Hard Luck

Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 19, 2015

The uneven picture quality (see brief discussion of Convict 13 , q.v.) and the missing bits don’t help this one. It might once have been a classic. It doesn’t appear that way now. And it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure. Be nice to silent films!

(Note: as of early 2015, rumours are circulating that the missing conclusion to Hard Luck has been found. Never give up!)

There is a lovely part near the beginning where the camera is placed exactly like the Lumiere Brothers’ camera in their primordial short film, Train Arriving at the Station… (1895/6). This time it’s a streetcar, but still. This shot is a reminder of how beautiful and simple the film medium was when it started out. It also shows, by means of the easy, expert compound gag that Keaton builds upon that original camera composition, how far the film medium had come.

Hard Luck has a suicide subplot. It comes off as a bit unseemly! Were Keaton and collaborators aware of and looking to cash in on Harold Lloyd’s very successful and similarly suicidal Haunted Spooks (1920) and Never Weaken (1921)? Though his every effort goes wrong, Buster’s attempts at self-annihilation seem much more adept, much less pleading than Harold’s. On the other hand, Harold is much more brazen, which is often a great advantage in comedy. So take your pick there.

There is also a point where Buster does a little riff on the comical drunk, and it’s quite distinct from the run-of-the-mill music hall routine. (Chaplin practically made his name with this routine, before he left the United Kingdom and the music hall stage. It is very clearly preserved in his 1915 film for the Essanay Company, A Night in the Show.) Keaton underplays it nicely, and you can still sense that though the character is in his cups, the actor playing him is as omni-competent as always.

(Sad historical irony: Keaton was to have his own considerable battles with the bottle. Did they contribute to his eventual professional downfall, or were they the result of that downfall? Yes, probably.

Happy historical consolation: Keaton recovered, and though he never regained his previous pre-eminence as a film artist, he spent the last decades of his life working quite productively and quite happily.)

Once again, given Hard Luck has been compromised, some of its scenes feel a bit undigested, or unintegrated. We have some fox hunters at the club—those decorative girls are lovely, having authentic spirited fun in the water there; look at the nice stunts with that great big horse—who then meet a bunch of baddies from a generic Western. I’m not quite sure why. On the other hand, why not? This registers as very Stephen Leacock, actually: a fond lampooning of conventional forms, replacing the usual identification and verisimilitude with gentle satire. (For illustration, and a brief introduction to a essential/delightful comic master, try Leacock’s “Gertrude the Governess,” from Nonsense Novels [1910, http://bit.ly/1BLPwsf])

Some nice mayhem follows, and a nice demonstrations of Buster’s consistent but never foolhardy courage. He’s really hanging in there as he tries to rescue Virginia Fox—who takes a superb tumble off the back of that couch—but he’ll prudently withdraw when needs be. Our friend Joe Roberts is back, this time playing what is basically the Eric Campbell part. (Campbell was the awesomely gigantic antagonist in 11 of Chaplin’s 12 Mutual comedies.) That means that he’s formidable, but not actually frightening. Watch his wonderful turn as he dies in endless melodramatic stages, then really changes gears and pulls out the stops after getting shot in the rear end.

(For more on the neglected film genre of people getting shot in the bum, see our review of Preston Sturges’ The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, q.v.)

That is some high dive!—comic anticipation meets a feeling of anxiety that’s hard to put down. That’s really him, really way too high up there. The final gag is lost, though Kino provides some helpful stills to give us an idea of the thing. I wonder if its actual execution is as funny as Kino’s report of its actual execution?