I have a friend who says that he “hates” silent films. I doubt this will dissuade him.
F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is one the most famous of silent films. Its plot could hardly be simpler: an elderly doorman of a luxury hotel, gets demoted to washroom attendant. His self-esteem and social standing collapse and he ends up in an almost catatonic state. Of course it’s really not that simple–but almost.
When we first see our unnamed protagonist, he is presiding over the busy entrance of the “Atlantic” hotel in his greatcoat and peaked cap all festooned with gold braid, piping and brass buttons. He is hailing cabs, grandly escorting hotel guests and ordering about the bell boy staff in a pouring rainstorm all the while giving little military salutes. After wrestling alone with a large steamer trunk, he is spotted by the assistant manager resting a moment drinking a toddy brought to him by a bell boy. Within the first few minutes Murnau sets up his main character and the inciting moment that will lead to his downfall.
This is a proud man, absurdly proud, and it is all based on his job and the uniform he wears performing it. This is where he gets his self-esteem and sense of social standing. As he strides home, or to work, he is greeted with respectful deference and admiration from the residents of the tenement neighborhood where he lives. They stand back and admire as he walks with a purpose, returning their greeting with a smile and his little salute. When he is then demoted and stripped of his uniform he is instantly transformed. No longer does he stands up straight. Now he cowers. No longer commanding of respect, he is downcast, his eyes either dead or furtive, afraid someone will spy him without his armor. He steals back the uniform to wear to and from home. Even though he tries to keep up appearances, his whole demeanor disintegrates into a wobbly fear of being found out–and of course, he is found out. The effect is devastating ot the old man. The whole of his neighborhood openly and gleefully mocks him. His family acts with embarrassed shame, practically shunning him. He is alone.