The Last Laugh (1924)

I watched the  excellent German silent classic, The Last Laugh (1924), directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Emil Jannings tonight.  If I ever become king of the world, I am going to mandate that justice operate the way it does in this film!

5 out of 5 stars



4 thoughts on “The Last Laugh (1924)

  1. Ron:

    Knowing you, you must have got Netflix to send you a copy of the Criterion collection for this film. As I understand it, this is a strange film in that although it is silent, there are very few title cards. Even though that was true, it is supposed to be easy to follow the story.

    Director F. W. Murnau, aka Plumpe, was a combat pilot in WWI. He is considered one to the three best German directors in the 20’s, in a class with Ernest Lubitsch and Fritz Lang. He went to Hollywood in 1926. He was very tall, like 6’10”, or so they say; and they also say that he had a secret life as a closet homosexual. He died in a car crash in 1931 in California. The car was being driven by his 14 year old Filipino “valet”. I wonder what was the rest of that story? He was famous for saying, “Don’t act –think!”

    Emil Jannings, probably best know for THE BLUE ANGEL, introducing Marlene Dietrich, was a huge silent film star, doing his first film in Germany in 1914. THE LAST LAUGH was already his 48th film. He, like Murnau, also came to Hollywood in 1926. In 1928 he won the first Oscar for a lead actor in the film THE LAST COMMAND. Then he returned to Germany, and became a Nazi sympathizer and supporter. After the war, he tried to apologize, but never had much of an international career after that. He died in Austria in 1950.

    You certainly do dig deep into the history of cinema for your film satisfaction, sir.


  2. Glenn,
    Last Laugh is clearly an unusual film. I already sent the DVD back, but I am pretty sure it was not from the Criterion Collection because there were no special features on the disc. Wish there had been, because I would have liked to know more about it. Your comments were helpful in that regard.

    The print is in pristine condition for a film from that era — none of the jerkiness and blemishes usually apparent when watching a silent film. Also the soundtrack of music accompanying the film was matched to the action (crescendos at appropriate times etc.). Not sure if that was added by whoever put out the DVD or if it was scored as accompaniment for the original. These two factors, along with the lack of titles, create an impression that one is watching a more modern film rather than one from the silent-era.

    The acting and cinematography both have nice touches. The cinematography switches back and forth between an objective point of view in which we see WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE MAIN CHARACTER to a subjective point of view in which we see the world AS THE MAIN CHARACTER IS SEEING IT. For example, as his psychological world is crumbling because he has been demoted from his job, we see the effect this has had objectively in terms of his posture on his walk home from work, interspersed with subjective views of his trip home in which it seems as though the actual walls of the surrounding buildings are collapsing onto him.

    The basic psychological plot line reminds me a lot of Bicycle Thief that we discussed earlier this year in the Film Club ( The main character derives much status from his job as a head porter at a prestigious hotel. When he is demoted, he is confronted with how to deal psychologically with the “loss of face” to family and neighbours. The first two-thirds or so of the film conveys a pretty bleak outlook. Then the only explicit title in the film intrudes, stating something along the lines: “We, the producers, should perhaps have ended the film here, but we decided to add an epilogue. Here it is”. The tone of the remainder of the film is completely the opposite. Fate’s hand intervenes, and the demoted porter ends up having the last laugh. The social consciousness of the film is superb. Even though the porter gets the last laugh, he does so with a sense of dignity and humanity that provides a stark contrast to the way he had been treated earlier by the smug, rich owners and clientèle of the hotel.

    Regarding the lack of explicit titles, this is accomplished in those few places where further exposition is needed, by allowing the camera to look over the shoulder of a person reading a written document. What is strange is that in the main part of the film all of the documents are written in English. In the epilogue the documents are written in German and English subtitles have to appear on the screen. Presumably, the main portion of the film was produced in the USA and the epilogue later in Germany? I would have liked to have more background information on that question. Glenn, I suspect this is something you will track down utilizing your huge arsenal of investigative tools!

  3. Ron:

    Actually as to what part was produced where, that is still a bit of a mystery. In reality both C.W. Murnau and Emil Jannings were still in Germany, making German films when the film was shot. It was released in Germany in 1924. It was released in the USA in 1925. The cast titles were in German, like Emil Jannings as Hotelportier, and Maly Delschaff as Seing Nichte (His Neice), etc. So when those few titles that showed up, correspondence in English, etc, I don’t know. Some other data I dug up was:

    Director F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer originally wanted the film to end with the death of the doorman at the bathroom. Executives at UFA pressed them to conjure up a happy ending before the film’s premiere in order to maximize its economic potential. Murnau and Mayer, obviously annoyed by this, created a cynical epilogue, showing the doorman having inherited from an eccentric hotel guest, who bequeathed his entire estate to the last person seen before he died. The executives also pressed the artits to change the film’s title from “The Last Man” to “The Last Laughter”.

    This film may have the first use of a hand-held camera in cinema history. Karl Freund, for the first shot, took a camera strapped to his chest and rode across the hotel lobby on a bicycle.

    According to Alfred Hitchcock, who was working in Germany at the UFA studios at the time of this production, F.W. Murnau had all the street signs, posters and shop signs done in a version of Esperanto.

    One of these days or years I, too, will have to watch this film and see what the shouting (silently) is all about.


  4. Corrections:

    That would be “Seine Nichte” not Seing Nichte. The German title for the film was
    DER LETZTE MANN (1924), which helps to explicate that note about changing the title secondary to the added on epilogue.


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