(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.