Director F. W. Murnau has been in the news lately (for bizarre reasons) and the articles always mention that he was director of Nosferatu, the first vampire film. And while Nosferatu* is an important film historically, during his career most people considered The Last Laugh as Murnau’s major achievement.
The story is simple. It follows a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings). Proud of his job (and the uniform he wears), the doorman goes about his business with pride and flair. But he is growing old. One day, a younger man shows up at the door, wearing the doorman’s uniform. The doorman has been demoted to washroom attendant, a “reward” for his years of service. The drop in prestige causes his life to unravel.
On a technical side, the movie (nearly, but more on that) attains an ideal that silent directors had always wanted to achieve: to tell the story with only visuals, and without any title cards. Murnau achieves this. There is no dialog, no intertitles to show what the characters are saying. Dialog is never spelled out, leaving the acting and the context to make it clear what the people are saying. The scenes – shot by cameraman Karl Freund – also push the technical envelope of the time, but using a moving camera extensively, something that had rarely been attempted at all at the time.
The story is also very affecting. The loss of prestige breaks the doorman, and the intense sense of loss and depression. Emil Jannings was one of the best actors of the late sound period** and he imbues the part with such sadness that you believe he is a man utterly crushed.
The movie’s ending was the reason for the single title card. The studio insisted on adding a happy ending, so Murnau and writer Carl Dreyer added a obviously tacked-on and improbable*** happy ending (hence the card, and the film’s English title).
The film was praised as a classic from the start. As a silent film, of course, the acting is not what we are used to today, since you couldn’t express emotion with your voice. But taken on its own terms, it’s a landmark of cinema.
*An uncredited retelling of Dracula.
**He won the first Best Actor Oscar.
***In the film’s own words.