We slide down in the elevator, slip past the opening doors and glide towards the front of the hotel and the revolving doors. Looking out, we see the doorman coordinating guests and luggage, managing arrivals and departures. It is with this incredible camera movement that Murnau opens The Last Laugh.
The camera movement doesn’t sound so amazing you say? Well, consider that the movie was shot in 1924. The opening shot had me saying – “He came up with such brilliant and fitting camera movement more than EIGHTY-FIVE years ago??!”
The Last Laugh is about a hotel doorman who defines himself by his job. He is treated with deference at the hotel and at home in the apartment complex – his grand uniform and his well-brushed, giant moustache lending an air of unmistakable gravitas. When the hotel manager decides he’s too old for the job, he’s replaced with a younger version of himself and is suddenly demoted to the washroom attendant – the lowest job on the totem pole. His world shatters.
The completely silent film doesn’t even use title/dialog cards to explain what’s going on. The acting would be considered over the top today, but considering that it had to convey all the emotion without a single word, it is understandable. Emil Jannings as the doorman is exceptional. His desolation and humiliation are painful to watch.
With a very straightforward story line, the movie is about emotions. The camera is used to excellent effect to highlight his mental state. Initially the camera idolizes him, shooting him from below or straight on. After his demotion, he shrinks – not only in comport, but the camera also moves higher, making him smaller. The hotel, is shown as a towering edifice, with revolving doors extending skywards – his perception of his workplace when he returns in fear. Murnau also used the camera to depict Jannings’ inebriatedly-depressed state. The camera swings around Jannings capturing the surreal, discombobulated state he’s in very nicely. And then there’s the dream sequence where Jannings imagines himself back in his role, easily hoisting large trunks of luggage with one hand – the camera flies through the air towards and around Jannings, emphasizing the removal from reality. When his secret is discovered, the laughing faces of his nosy neighbors are super-imposed onto each other – all leering at him. The movie illustrates how the camera, in concert with the actors, can communicate so much without a single spoken word.
The only incongrous part of the movie is the ending. After an utterly crushing emotional attack, it would be most fitting if the doorman collapsed and gave-in to the circumstances. Apparently the studio wanted a happy ending – and so the movie’s first title card apologies for what lies ahead – the doorman unexpected inherits a fortune from a patron who dies in his arms. He’s shown eating and drinking heartily in the hotel and being benevolent to all those who work there before he rides off into the sunset.
That aside, The Last Laugh is an excellent movie. A movie I enjoyed much more than I expected to and one that gets better with repeat viewings. Murnau did things with the camera in 1924 which many directors today are too conservative to try. Bravo!