Nary a Word: ‘The Last Laugh’ and ‘The General’

To call a movie ‘great’ is to refer not to historical importance (though there’s that), but to its capacity to have an impact on those with no nostalgia to attach to it and no historical perspective to contextualize it. In this regard The Last Laugh or Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) is one of the great movies, silent or otherwise, in my life. This wasn’t the film that made me understand how silents could be as fresh as this morning (that had been The Docks of New York), but it was the one that made me realize with amazement that the sound era added nothing thematically or tonally that wasn’t already perfected in silent films.

There are standard reasons for praising F.W. Murnau’s exhilarating kammerspiel of 1924. With its political sensibilities firmly on the plight of the unenlightened masses victimized by social issues (unemployment, age discrimination, the class system), it tells a simple anecdote of a proud doorman, all mustache and broad-shouldered uniform and shiny brass buttons, who suddenly finds himself demoted to washroom attendant. This crushes his inflated sense of worth as he clings to the illusion of status.

That doorman is played by Emil Jannings (age 40), one of the most ubiquitous and celebrated actors of his time for the variety of his roles, sometimes in theatrical costume epics that use a lot of acting. Today he’s remembered for three movies in which he embodied the pompous dignity of the Old World brought to humiliation by changing modern values: sex in The Blue Angel, revolution (and movies) in The Last Command, and capitalism in the greatest of these, The Last Laugh.

But anyone can tell a glum tale. Murnau dazzles us with a sense of kinetic delight and experimentation so giddy, it’s almost at odds with the serious character study, but really every detail and scene combines satirical character observation with compassion and pathos. There are several famous moments of subjectivity, beginning with the remarkable opening tracking shot that announces the film’s style of “the unchained camera”. We travel down a glass elevator and then across the spacious lobby (the camera on a bicycle) to the revolving door. At least that’s how I remembered it, until this restoration made it clear that two separate shots are used, and the making-of questions the oft-repeated claim about the bicycle.

Then there’s the famous moment of expressionism when the skyscrapers loom oppressively over our hapless hero, and the equally celebrated scene where cameraman Karl Freund (later of I Love Lucy fame) strapped on the camera and staggered about the room to convey inebriation. That’s part of a tour-de-force sequence in which our man gets drunk, has a fantastic dream and then slowly wears off his hangover.

Then there’s the famous stunt of telling the story as “pure cinema” without title cards, or virtually without them. Ironically, the German version in general release did add a lot of unnecessary title cards for reasons of convention.

Such things delight film buffs more than the alleged realism of the story, but what really knocked me for a loop on that long-ago day when I sat through a tattered, ragged print in a college library with bulky headphones over my ears to hear the tinny music, what really produced an epiphany was the aesthetic slap in the face by the ending, or two endings.

The movie fades out on a hopeless note. Then, abruptly, a title card informs us that while this is really the true ending, the author has taken pity on the doorman and provided an unlikely ending. Then we cut to an astonishing montage of glamorous people laughing as they read a headline about how the doorman has become a millionaire by an extraordinary turn of events. Huzzah! By its very absurdity, this lengthy final sequence becomes a further indictment of society, both for the values of wealth and for its failure to live up to such possibilities. This is the “last laugh” of the American title, which chooses to emphasize this false ending. (There was already an American film called The Last Man.)

I saw this movie shortly after Blue Velvet, and the realization that Murnau expected his audience to “get” a phony happy ending, 60 years before David Lynch’s postmodernism, left me fairly pole-axed. This ending is so avant-garde, some people still haven’t caught up with it. The notion that the filmmakers would mock the idea of a happy ending for Brechtian purposes is still something that can’t be grasped by those who are apparently willing to swallow the idea that a front office somewhere that could meddle with a movie’s ending would permit the same movie to call attention to the fact.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that the ending is part of the film’s conception and indeed was part of Carl Mayer’s screenplay. (The making-of says the idea was added at Jannings’ suggestion.) Yet it’s not unusual, even today, to read critical discussions that take the film’s assertions about the changed ending at face value and regard it as a flaw, a genuine example of commercial interests compromising an artist’s vision.

