As part of our week-long feature Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, we asked the book’s author to discuss A Color Box (dir. Len Lye) and The Last Laugh (dir. F. W. Murnau) some of the key films in Iris Barry’s career as a film curator:
The Last Laugh, directed by F. W. Murnau
Iris Barry appreciated that Emile Jannings was more of an actor than a movie star. As she once put it, “At no time does he play Emile Jannings.” She also viewed cinema as intrinsically realistic, in that the still photographs of which it is composed convey a correspondence with the subject filmed, however fantastic it might be. She nevertheless felt that movies were a form of collective reverie, and urged her audiences to “Ask for better dreams.”
In Murnau’s The Last Laugh she found one: a dream so human as to engage the Freudian principle that sanity is essentially a matter of balancing “love and work.” As a mighty hotel doorman reduced to the status of washroom attendant, Jannings conveys physically and wordlessly the effects of the loss of work on a person. In eleven minutes we watch him become aware of his fate, deny it, struggle against it, and finally succumb. Throughout, the camera participates in the action, and even brings in the hotel itself as a kind of character.
A Colour Box, directed by Len Lye:
In 1936 Iris and her husband, John Abbott traveled to Europe to find films for their nascent Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art. They visited archives in England, France, Sweden, Poland, and the Soviet Union, seeking to make exchanges facilitated by governmental approval that would exempt films from export duties and transport them as cheaply as possible. They already had the cooperation of American companies, due to their successful appearance at Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s house in Hollywood in 1935.
The prospect of exchanging films with an American archive appealed to the Europeans and their participation was forthcoming, resulting in a study collection that would later become iconic: Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Murnau’s Last Laugh, and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin among them. From England Barry and Abbott picked up Len Lye’s remarkable A Colour Box, a largely hand-made film skillfully coordinating abstract images with a Latin beat. It became one of the works animators worldwide revere as historically essential, as well as an example of how film can be engaging even when it does not tell a story.