explanatory intertitles; and it's a tragedy that ends on a totally unexpected, outrageously upbeat note of vindication. W… (more)