Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda
Written by: Carl Mayer
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 74
Date: 12/23/1924

The Last Laugh (1924)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Door to Doorman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh stars the irrepressible Emil Jannings, at the time considered perhaps the finest of all screen actors. He plays an aging hotel doorman, dressed in an elegant head-to-toe uniform, complete with white gloves and dotted with shiny buttons. His uniform is a source of great pride as he walks to and from work each day; his neighbors fawn over him. One night, during a downpour, he is unable to lift a heavy chest and his boss transfers him to a downstairs washroom attendant job. Stripped of his uniform, he also loses his pride and dignity. (Jannings' body leans in a twisted, physical representation of shame; he's literally unable to stand up straight.)

The film is notable for its smooth, moving, tracking camera and its complete lack of intertitles, making it a true universal experience. (Perhaps too universal -- many critics complained about the lack of personality in the lead character.) However, it seems likely that Murnau deliberately focused his visuals on the doorman's psyche, rather than on reality. When the doorman loses his job, the buildings in the street seem to close in on him. And the extreme reactions of his neighbors -- both adoration on one end and mean spirited laughing on the other -- seem rather like the product of the doorman's imagination. (In reality, their lives wouldn't revolve so closely around his.)

The Last Laugh is also notable for its weird ending; some sources claim that Murnau shot it under pressure from studio brass, and others claim that he was merely parodying the happy endings prevalent in films. Many critics dismiss it, but it actually works in a weird way with the "interior/imagination" idea of the film's first part. If the doorman imagines his kingly effect on everyone, why can't he also imagine a nice ending for himself? Not to mention that the English translation of the title, The Last Laugh, works better with this ending than does Murnau's original title, "The Last Man." Either way, the film was a worldwide smash and producers happily gave Murnau carte blanche for his next several films.

Kino has released a truly spectacular 2008 double-disc set with a new, restored transfer of the German version of the film (Murnau shot three different versions for different countries). The new transfer corrects a problem with Kino's 2001 DVD, a slight scar running along the top of the frame throughout the film. This release includes that old version on the second disc for comparison. Additionally, the DVD includes a new recording of the original score, a featurette on the making of the film and a photo gallery.

In 2017, Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version, with a restored transfer as beautiful as any version of this film I've yet seen. It looks impossibly clear and fluid, as if it came from a pristine negative. A brand-new score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra is a wonderful addition to this masterpiece. It also includes the score from the DVD, a commentary track by historian Noah Isenberg, and a 40-minute making-of documentary. A second disc, a DVD, comes with the "unrestored export version" of the film, constructed of alternate takes and angles, which Kino initially released on VHS back in the 1990s. This set is very highly recommended.

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