June 1, 2012 Having “The Last Laugh”
Two words come to mind when I think of director F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh: staggeringly depressing. I don’t want to go all doom and gloom here, taking shots of despair with nothing more than a wedge of lime, but the movie is a downer and so is the mix to go with it. Bear with me if you’re prone to wild mood swings or crying jags provoked by black and white movies.
The synopsis here is simple enough. Because his superiors think he’s getting a little long in the tooth, a hotel doorman, played by Emil Jannings, is demoted to washroom attendant. He’s humiliated by the loss of the position, but even moreso when his uniform, a sign of status and prestige for a man in a working class neighborhood, is taken away.
Although he manages to steal the uniform back, you watch the doorman struggle through his almost catatonic misery during the rest of the film, and when it comes to looking heartbreakingly devastated and beside himself, Jannings is aces.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about the movie is that it doesn’t use intertitles – those slides that show dialogue or describe action in a silent film. And you don’t miss them at all. Jannings’ performance carries the movie and without a single word.
Well, almost. With fifteen minutes left in the movie to go, and the doorman deeply buried in his pit of desolation and sadness, I found myself biting my nails and wondering how the hell Murnau was going to resolve this. Was the doorman going to pull an Anna Karenina? Would it maybe cut to a street scene with an orphan begging for spare change, putting the doorman’s troubles in perspective? Or would this German film go Hollywood, giving the story a happy ending, tied onto the rest of the movie with an adorable and out of place pastel ribbon?
Well, I won’t ruin it by telling you how much cake and caviar the doorman eats in the final ten minutes of The Last Laugh, but it’s a lot. Anyway, before this odd ending, there’s an even odder message, the only words that fill the screen during the entire movie:
“In the place of his disgrace, the old man wastes away miserably for the rest of his life. And the story would end here. However, the author has decided to look after this person long after he has been abandoned by all the others, by giving him an epilogue, wherein things turn out – unfortunately – as they seldom do in real life.”
Pretty considerate of him, doncha think? A couple of times, I’ve spoken to filmmakers who liken their craft to “playing god” with the characters and worlds they’ve created. I usually leave these conversations wondering if being pretentious as hell is just a side-effect of a god-complex or if maybe I don’t understand the creative process at all even though I think of myself as an artistic type. But wait, I digress.
Filmmakers make choices constantly with their characters, and opting for a happy ending over real-life troubles seems pretty normal, at least in American film. But pointing out that this was a choice, that the character is really out there, somewhere else, feeling morose and drinking himself to death in a pool of his own tears, well. I don’t really know what to make of that.
But, hey, I liked the movie. And maybe I’m no LeVar Burton, but “don’t take it from me.” Watch it your own damn self. Just have a hanky handy, I’m telling you.
Here’s a scene from the movie and mix. The doorman lost his job the day before, but no one knows yet. Also, he’s still a little drunk from the night before, but don’t hold it against him.
The Last Laugh, 1924
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Emil Jannings
The Last Laugh mix contains:
1. Cone of Light, The Almighty Defenders
2. Express Yourself, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
3. The Right People / The Clash
4. Linda Munequita, Los Hijos del Sol
5. Smile / Madeleine Peyroux
6. Planet Telex, Radiohead
7. Dayton, Ohio, 1903 / Randy Newman
8. A Day in the Life of a Tree, The Beach Boys
9. Stay Free / Black Mountain
10. Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day, The Boswell Sisters
11. Castaway Waltz / Clarence Williams
12. In the Meadow / Clint Niosi
13. We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leafling / Of Montreal
14. My City Was Gone, The Pretenders
15. Big Daddy C., The Rentals
16. Lay Down in the Tall Grass / Timber Timbre
17. High 5 (Rock the Catskills), Beck
18. Night of the Vampire / The Moontrekkers
19. Until We Bleed, Kleerup featuring Lykke Li
20. Everything Means Nothing to Me, Elliott Smith
21. O’ Venezia Venaga Venusia / Nino Rota
22. Va Va Va Voom, Brett Smiley
23. Patitas / Davila 666
24. It’s My Thing (Part 1), Marva Whitney
25. Rocks Off, The Rolling Stones