Monday, September 27, 2010

Report on 'The Last Laugh' (1924)

Yesterday's screening (Sunday, Sept. 26) of 'The Last Laugh' in Wilton, N.H. was a great silent film experience: good crowd, great-looking print, and the right kind of weather (kinda dreary outside). Even the music came together nicely.

For openers, we chose Laurel & Hardy in 'Double Whoopee' (1929)—the one in which they play doormen in a high class hotel, which seemed appropriate as an appetizer for 'The Last Laugh.' 'Whoopee' has never been one of my favorite L&H shorts, and I was surprised at how much laughter it produced. You never know. When it was over and we were waiting for 'Laugh' to come up, I even heard some people in the audience (about 100 people) behind me commenting how it was "just beautiful." And I guess it really was, in how the mayhem builds quite well once it gets going. It's a well constructed film in that sense.

'The Last Laugh' was quite a project for us, especially after a summer of silent film comedy. An all-visual German dramatic allegory, it's one of several silent film masterpieces that director F.W. Murnau produced. In an effort to keep my remarks brief, the one main point I tried to make was that 'Laugh' is unlike most of the Hollywood-produced pics that we usually screen. Instead, it's more of a character study, and in that sense very much a "European" film, so you should bring those expectations to it.

The screening went fine, though I made the mistake (for me) of playing through it earlier in the day. I did this because I wanted to sharpen my sense of the film (which I'd never played before), but it turned out to be a mistake because the morning run-through was just exactly what I wanted. And so what happens is that when it's time to play the film for real, I'm still somewhat under the spell of what I just did, and it really gets in the way. Nothing seems to build as effectively as it did earlier in the day; I often tell my wife afterwards, "I wish they could have all heard how it came out this morning."

On the other hand, when I play a film cold (having never seen it) or after a long absence, there seems to an energy present and it all coalesces in a way that doesn't happen otherwise. I'm reminded of something I read about the pianist Franz Liszt, who would sight-read a piece through for the first time and play it straight, but if he attempted it again, he would invariably embellish it or elaborate on it or "improve" it in some way. I ain't no Franz Liszt, but I sense there's something related to this phenomenon in what happens to me, though in my case I can't ever seem to match what I just did, and instead of improving it I end up "deproving" it, if that's a word.

This seems to be such as well-established pattern at this point that I should really just give in and make it a rule: no same-day run-throughs.

I had a surprising conversation afterwards with a woman who seemed genuinely distraught by Murnau's film. Essentially, she didn't want to be a member of the human race if someone like the Emil Jannings character could be treated as he was in the film. When I realized she wasn't joking (we live in a world of entirely too much irony these days), I tried pointing out that it's only a movie, and that it has a happy ending, but she wasn't hearing any of it, saying the ending was "artificial." Things got a bit confusing when another fan, who happens to be a kind of Christian numerologist, came over and made a case for the film being a parallel to the Jesus story, and that the twist of fate at the end represented Christ's resurrection. So it was an interesting discussion.

I need to put in a word here for my colleague Dave Stevenson, who did a great job putting together a trailer for our upcoming Halloween screening of 'The Cat and the Canary' (1927), which we're screening in Wilton on, yes, Sunday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!

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