Another one of F.W. Murnau’s comedies, The Last Laugh (1924) stars Emile Jannings as a hotel doorman who’s well-liked, good at his job even if he’s a little bit proud. It’s a tale of what can happen when you’re good at your job, but perhaps a little too old to do it the way you used to. It’s about the disposability of workers, the judgment of neighbors and family, and eventually the value of a charitable deed.
It’s a silent film, but there are virtually no title cards, with the film telling us everything we need to know through the visuals. At the start of the story, we see how everyone who walks into the store greets him with joy, glad to see him and how the even the cab drivers enjoy his company. He opens the door for people, asks them how they’re doing, and even helps people cross the street. Then one customer comes out with a bunch of parcels and he has difficulty placing them on the car. That’s where his trouble begins.
The next day he shows up at work and to his surprise, there is already another doorman at his station. Summoned to the boss’s office he’s told they have another job for him, the restroom attendant.
Now for those of us who grew up in a decade that wasn’t the 1920s, we could be forgiven for not understanding the importance of this demotion, but a demotion it certainly is because he’s forced to wait there as men urinate, defecate, pick their nose and generally take care of their business. His job is to hand them a towel, wipe up after them, offer them cologne or other luxuries. They tip him, or not, and he sits there until another person graces the room with their presence.
Murnau is the king of subjective cinema showing us his life through the eyes of the attendant (unnamed throughout). Most affecting is the way his neighbors react. He tells no one, not even his daughter, but the neighbors find out about his misfortune and not only laugh among themselves, but make him an object of their ridicule, pointing him out and insulting him. His daughter and her new husband find out and reject him as well, even though he spared no expense in giving them a nice wedding the day before he was demoted.
A visual genius, Murnau uses a rich palette to translate the world of the doorman to the viewer. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Murnau invented the first dolly shot at the start of the tale to show us the doorman moving through the hotel. What is so fascinating about this is that we watch him move about from a single point-of-view. He seems to own the space. The door is his and everybody respects that.
Shortly before the first turning-point there is an amazing and charming scene of the life of the tenement as we watch the neighborhood wake, the sun rise and the people begin their day. Poetic, it almost seems that this is a musical number, and it actually reminds me of the opening scene in Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932). Could it be that Mamoulian meant it as an homage?
Another effective sequence comes when he’s being told of his new assignment via a letter. The camera tracks in as he reads it and we watch his face turn from happy to distraught. Unfolding in real time and without dialogue, Murnau lets the Janning’s face carry the drama of the scene.
Much like he does in Phantom, Murnau shows us how the doorman’s world is crumbling via a sequence of the city’s buildings falling in on him. Expressionistic, it marks a stunning visual break from the rest of the film, and that’s one reason it’s so effective.
The film is chock full of a number of charming and arresting visual sequences from one where we see the doorman’s fantasy of what his life could be like, another with mirror shots that cover more of the scene than a simple camera shot could, to another in which we see him watching the new doorman with envy.
The end of this film is when the title becomes clear, but rather than spill the beans. I’m going to encourage you to watch it. It’s an utterly fantastic film.