Buster Keaton in HARD LUCK (1921) – Hard luck for anyone expecting a coherent comedy

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Hard Luck is a strange bird indeed. Although Buster Keaton dubbed it his favorite of all his short subjects, it was considered a “lost film” for many years. Now that it has been found, it must be said to be very disjointed and one of the weakest of his independent shorts.

One would like to believe that the movie’s disjointedness is perhaps due to some of its footage still being missing. But there would have to be quite a lot of expository footage restored in order for the movie’s story to be coherent. As it is, Hard Luck plays like a typical short by Keaton’s mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, where Fatty starts out in a particular occupation in Reel One and then abandons it out of boredom in Reel Two.

The movie’s initial idea isn’t bad. Buster is down on his luck and attempts suicide in several ways – all of which fail, the irony being he’s such a loser that he can’t even kill himself right. Then he happens upon a meeting of a zoo committee that is discussing how difficult it has been for them to get a particular rare animal. One would think this would be a fertile premise for comedy: Buster, who was going to kill himself anyway, volunteers for this dangerous hunt. Unfortunately, it turns out that the “rare animal” being sought by the zoo is an armadillo. (How difficult is it to catch one of those? Where I live, all you need is a car to run them over.) And even this flimsy premise is abandoned shortly after it’s established.

Instead, the next scene shows Buster fishing. He successfully catches ever-bigger fish (What happened to the movie’s premise of Buster-as-loser?), only to use each successive fish as bait to catch a bigger one. Then when he loses the last fish, he bemoans his lack of food for the evening. Well, what did he expect??

Then Buster gets caught up in a fox hunt, saves a young woman from the clutches of a criminal, dives off the high board at a pool, misses the pool and falls through the surrounding tile, where he remains lost for years. The topper, which got one of the biggest laughs ever in its day, unfortunately plays only as racist today: Buster eventually emerges from the hole bearing a Chinese wife and their children, the implication being that Buster’s high dive dug him a hole clear to China. Just as unfortunately, the “gag” is about as logical and plausible as anything that comes before it.

Some individual bits are funny enough, such as Buster’s extended routine with a horse. But Hard Luck‘s “gags-for-gag’s-sake” style seems a bit alien after some of the flights of fancy that come before and after it.

My Buster Keaton websites

I’d like to encourage all of my readers to visit The Love Nest, my newly erected website devoted primarily to Buster Keaton’s independently made silent films from 1920 to 1928. The URL is: http://busterkeaton.moviefever.com

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I’d also like to encourage you to visit its “sister” website, “General” Information, the only website devoted to Buster Keaton’s classic movie The General. Its URL is: http://BusterKeatonGeneral.moviefever.com

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Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR. (1924) – A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a comedy

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The following is my entry in The First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being held on Feb. 8 and 9 at the blog of my so-cute-you-could-pinch-her WordPress “neighbor,” Silent-ology. Click on the image above to read a variety of blogs related to Buster Keaton’s movie, TV, and non-entertainment-related work!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Sherlock Jr. is a glorious 44 minutes in the history of silent film. It is Buster Keaton taking to the absolute limit the fun you can have with a movie camera, and the movie’s viewers are the lucky recipients of Keaton’s over-indulgence.

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As with most Keaton comedies, the premise is fairly simple. Buster is a movie projectionist vying for the hand of a local girl (Kathryn McGuire). But Buster’s romantic rival (Ward Crane) steals a valuable watch from the girl’s father (Joe Keaton) and gets the rap pinned on Buster. Defeated, Buster returns to his job, where he falls asleep and “projects” himself (as “crime-busting criminologist Sherlock Jr.”) into the melodrama he is projecting on the screen.

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The set-up is funny enough, with Keaton involved in a number of very funny gags. (One of them included his getting caught in a geyser erupting from a water tower. For years afterward, Keaton suffered blinding headaches for which he had no explanation. Eventually, he discovered he had broken his neck via the water gag.)

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But once the dream sequence begins, all stops are out. Buster starts by trying to intervene in the melodrama into which he has inserted himself, only to find the scenery changing with his every move. In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr reports that movie-makers boasted of going to see the movie several times and never being able to discern how Keaton pulled off his photographic stunts. Keaton eventually admitted his secrets to biographer Rudi Blesh, but I have no desire to repeat them here, any more than one would want to divulge how a brilliant magician succeeded in his trickery. Don’t try to look for the seams; just glory in the fun.

As if that weren’t enough, Keaton eventually does one of his most grandiose chase scenes, in which he rides on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle, resulting in some gasp-inducing shots.

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(One of the scenes – where Buster narrowly misses getting hit by a train – looks a bit fake; and it is faked, but not in the way you’d expect. Keaton simply filmed the scene in reverse, so that he was in no danger; but Keaton wasn’t quite clever enough to make it look un-faked, with the result that the train looks like it’s on a rear-projection screen. Still, try to see where else he faked this spectacular chase, and you’ll be looking for years.)

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The final scene, in which the “real” Buster wins the girl and then looks to the on-screen movie for romantic guidance, is a perfect closer.

Amazingly, Sherlock Jr., which has inspired countless filmmakers and was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1991, got only a mixed reception when it was first released. Variety said it was about as funny as “a hospital operating room.” It was only with the “Keaton revival” in the 1950’s and ’60s that the movie got the acclaim it deserved and has received ever since.

