Directed By: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft. Max Hiller
Trivia: The first "dolly" (a device that allows a camera to move during a shot) was created for this film
The Last Laugh, a 1924 silent film directed by F.W. Murnau, is the heartbreaking story of a hotel Doorman who loses the only thing he holds dear: his job.
The Doorman of the Atlantic Hotel (Emil Jannings) takes great pride in his work, and always ensures the guests are treated properly. When the Hotel's Manager (Hans Unterkircher) decides he's too old to continue in his present position, the Doorman is reassigned to the basement, where he’s to work as the new washroom attendant. Shocked by this turn of events, the former Doorman struggles to maintain his dignity, and does his best to cope with a position of much less importance.
The combined efforts of director Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund, coupled with Jannings' devastating performance, bring a real emotional strength to The Last Laugh. Take, for example, the washroom scenes that occur later in the film. In a long shot, we see the former Doorman sitting all alone, his back against the wall. He’s staring off into the distance, and moving much more slowly than he had only a few days earlier. At this point, Murnau introduces a montage of everyday life within the hotel. Guests arrive through the lobby, enjoy big meals in the luxurious dining room, and spend time socializing at the bar. Waiters are still waiting tables, the guests’ luggage is seen to by the new doorman, and the Atlantic Hotel continues to maintain its reputation as the best lodgings in town. Life there goes on much as it had before, and the Doorman’s absence from the day-to-day routine passes without notice. Perhaps most upsetting of all is that he's still there, alone in the basement, and dealing with the fact he was not as irreplaceable as he thought he was.
The Last Laugh is a rarity in that it doesn’t rely on title cards to further its story (title cards were traditionally used in silent films as a means of expressing dialogue or bringing the viewer up to speed with what's happening on screen). It was Murnau’s assertion that his film was powerful enough on its own, and the audience didn't need title cards. Everything was right there on the screen, from his own crisp direction to Emil Jannings’ deep, soulful eyes, and no words, either spoken or spelled out, could have communicated his intentions any better. Through total silence, The Last Laugh’s message rang out loud and clear.