Film 8: The Last Laugh

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The Last Laugh (1924) dir. F. W. Murnau.  Germany.

‘F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” (1924) tells this story in one of the most famous of silent films, and one of the most truly silent, because it does not even use printed intertitles. Silent directors were proud of their ability to tell a story through pantomime and the language of the camera, but no one before Murnau had ever entirely done away with all written words on the screen (except for one sardonic comment we’ll get to later). He tells his story through shots, angles, moves, facial expressions and easily read visual cues.

[…]I mentioned the one place in the film where a title card is used. It is not necessary, and the film would make perfect sense without it. But Murnau seemed compelled to use it, almost as an apology for what follows. We see the pathetic old man wrapped in the cloak of the night watchman who was his friend, and the movie seems over. Then comes the title card, which says, “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

Improbable, and unsatisfying, because a happy ending is conjured out of thin air. The doorman accidentally inherits a fortune, returns to the hotel in glory and treats all his friends to champagne and caviar, while his old enemies glower and gnash their teeth. It is this ending that inspires the English language title. The original German is “Die Letzte Mann,” or “the last man,” which in addition to its obvious meaning may also evoke “the previous man”–the doorman who was replaced. The dimwitted practice of tacking a contrived happy ending onto a sad story was not unique with Murnau (who had the grace to apologize in advance for it), and has only grown more popular over the decades.’

–Roger Ebert

Abigail: This was a fantastic film, until the last 20-ish minutes.  The light and depth of the shots was superb.  The acting sublime.  And the removal of title cards almost perfect.  But the close to the chest family melodrama seems to have got out of hand.  The proud man losing his job and his remarkable uniform the day of his daughter’s wedding was absolutely heartbreaking.  You wanted to root for him to wear that coat to give her away. His subsequent drunken dream was staggering – not only because of the rich use of POV, but also the way the camera moved, and the way light played off of room, making it feel three dimensional.  Once he returned to work the next day though, the heartbreak turned to farce.  His wife, upon finding out about his debased position, screams and runs away.  In the moment, it feels like it could be in his mind again, but lo and behold, when he goes home, his family has disowned him.   Here is a moment where a well placed intertitle could have really aided the story.  Are they angry because he is no longer grand?  Or because he lied to them?  Why must he now live in his new station?  The third act gets even more out of hand, and in a sudden twist of fate, the man is given a fortune, which he uses to bestow gifts on his work friends, and to torture those who debased him.  His family is nowhere to be found.  This sequence of opulence seems to go on interminably, and off balances the brilliant first act and a half so much it almost overturns the film.   Taking only the story that is played straight, this is a brilliant piece of film-making.  It uses elements of German expressionism to wonderful effect, but the ending precludes it from being a truly spectacular achievement.  Luckily, we have Murnau’s”Sunrise” to look forward to in a few short years.

Forrest:  For most of its runtime, “The Last Laugh” is a great film.  The camera swoops and glides and seems for the first time in our docket completely unaffected by the constraints of physics.  The central performance is deeply felt and moving.  The story is universal.  But then something odd happens.  About three quarters of the way through the movie, everything veers off track.  Logic breaks down, people begin behaving out of character, and confusion sets in.  Then, from left field, comes a happy ending to an unhappy story — an “epilogue” that goes on for fully seven minutes.  Still, though, despite the narrative bobble (or fumble, really), this is very much worth watching.  The first half is hugely confident.  It feels modern.  Up till now the language of cinema has still been in its infancy and (with Keaton) adolescence.  Here, though, it reaches maturity.  We see the seeds that in just three years will blossom into Murnau’s “Sunrise,” one of the best films ever made.

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