The 2003 restoration on Kino’s two-disc reissue includes a making-of and an unrestored copy of the export version they released previously. The two versions have different scores, but there are deeper differences. The restored image is so uncannily sharp, your jaw may drop at the textures on the walls, the reflections in the glass, and the amazing perspective on the massive street set (whose secrets are revealed in the making-of). It’s like you’re seeing a different movie, and you literally are.

Many shots are different because the film was shot with two cameras in order to compile three different negatives: the domestic German version, the general export version, and an American version. In restoring the German version from various prints, it was necessary to establish the separate versions, and we can see how details change from one version to the next. A striking example is the scene where the doorman reads a letter explaining his demotion. In the German version, it’s a festival of subjective effects, while the previous Kino print (cobbled from the American and export versions) alters or truncates some of this material.

Buster Keaton in The General

This is one of two silent classics recently reissued by Kino in two-disc versions. The other is Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), a movie so universally celebrated as his greatest achievement that its reputation can roll over you like a steam engine. Key to its lore is that it wasn’t so successful at the time, partly due to its enormous expense, and only since the Keaton revival of the 1950s has it become so highly regarded.

This new Kino reissue quotes critic David Robinson on the package. “Every shot has the authenticity and the unassuming correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph,” he writes, adding that no other filmmaker caught the visual aspect of the Civil War (or at least Brady photographs) as Keaton did. Orson Welles makes a similar remark in his introduction to the movie from the early ’70s PBS series The Silent Years, which is included as a bonus along with Gloria Swanson’s intro from an early ’60s series called Silents Please. Welles rhapsodizes about the film’s beauty, declaring it “a hundred times more visually stunning than Gone with the Wind.

DVD: The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition)
Display Artist: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Director: Buster Keaton
Director: Clyde Bruckman
Film: The General (The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1926
Distributor: Kino
US DVD Release Date: 2008-11-11

But that doesn’t sound hilarious, does it? That’s one clue to why contemporary audiences were less impressed with it than, as the aliens told Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, with his earlier, funnier films — or his later funnier ones. The General is part of a Keaton trend toward quite serious stories highlighted by Douglas Fairbanks-ian physicality, as seen in Our Hospitality (which I actually like better) or The Navigator (ditto) or Battling Butler (a close call). In fact, the most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator. It’s the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time. What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn’t have Keaton in it? It’s certainly an impressive shot every time you see it — there’s the train really falling — but hardly a knee-slapper.

Then too, the whole set-up is an irritating play among wholly uninteresting characters. Keaton’s Johnny is in love with a silly girl unworthy of him, and when the Civil War breaks out and her father and brother go off to enlist, she goads him to enlist too. So he rushes to be first in line at the enlistment office, where two officials decide he’s already too valuable to the war effort as a railroad conductor and refuse to enlist him. But they simply shine him along without telling him why, leading to his extended scene of frustration as he assumes he’s not good enough to be a soldier. When he leaves the office, he’s seen by the father and brother who encourage him to get in line, and when he doesn’t even answer them, they assume he’s too chicken to enlist and they pass this misinformation along to their sister.

In other words, this story requires two colossal misapprehensions that could be solved if only anyone said anything to anybody. When Johnny finally tries to explain, she cuts him off with “Don’t lie to me. And don’t talk to me again until you’re in uniform.” Compared with this contrivance, the premise of Seven Chances, in which Buster has 24 hours to get married and inherit a fortune, is a model of common sense and rigorous cause-and-effect.

But when people recall this film fondly, they skip right over that stuff and go directly to the exciting chase (actually two chases) that’s loosely based on a real historical incident. (The Walt Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase tells a version of the same story from the Northern point of view.) And yes, this narrative is full of ingenious, breathless, well-choreographed ideas that make the film entertaining. I’m only stating here that if you’re more impressed by the visuals of the chase or the Brady-esque compositions, you should be aware that several less ambitious Keaton movies are actually funnier and have more endearing characters, if that matters to you.

