On March 20, 2010, I had the privilege and pleasure to attend the opening session of the Detroit Film Theatre’s new series on significant films in the long history of that art form—DFT 101. This Saturday afternoon series premiered with a screening of the famous 1924 German silent film, The Last Laugh. It included opening remarks by Elliot Wilhelm, the curator of film for the Detroit Institute of Arts who also gives commentary on classic films for public television.
This movie was accompanied by one of the DFT’s favorite visitors, David Drazin, who has performed at the DFT since 2006. DFT patrons have settled into the familiar image of David flexing his arms a few times before sitting down for an intense, creative session of silent film music.
This special weekend was extra meaningful for me, because of the help this web site was able to give in the sponsorship of the event. The DFT staff was very generous in helping me promote and set up the event. Elliot Wilhelm gave a nice plug for the DFT, Redford Theatre, and Michigan Theater during his stage introduction of The Last Laugh. He said, “If you’re not here, you should be there.” As one of the few moviegoers who hasn’t seen Avatar yet, I’ll second those comments about theater priorities.
Elliot Wilhelm talked about how his introductions to the DFT 101 films would be personal, because of the amount of factual information that is available in places like the Internet Movie Database web site. He talked about the impact of The Last Laugh and how it got different people’s attention in the American film industry.
A couple of years after The Last Laugh was released, its director, F. W. Murnau, made one of the last classics of American silent film—Sunrise, which has screened at the DFT. Elliot mentioned the different uses of camerawork in The Last Laugh that enabled this expressionistic film to rely on very few intertitles. The tracking shots through the hotel reminded me of a screening of the 1932 sound film Grand Hotel at the Redford Theatre a few years ago.
Elliot talked about how the initial years of sound pictures limited camera movement, because of the immobility of the microphones. While he talked about the transition from silent movies to talking pictures, I thought about the Redford Theatre’s upcoming April 30 and May 1 showing of the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, a humorous account of that time.
The Last Laugh made you think about how much we depend on our jobs for our identity. We’re closer than we realize to being on the outside of the working world, wondering what comes next. I’m always finding meaningful connections between my experiences at the Detroit Movie Palaces, and two days after The Last Laugh, the Michigan Theater screened the Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief, in which a father’s hopes and dreams for his family get tied up in his desperate search for a stolen bicycle that he needs for his new job.
After The Last Laugh, there were many positive comments about the movie. I enjoyed watching people mill around a lobby display that I created, which included advertisements for the area premiere in May 1925 of The Last Laugh in Detroit (at the long-closed Broadway-Strand) and Ann Arbor (at Hill Auditorium). Watching visitors look at displays while picking up publicity for each theater has been one of my favorite parts of the events that I have helped sponsor at the DFT, Redford, and Michigan.
The event was free to members of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was a good promotion of the theater during theater hours. With the new design of the DIA, people can easily walk from the exhibition areas to the theater. As usual, there was a strong round of applause for David Drazin at the end of his performance.
After the film, I enjoyed meeting David and his wife Carol Seymour, and hearing about their favorite places to visit in Detroit. It re-affirmed my image of the DFT, Redford, and Michigan as people places, where both performers and staff make special efforts to connect with the moviegoers who support the theaters.
Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.