It’s easy to both overrate and underrate F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) at the same time. Historically, it’s pretty unassailable. It is, after all, the film where movies were finally set free from the completely nailed-down visual style and a camera that simply didn’t move. Editing and shot breakdown had existed for years, and no one seemed to think anything of mounting a camera on a moving vehicle to follow certain action—like a chase sequence—and yet even simple side-to-side panning was rare. The frame was almost a proscenium arch with characters making entrances and exits. Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund set out in this film to deliberately change all that—and they did, though not quite as much as is often claimed, since large chunks of the film are fairly static. But enough is fluidly mobile to make it a breakthrough. This wasn’t the only revolutionary aspect of the film either, since—apart from the title announcing the added ending sequence—the film was told entirely in visuals without any title cards. That it kept the story simple—a doorman (Emil Jannings) at a posh hotel being demoted to lavatory attendant and descending into personal disgrace as a result—helped. That it was given over to Emil Jannings is a mixed blessing, since Jannings is one part genius and at least two parts ham—and Murnau had no choice, it seems, but to indulge the latter on several occasions. That may hurt the film as drama more than its compromise happy ending (its “real” ending surprisingly prefigures the ending of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel six years later). I’ve never particularly minded the happy ending—though it definitely goes on way too long—and for something that was apparently forced on Murnau, he certainly lavished a great deal of care on the way he shot it. It is, however, generally considered a step down from the rest of the movie. See for yourself.
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