Produced in 1924, The Last Laugh remains a landmark attempt to achieve a universally comprehensible cinema, based purely on visual storytelling. At face value, the story seems nondescript: an over-the-hill hotel doorman (the unforgettable Emil Jannings) is downgraded to washroom attendant, and is ridiculed by neighbors after unsuccessfully covering up his demotion. It’s as if director F.W. Murnau dared himself to make compelling drama out of the most quotidian material imaginable. On top of that, he did it with the silent moviemaker equivalent of having one hand tied behind his back: The Last Laugh famously eschews that mainstay of silent films, intertitles expositing plot and dialogue (save for one provocative card near the end).
Instead, Murnau draws on other techniques, most famously his pioneering work with cameraman Karl Freund. Much has been said about the opening tracking shot – the first of its kind still in existence – to which the likes of Brian De Palma owe their moving camera craft. It descends an open elevator shaft and exits through a grand hotel lobby to a revolving doorway that spins hypnotically like a roulette wheel. It’s the shot that inspired legions of show-offy tracks and dollies for decades to come; but it’s not merely for Murnau to show off his innovative streak. This shot plants the audience in a subjective perspective, likening them to guests luxuriating in the hotel’s grand spaces. When Jannings’ hotel doorman is introduced moments later, the audience can connect with his emotional investment in this palatial setting.
Jannings’ performance is another major factor in the film’s non-subtitled dramatic force. Few actors before the talkies (or even after) could play to the camera with as much physical potency as Jannings; his vigorous gestures and his formidable girth make him out to be the silver screen’s equivalent of an opera tenor. Some might find his dolorous expressions and constant gesticulations a shade too demonstrative; but even this plays into the hands of Murnau’s complex view of his protagonist. Not simply a social realist tract casting pity on the doorman’s helpless decline, the film offers as much criticism as compassion for the character, and his tragic fixation on the trappings of status. His ornate doorman outfit imbues him with authority (at least in his own mind), but the monkey suit becomes his only link to his colleagues, his community and his family; without it, he’s a middle-aged mass sulking in the washroom.
Thematically complex as the doorman’s downfall may be, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the studio heads, who balked at the downbeat finale and demanded that Murnau write a happy ending. In response, Murnau delivered a happy ending in spades: through blind chance, the doorman inherits a fortune, shuns those who had put him down, and celebrates with an extravagant feast that, like the entire sequence, leaves the viewer a bit overstuffed with good fortune. Some find this sequence an imposed flaw on an otherwise perfect movie; others see it as the most brilliant deconstruction of happy endings in movie history.
I don’t see the last act as being foisted on Murnau; there’s simply too much vigor in the filmmaking for it to be a cop-out. The exuberance of this windfall sequence works as a through-the-looking glass inversion of the downward spiral that preceded it. The credible, downbeat realism of the early scenes takes a backseat to a world of dreams that only movies can make come true. The audience, having wished for a better end for Jannings’ doorman, is suddenly confronted with their own desires, amplified to the brink of parody. Some argue that the ending is a send-up, but I think Murnau is more earnest than that; it’s as if he’s pushing himself to see how far he can take his audience with all the tools at his disposal. In this last sequence, Murnau is no longer just telling a good story, but digging at the essence of storytelling.