We began the evening with yet another topical short film (for reasons that only became obvious halfway through the main feature). This time, Phong brought us the sage advice from the film “Proper Urinal Etiquette”. It’s not even in IMDB, so I’ll offer up a YouTube version of the film for your edification. Please note that basically every word in this film is true, with the possible exception of the very last suggestion (obviously 5, duh.)
The feature presentation, brought to us by Corey Ziemba, was F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent film The Last Laugh (that’s “Der letzte Mann” in the original German). The Last Laugh is a different breed of silent film, one which eschews intertitles entirely (with perhaps one exception, though there are several instances where the director inserts some expository writing into the scenes). Nevertheless, The Last Laugh has a fairly rich story, which can be made only more rich by the lack of words – one can create one’s own story that can’t exactly be contradicted. Let me give you a feel for how the film went for me as I watched it:
Even though the Great Depression isn’t set to start for another 5 years, times are tough at the North Pole and Santa Claus is already moonlighting as the doorman for a fancy hotel in a nameless city. Santa, as you would guess, is the jolliest damn doorman you’ve ever seen, and he has earned the respect and accolades of his neighbors and friends for his excellent portering service. He’s the nearest thing the 1920s had to a rock star, and he’s got a real sharp uniform.
Santa also happens to be really good at his job. Well, except for that lumbar hernia he suffered carrying that great big sack during the boom years which prevents him from adequately lifting heavy trunks off of carriages. This disability would be a sure ticket for worker’s comp these days, but it only inspires resentment from the poor bellhops who have to lug suitcases for him. Still, life is good when you’re Santa, and you’re a doorman.
Santa goes home after a long day of pushing a revolving door, and it turns out that Mrs. Claus is smoking hot, and like 30 years younger than he is. I was about to turn in these old scientist’s boots for the brass buttons of a doorman’s greatcoat until I realized that the wedding cake and veil meant that she was getting married…and if she was already living with Santa, she’d have to be his daughter. We got almost 45 years before free love, my friends. Mrs. Claus never does make an appearance in the film – presumably she’s off supervising the elves. But maybe she’s dead. Ah, the possiblities of silent film!
Wedding or no wedding, Santa’s got a job to do, so instead of sticking around for the nuptials, he heads back to work the next morning. On the way he rescues a little androgynous child from being soaked by the other children at the fire hydrant with nothing more than a stern glare. He then gives young Pat his day’s ration of candy (risking the demise of that glorious belly in a selfless act) and sends it off to the Gender Assignment Academy. But no good deed goes unpunished, as Santa finds out when he returns to work:
Joseph Stalin, stout and manly, has taken over Santa’s position as lead doorman for the hotel! The purges have begun!
Santa goes to argue with John Cleese, the hotel’s manager, but Cleese (a known Communist sympathizer) informs him that the verdict is final. Santa has been given a “tenner” and has been sent off to the coldest Kolyma of them all, the basement, where he is to be a lowly washroom attendant. Santa’s near heart attack is not so fatal to him as the repossession of his beloved uniform – little did we know the lead-lined shielding powers that it had! For as soon as it is off him, he crumples and ages; the jolly old elf has become a decrepit old man, and death is fast upon him.
So Santa does what any self-respecting pillar of the community would do – before leaving work to arrive at the aftermath of his daughter’s wedding, he steals his old uniform from the linen closet and struts home, triumphantly a doorman once again!
The night is filled with revelry, and after the commotion of moving his daughter next door to her groom’s apartment along with her earthly possessions (which apparently consist of a lamp and a random bust) Santa gets into the gin with the harpy Mother-in-law.
Santa gets himself good and drunk, and dreams of a day when his hernia is repaired and he can lift with a single hand a trunk so great five bellhops cannot budge it. Yea, he parades about with the trunk over his head, tossing it up and down one handed almost as if it were on a string as the astonished hotel patrons and employees watch in awe, applauding, begging for an encore. Even Stalin himself pardons Santa and asks him to come up with the next Ten Year Plan.
Alas, like the way of all alcohol the hangover is worse than the buzz, and in the morning Santa must return to the dreary realities of a day spent in the bathroom. On his way to work, he takes his pilfered uniform over to the George Stephenson Dry Cleaners for a thorough Martinizing…and for safe storage. Just don’t lose the stub, Santa!
After the revelries of the previous night the Harpy is feeling frisky, and at lunchtime she shows up to the hotel, full of herself and pot full of soup (or stew, or something else she clearly deems to be aromatically pleasant). But when to her surprise she finds not Santa but Stalin manning the door, she traces Santa down to the basement restroom and mocks him mercilessly. (Since this is a German film, I believe we can safely call this actual Schadenfreude.) Then she returns to their tenement, and word gets around real fast that Santa has been demoted.
In addition to being a lousy washroom attendant, Santa didn’t watch our short film before the feature and can’t direct his patrons on the fine art of urinal selection. Oh, and when he comes home, still resplendent in his stolen uniform, he finds that his neighbors now despise him, his daughter has disowned him, and most likely he’s being evicted on account of being a no-good zek washroom attendant.
He sneaks back into work to return his beloved uniform once and for all, and caught by the night watchman, he reveals his terrible secret before returning to the bathroom, the only refuge he now knows.
And if it weren’t for the final flourish of a Fortuna Ex Machina, that’s how this film would end. Instead, we learn (through what is essentially the one and only title card) that an eccentric millionaire died in Santa’s very own bathroom, with his will specifying that his estate should go to the person whose arms he died in.
Graciously, Santa rubs his newfound fortune in the face of John Cleese and his former fellow employees (imagine how Stalin must have felt about this happenstance of distribution of wealth!) by parading about the hotel, ordering lobster and roe, and basically being insufferably smug to everybody who isn’t either the night watchman or the new washroom attendant.
His altruistic donations of a cigar and lavish food and drink earned Santa a new title that day: Saint Nicholas, Patron Saint of Washroom Attendants, Night Watchmen, and the Vindictive Nouveau Riche Everywhere. Did he bring his daughter and her new husband to the hotel for caviar? No. No, he did not. Blood is thicker than…well, it’s not thicker than Santa’s new bankroll, honey! Enjoy your coal!
But, hey, it really was a fantastic film, even without the embellishment. As a side note, this film has more rug-beating-over-the-railing than any film I have seen before or since (though come to think of it, I haven’t seen any since, yet.)