Hard Luck (1921)

by popegrutch

Buster Keaton claimed the biggest laugh of his career was from the finale of this movie, which was lost for many years, but can now be seen restored. It still has laughs, though that final scene may be a bit less comfortable for a modern audience.

Buster plays a down on his luck young man who decides to commit suicide after losing his job and his girl. He tries lying in front of a streetcar, but it stops in front of him, then changes direction and proceeds up the line. He tries cutting a rope to cause a safe being hauled up the side of a building to fall on him, but it misses. He tries hanging himself from a tree branch, but just falls out of the tree with the rope wrapped around him. Pursued by two cops for his antics, he tries jumping on a streetcar, but it again reaches the end of the line and returns him to the police. He jumps through an open window to avoid them, and in his new environs he finds a bottle marked “poison” which he rapidly consumes, however it really contains whiskey – the waiter who had marked it poison was just trying to keep his stash to himself. He joins a table of men discussing the need for an adventurer to bring in an armadillo for the zoo. Bolstered by the whiskey, he volunteers.

The next sequence follows his efforts as a wild game hunter. He drops unspent shells into his fire and they go off, chasing him. He catches a small fish, but uses it as bait to catch a bigger fish, turning around and using that to catch an even bigger one, until finally the fourth or fifth fish is too big and is able to escape. He happens to have camped near to a country club, and he helps a pretty young girl (Virginia Fox) get on her horse by kneeling down and letting her step on him. She invites him to a fox hunt. Buster has a lot of trouble with his horse, being best able to mount it by dropping from a tree branch onto its back, and the fox follows him around without him noticing. He winds up dropping from the top of a bridge onto a bull rather than his horse.

The final act begins when Lizard Lip Luke (Joe Roberts) and his gang of outlaws show up to rob the club and menace Virginia. Buster beats them by throwing more unspent shells into the furnace and the gang tries to shoot it out with the furnace, each one going down one at a time. Buster now proposes to Virginia, who reveals that she has a husband already (Bull Montana). Buster, disappointed, decides to take a dive off the high diving board. He misses the pool and hits the ground on the far side with such force that he disappears into a hole. Some years later, an Asian-garbed Buster climbs out of the hole in the now dry and deserted pool followed by a Chinese wife and two young children.

This movie really shows Keaton’s working style, which was to come up with a vague plot outline, then go out and think up as many gags as he could on the set. The story, what there is of it, is all over the place and never really settles in to a clear thread. The first part of the movie reminded me of Harold Lloyd’s “Haunted Spooks,” which came out the previous year and seems much funnier to me. The hunt for the armadillo never gets off the ground and the holdup at a fancy rich people’s club seems rather bizarre (they have no security at all here, and just let people camp out right next door?). There’s no denying that some of the gags work, and Keaton is in good form, but it’s also a little disappointing that so much of the film is all him. His co-stars don’t show up until the last third of the film.

And then there’s that ending. We all waited years for it to be discovered, and then…it was what it was. It’s not horrendously racist, but it is a bit uncomfortable, since the joke is that he’s been living in China since he fell through the hole he made. In his autobiography, he makes a big deal about what a big laugh it got, but I doubt it gets more than a chuckle now. Times change  The gag about falling clear through the Earth and ending up in China is familiar from cartoons and other media, but it is a bit tired now, however fresh it may have seemed in 1921. In all, this movie isn’t among the real classics of that year.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Bull Montana, Bessie Wong

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)