The first film I will be exploring tonight is The Last Laugh, directed by German filmmaker F. W. Murnau, the same man behind Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, which I explored in Day Three of my blog. Within seconds of starting The Last Laugh, which is called "The Last Man" in it's native German, I was very impressed with the film visually. The high contrast gave the black and white film a clarity that I hadn't seen in any of the films thus far and the opening scenes showed a downpour of rain that also hadn't been attempted yet. If you know anything about filmmaking then you know that rain is notoriously difficult to capture on camera. Those two details told me I was in for a treat.
Even with this wonderful opening sequence, F. W. Murnau continues to prove himself as a master of visual storytelling as the film continues. In the scene where the unnamed protagonist loses his job as the doorman to a prestigious hotel, a position that clearly won him a modicum of reverence among his family and community, Murnau does some innovative and as of yet unseen camera movements. This moment is brilliantly framed, with the protagonist and his manager's back to the camera while the camera observes them through the glass windowpane door to the office and as the protagonist reads the letter explaining the situation to him (and the audience) the camera zooms past the glass and focuses on our protagonist. On top of being a technically impressive film, the acting is also quite wonderful to behold. Our protagonist seems to age exponentially within the span of a few suspense-filled moments in which the deranged look in his eyes makes one wonder if he'll snap and commit some unspeakable deed on the manager that just demoted him. However, this advanced aging is not done through make-up but through Emil Jannings acting and his performance is only enhanced and highlighted through Murnau's neat camera tricks. But Murnau is not a one-trick pony; he continues to delight the eye with the blurring of the image during moment's of heightened emotion and the unfocused aesthetic of the protagonist's dreamscape. The camera pans and focuses on an arbitrary object on two occasions in order to dramatically reveal the camera's true target and surprise viewers. And, my goodness, the lighting! Murnau seems to have learned from his experiences with Nosferatu. Unlike his vampire film, day and night are clearly discernible in The Last Laugh and Murnau plays with shadows brilliantly. The use of a primitive fish-eye lens to communicate to the audience the inebriation of our protagonist after a night of partying at what I guessed to be his daughter's wedding is extraordinary considering the time period.
But let's get back to that acting; our protagonist's movements while working as a washroom attendant are contrasted highly with his movements as doorman. He goes from energetic, eager, and spry to lumbering, slow, and almost painful. This already aching man's world is turned upside down when he receives a surprise visit from a woman I can only assume to be his wife. She comes bearing the gift of a hot meal for his lunch and is appalled to discover a truth he was to ashamed to admit, even to himself. The presumed wife runs home to tell their daughter and news of his shame spreads thanks to a gossipy neighbor. He seems to know what's waiting for him when he gets home, but that doesn't stop him from wearing his old doorman's uniform in the impossible hope that he can fool his community and prolong the inevitable humiliation... But to no avail. The once respected man's reputation and social standing is utterly demolished. Rejected even by his family, he is forced to spend the night at the washroom of the hotel where he works; there he befriends the night watchman, the only one to show him any kindness after his fall from grace. But don't worry; the film aims for a happy ending, which I won't spoil for you here.
All in all, I have nothing bad to say about The Last Laugh and I would not be surprised if this was Murnau's greatest film. But even if it isn't (and I can't say that know that for sure) I can see why this made the list of the top rated films of the decade. Murnau changed the game with his camera movements and playful visuals. and for that I thank his ghost.
A complete opposite of the modest The Last Laugh is the lavish spectacle that is The Thief of Bagdad, the most expensive film of the 1920s and an epic fantasy-romance loosely based on One Thousand and One Nights. However, like still so many of today's American films, The Thief of Bagdad suffers from taking some liberties when representing Middle Eastern and Asian culture on screen. But take this with a grain of salt; the movie is almost a century old. And to it's credit, they did actually cast two Asian actors (albeit it was the Japanese born Sojin Kamiyama and the Chinese-American Anna Mary Wong to play Mongols) and even a few African-American actors, as opposed to white actors in costumes that screams "unspecified Oriental" or in minstrel show blackface. Even so, the leads were still Caucasian American actors in the roles of Middle Eastern characters, like Douglas Fairbanks in the role of Ahmed, the eponymous thief, and the unnamed Princess of Bagdad, portrayed by Julanne Johnston, the Caliph of Bagdad and the father of the Princess was portrayed by Brandon Hurst, and one of Bagdad's Holy Men who sets Ahmed on an adventure of redemption played by Charles Bletcher.
Even with this rather egregious and (let's face it) age old issue of representation in Hollywood, The Thief of Bagdad pleasantly surprised me. The first hour of the film did seem to drag a bit, but once Ahmed dropped his creepy plan to drug and kidnap the princess because he, like, fell in love with her or something (strange, considering he "fell in love" while she was asleep when he was attempting to rob the royal palace and his love was the reason he hatched that whole kidnap scheme in the first place). But the film's action really picked up after that. The princess reciprocated Ahmed's love because a fortune told he would be the one she'd marry and hoping to stall her other suitors (including Sojin Kamiyama's Mongol Prince who looks more Fu Manchu than Genghis Khan), she sent the princes away to bring back a rare treasure. He with the rarest treasure would become her husband. Hearing of this and not knowing that it was a ruse, Ahmed seeks help from one of Bagdad's Holy Men despite his earlier disdain for religion. The Holy Man, who is also the narrator, sets Ahmed on a journey that will not only bestow on him great treasures, but also will grant him redemption. And thats when the film really begins to shine.
At the time of the filming of The Thief of Bagdad, Douglas Fairbanks was Hollywood's go-to adventure hero, playing such roles as Zorro and Robin Hood, and this kind of swashbuckling adventure was exactly the sort of films he loved to make. So when it came time to channel funds into this project, Fairbanks spared no expense: full scale studio sets in oriental art nouveau style; thousands of cast members including two tigers, a chimpanzee, and numerous camels and horses (including a pegasus); and state-of-the-art special effects, including a flying carpet, a magic rope, and hand puppets in the role of various monsters. Not to mention that at 140 minutes, Fairbanks also spent bank on celluloid. If you can get through the first character building hour, The Thief of Bagdad is quite the visual ride, even if it's narrative makes Disney's Aladdin look like an Oscar-worthy screenplay (then again, Aladdin was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, so...). All in all, The Thief of Bagdad very much resembles a modern day action blockbuster, and not just because of it's ballooned budget.
Join me next time as I watch for the first time The Phantom of the Opera, which also stars Lon Chaney as the deformed Phantom. This should be an interesting experience for me since I've long been a fan of both the Broadway musical and the 2004 film. As a silent film, however, this adaptation will have none of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and lyrics. I'll also be diving into the 1925 Soviet drama Battleship Potemkin. See you then!
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