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For decades, Freudian reviewers have had a field day deconstructing the movie as an exploration of film, the unconscious mind, and just about any psychological topic you can whip up. If that’s your idea of a good time, go to town on the movie. Anyone else can simply savor it as a superbly eye-popping comedy.

Lastly, a word about the movie's score:

Lastly, a word about the movie’s score:

In the early 1990’s, Sherlock Jr. was released on video with an offbeat jazz score by a group called The Club Foot Orchestra. This version has remained in circulation, and the score has been a sore spot among Keaton enthusiasts who feel it ill serves the movie. Considering how Keaton never lived in the past and marveled at ’50s icons such as Elvis Presley, I wonder if Keaton wouldn’t have put his stamp of approval on the score.

(If you enjoyed this blog, I encourage you to visit “The Love Nest,” my encyclopedic appreciation of Buster Keaton silent film comedies. The website is at:  http://busterkeaton.moviefever.com)

Buster Keaton in COLLEGE (1927) – Gets an “A” for effort, a “D-” for execution

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(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

College is by far the weakest of Buster Keaton’s independent features, and for far too many reasons. After seeing his pet project The General get critically and financially pummeled, Keaton caved on all counts with his next movie.

The first strike against College is that Keaton allowed others to handle the writing and directing. Strangely enough, some of those personnel, such as director James Horne and writer Carl Harbaugh, later became associated with Laurel & Hardy’s best features. (L&H nemesis Charlie Hall can also be seen briefly, as the coxswain of the college rowing team.) For College, that unfortunately results in Buster’s usual industrious persona being turned into a Stan Laurel-like simpleton, seemingly incapable of handling menial tasks.

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Then there’s the movie’s titular subject. Keaton plays Ronald, a high-school bookworm who embarrasses his girlfriend Mary (Anne Cornwall) by giving a valedictorian address on “the curse of athletics.” Mary goes off to college with her more athletic fellow graduate Jeff, informing Ronald that she will have nothing more to do with him until he gets more athletic. Predictably, Ronald follows Mary to college and fouls up in every collegiate sport at which he competes.

The second strike against the movie is – never mind the curse of athletics – the curse of movie comedians who never made it through high school trying to conjure up a credible comedy about college life. The Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy also fell victim to this malady, resulting in some of their most middling movies.

Strike Three is that the movie’s premise just doesn’t ring true for Keaton. Having seen his physical agility clearly demonstrated in all of his other movies, it’s downright painful to watch him getting outrun by two little kids on a track field, or proving himself completely ignorant in even the basics of sports. It doesn’t help matters to continually cut away from Keaton to shots of other college athletes guffawing over Ronald’s ineptitude; if everyone in the movie thinks he’s a zero, why should the viewer sympathize with him? The moment Mary tries to blow off Ronald at the high-school graduation, we’re meant to root for Ronald making the grade in college sports, but you’re more likely thinking that if all Mary wants is a dumb jock, she’s getting what she deserves.

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The movie is far more “gaggy” than Keaton’s previous features, which means that instead of having a stake in Buster/Ronald’s outcome, we’re left to judge the movie on the basis of its individual gags, most of which are quite predictable.

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The absolute nadir of the movie, and perhaps of Keaton’s independent movies, is a blackface scene in which Ronald, desperate for as job on campus, impersonates a “colored waiter.” This demonstrates the movie’s absolute dearth of characterization; even if the scene was funnier to segregated 1920’s audiences than it is now, it’s the kind of “comedy” that any nondescript comedian could do. And needless to say, it almost makes the racial stereotypes of Keaton’s Seven Chances look downright benign.

(Even Snitz Edwards, who provided funny support in Seven Chances and Battling Butler, has little comic material here, save one brief moment where he hilariously recalls a lost love and cries over her photograph.)

The movie’s climax shows Ronald, laboring to save Mary from the brutish athlete who has locked her in her room, suddenly has the impetus to succeed at every athletic task he had previously bollixed up. This scene, too, is lacking for a couple of reasons. Keaton, resigned to trying to do a more crowd-pleasing movie than The General, could not give himself to train for months for the shot in which Ronald pole-vaults into Mary’s room to save her. Instead, he hired Lee Barnes, an Olympic pole-vaulting champion, to double for him in long-shot. It was the only time that Keaton caved to fakery in a movie stunt; previously, it had been a matter of pride for him to do his stunts “on the level.” This alone shows how dispirited Keaton was by The General‘s failure.

Then when Ronald reaches Mary’s room, he throws objects at Mary’s bully in a fit of rage. This is obviously an attempt to reprise the dramatic climax of Battling Butler, but even in that mid-level comedy, Keaton’s milquetoast character gave us more to root for, thus the dramatic conflict was more satisfying. Here, it seems to happen in a void.

Weirdest of all is the Cops-like black-comedy ending, where Ronald and Mary go from marriage to parenthood to squabbling to separate graves in eleven seconds. Why did Keaton, who copped out at every other level of the movie, suddenly decide that such a “personal” touch was necessary for the fade-out? One imagines that it left 1927 audiences scratching their heads.

The movie’s most bittersweet touch was to have the rowboat for Ronald’s rowing team bear the name of Damfino, lifted from Keaton’s short The Boat – a movie that would be a far worthier investment of your time than College.