Thursday, March 12, 2020

Review - The Last Laugh

March 12, 2020

The Last Laugh – Germany, 1924

I am roughly halfway through Stephen Michael Shearer’s fascinating biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, and one thing that keeps coming up is the legendary actress’s wardrobe. Swanson apparently believed that moviegoers expected their stars to look the part, and therefore, she spent lavishly on clothing, for both her films and private use. She was a star at a time when the general public, according to Mr. Shearer, was obsessed with wealth and how the wealthy lived. Reviews of Swanson’s films usually included descriptive, laudatory comments on her attire, which could change fourteen times in one film, and she was seen – by herself above all - as a fashion trendsetter. I have reviewed five of her films, and I have yet to comment on what she wears in any of my reviews; it just doesn’t register.

What exactly does Mrs. Swanson’s wardrobe have to do with F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, a film made in 1924 on the other side of the world? Well, knowing how important it was to dress as if you were a success may help you better empathize with the characters at the heart of Murnau’s tale. In the film, German superstar Emil Jannings, the recipient of the inaugural award for Best Actor in 1927, plays an aging doorman at a high-class hotel called The Atlantic, and he loves his uniform, so much so that he walks to and from work in it. He receives looks of admiration, and his neighbors have a habit of giving him the kind of send-off usually reserved for a military general or Hollywood celebrity. His wife adores him, in the evening, his daughter scans the entrance to their neighborhood for hints of his arrival, and the children in his neighborhood look at him with a mix of pride and envy. They all wish they could wear swanky apparel.

Early in the film, we watch him hold court on a rainy, blustery day at work. At one point, he has to carry a large suitcase into the hotel, and the task takes a physical toll of him. Heavily winded, he sits down in the lobby, has a glass of water, and attempts to get his breathing back under control. Soon however he pops back up and resumes his duties with real vim and vigor. Alas, it is too late for him to escape the judgmental eyes of the hotel manager, who sees the doorman’s temporary respite as a sign that is time to put him out to pasture. The next day he arrives at work to find that he’s been replaced.

It is here that The Last Laugh becomes divisive, veering off in a narrative direction that modern audience may not be able – or willing – to follow, and it all has to do with the doorman’s clothes. If it is true that the clothes make the man, then it can reasonably be said that clothes can emasculate a man, and this is what happens to the unfortunate doorman. However, his reaction is not the problem, for while Jannings overdoes it by making depression look too much like dementia, we get why he would struggle accepting the winds of change and his sudden lower stature – it’s the reactions of his friends and family that confound and infuriate. Suffice to say, they don’t take his demotion very well.

Yes, you read that right - demotion, not termination. You could understand a family’s sudden onset of anxieties as they ponder the reality of unemployment in a section of the world still reeling from the aftermath of World War I. You can understand neighbors seeing the downfall of one of their own as a worrying sign, especially as many of the one’s we see are the same age as the doorman. We can also empathize with a young daughter whose new life with her husband begins just as her ageing parents experience financial insecurity. What I don’t think we can understand is mocking someone who has lost his position in a company or of being so ashamed of a family member in such circumstances that they seek refuge in someone else’s home. In one scene, the doorman’s daughter’s head collapses onto her husband’s shoulder, while his wife looks at him with a look of shame and disdain. Why?

I suspect that audiences in the 1920’s didn’t ask this question. They understood the times and sentiments reflected in the film, and they likely sympathized with the doorman’s family. However, just as current sentiments make Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman hard for modern moviegoers to relate to, they also make the reaction to the doorman’s plight simply indefensible. As a result, the film becomes an unintended indictment on the pettiness of the lower class. They are presented as vile, opportunistic, and absolutely eager to kick a man when he is down. It isn’t enough to have a job and provide for your family; you have to have the position and clothes to match. Nothing else matters.

Yet it does. Millions of people have jobs that do not offer the same level of prestige as being a lawyer or doctor. Their jobs are a means of survival, not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and there’s nothing wrong with having them. So, when the doorman looks lost and physically defeated, I wasn’t struck by the tragedy of the moment; instead, it seemed like a bit of an overreaction, of an unexpected jolt that he’d get over in time. And when his family reacted to him as if he’d suddenly come down with the plague or disgraced them irredeemably, my thought was how petty, not how awful for them. In fact, by the end of the film, the only character I truly admired was the hotel’s night watchman, for he’s the only one to show true sympathy to his down-and-out co-worker. And then there’s the film’s disastrous ending, a happy ending that dilutes the film of its power and which the film’s intertitles apologize for in advance. It’s as if Murnau is saying, “Sorry about this. The studio heads made me do it.”

The Last Laugh has a strong set-up, and it is always watchable. Also, like all of Murnau’s films, it is incredibly well directed. I particularly admired how Murnau films scenes from outside windows and how he lingers on the quietness of a neighborhood at the end of a long evening. I was also moved by his depiction of the doorman’s two neighborhoods – the bustling, well-lit, buoyant atmosphere of the hotel and the darker, less chiseled look of the apartment complex where he lives. In one scene, Murnau films the doorman as he notices his wife working hard in the mirror as he is shaving, and in another Murnau fixes the camera on the doorman’s removed jacket as if hangs in a closet, presumably never to be worn by him again. The man was truly a visionary. It isn’t his fault that the film may not resonate like it once did. In fact, it’s probably a good thing. It shows we’ve progressed. Sure, clothes still make the man, but not having the clothes is no longer an indignity. It’s just part of life. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

*The Last Laugh is a silent film.

**Since writing this, I've learned of the importance of uniforms in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. This makes sense, and what happens in the film certainly bears this out. It doesn't, however, erase my dubiousness concerning the extreme reactions that the family and the neighbors have.

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