Yet I admit that when I first saw this movie at a tender age, with that intro by Welles, I wasn’t bothered by the frustration of the set-up or the thin romance, nor did I have other Keatons to compare it with. I accepted its simplicities and plugged right into the breathless fun. Childhood is an excellent time to be introduced to silent films. One accepts them as a world unto itself, like animation or musicals.

Kino is our most vigilant and tireless guide to that era. This two-disc set includes three scores, a tour of filming locations, a history and look at the actual General engine, some brief behind-the-scenes footage, and a montage of Keaton’s train gags. The print is declared to be mastered in HD from a 35mm archive print struck from the negative, and it looks very good.

Kino has also recently released Harry Langdon: Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, an important and welcome contribution to the ongoing excavation of this comedian’s neglected corpus, about which we’ve written in these pages before. Langdon directed himself in these commercial disappointments of 1927-28.

On the surface, and even under it, Three’s a Crowd is a sad, pathetic tale of a man-child for whom nothing will work out, a schlemiel without even the bittersweet insouciance of a Chaplin. In the dead of winter, he lives in an eyrie at the top of an impossibly long, narrow flight of stairs. As per Langdon’s specialty, nothing definite happens for long stretches of film (and at least one dream sequence was unfortunately removed to make it shorter), but eventually he takes in a woman with no apparent husband as she’s moments away from giving birth. Harry apparently intends to keep these strays as his new family. David Kalat’s commentary vigorously defends this misunderstood film and explains how even the comical stunts, such as Langdon falling through his floor, are pervaded by fatalism.

This is how Langdon expands the boundaries of comedy into things that aren’t really funny — not unlike Keaton, mark you, save that Keaton is an action hero while Langdon is a stasis hero, more acted upon than acting. The Chaser goes further, although it’s full of more conventionally ridiculous comic situations. The movie’s central absurdity is the concept of Harry, the sexless halfwit of the previous film, now carousing the town and somehow being irresistible to women. This time he has a wife (Gladys McConnell, the pregnant lass of the previous film in a wildly different role), but this is domestic comedy Harry-style with a strange gender reversal.

Harry stays out late at boisterous lodge meetings, which leads to a sequence of would-be homicide involving the mother-in-law. For this, Harry is sentenced to switch places with his wife for six months. That means his better half puts on mannish attire and goes out to bring home the bacon while Harry wears a dress, does the housework and fights off the attentions of a series of male visitors. This leads to an extended suicide attempt! The film changes direction somewhat when he goes golfing with a chum who must be the only person in the country not to have read about Harry’s sentence in the papers.

Another Kino release in their Slapstick Symposium series is The Extra Girl, a Mack Sennett production of 1923 made to showcase Mabel Normand, probably the most famous female comic of the era. The first half of the film concerns her small-town life with her parents, her romantic triangle, and her dreams of making it in Hollywood. Her unsuitable suitor is the portly Vernon Dent, a great comic actor from Langdon’s shorts. A wedding-day escape leads to the Hollywood portion of the film as she thinks she’s going to make it big in pictures. The comic highlight involves a lion. Possibly the most effective scene is the non-comic, acutely human moment when Mabel is discovered by her parents in the act of running away.

Hollywood was already one of Hollywood’s favorite subjects, and this is part of a line of spoofs that include Merton of the Movies, Ella Cinders and Show People, all of which came later. The feature looks and feels like a strung-together series of bits, a common quality of many comedies. For example, a swindler is thrown into the plot at the last minute for no special reason. Yet Normand is always a charming presence, especially when “acting”. This is, by the way, the same 1969-copyrighted tinted print, with the same music, that played on the aforementioned series The Silent Years, but this time we get no Welles intro. A 1913 short, The Gusher, in which she plays the pretty appendage of a childishly hyperactive Ford Sterling, is included as a bonus to show her notable evolution as a comic presence.

Buster Keaton performing stunts in The General