Written & directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie F. Cline.
Released 21 March 1921.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox (the girl), Big Joe Roberts (the bandit), and Bull Montana (the girl’s husband)
I pretend that life-changing moments come with razzle-dazzle and fireworks but it’s rarely true.
A sea change in how I thought about cinema happened in Toronto 2007, at the annual film festival, though I didn’t think much of it at the time. Peter Bogdanovich was introducing Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion to the sold-out crowd. This should have been explosive for me—a major American director talking, twenty feet from me, about one of the greatest works of all of cinema, which I was lucky enough to experience as a restored 35-mm print. Mostly, though, I just thought about how much I had to pee, and if there’d be time to sprint to the restroom between the moment Bogdanovich stopped talking and the lights went down, and if I’d lose my seat if I did. (There was, and I didn’t.) Anyway, his talk was mostly not about Grand Illusion but about the process that made our viewing experience possible: film archiving and restoration, and why both are essential.
Here’s the part that wiggled its way into my head forever. I’m paraphrasing but basically he said, “Basically, 85 percent of all cinema created before 1940 is lost forever. We can’t bring it back. So, when we consider what we’re able to see, we have to think of it like the Greek classics lost when the library at Alexandria burned down. What we have may not be the best but merely the best of what’s left, the best of what it’s possible for us to know. And the chasm of what we’ll never know is…” He let the sentence dissolve into the audience.
And then I went to pee. But what he said stuck with me, rearranging some things in me for good. I think of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati and Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John and all the rest as the best of silent comedy, and there’s a good case to be made that this is true. Certainly, they were written about and talked about at the time as the pinnacles. But it’s also true that they may be considered this way merely because they survived.
In Buster Keaton’s case, not all of it even survived, and some of what was lost is pretty damn great. Hard Luck is a case in point.
In a 1958 interview with Robert and Joan Franklin1, Keaton describes what he considers to be the greatest laugh he ever earned, one that literally had audiences falling out of their seats:
R. Franklin: …I guess before you did The Three Ages, you did one called Hard Luck, which is supposed to be one of the greatest comedies ever made. Will you talk about Hard Luck?
Buster Keaton: There’s only one way you might remember that picture. There was something like four outstanding, what we called “belly laughs.” Now, what we called a belly laugh, today they call just a substantial hearty laugh. They call that a belly laugh; we didn’t—that was just a laugh.
Franklin: What you mean is for someone to fall out of a seat.
Keaton: I mean a rock-the… I mean that the theater didn’t forget for a while. That picture, a two-reeler, had about four of those in it. The last one was one of the most talked-of gags that’s ever been done in the picture business.
I got out by a country club, in an open-air swimming pool, and there was a very high diving platform there for some professionals. So, just to show off in front of the girls lounging around the pool, I climbed up to the top of it, and posed, and did a beautiful swan dive off the top of that thing. And I missed the pool! I made a hole in the ground, disappeared; people came up and looked down in the hole, shrugged their shoulders, and the scene faded out. It faded in to a title that said, “Years Later,” and faded back in: the swimming pool now was empty; it was cracked, nobody around, the place deserted. And I came up out of the hole with a Chinese wife and two kids, and pointed up to the high thing and said, “I dove off there, and that’s what happened.”
Fade out. Credits.
That made me laugh just typing it, which is a good thing, because that’s all we’ve got, the still picture above and the prep for the dive on the platform. The last minute of Hard Luck is gone forever, either because nobody thought it important enough to keep, or the negatives were recycled into war materials, or whatever happens to things that we lose and regret losing. In multiple interviews, Keaton mentions this gag, and how much he wishes we could still see it.
What remains, admittedly, is pretty good. The plot’s pretty cockamamie, but when aren’t they? Buster, consumed by heartache over a lost girl (that it turns out he never had in the first place), decides to kill himself—and fails spectacularly. He tries to hang himself but takes down the tree instead. He tries to jump into the path of a speeding car, but…
He downs a bottle of “poison” that turns out just to be a waiter’s moonshine. Drunk on the liquor, he agrees to 1) become part of a zoological society; and 2) to capture a rare wild animal (an armadillo!) for it. This leads to a tumble that combines freewheeling nuttiness with a certain panache that I find incredibly sexy and appealing in Keaton. Look around screwily he enters the scene—the zoo society’s clubhouse—but how quickly he feels at home:
None of this goes as planned, and he ends up rescuing the love of his life—again, she doesn’t know it—from bandits. The gag is that it’s when he’s not trying to commit suicide that he gets into the most danger. (I mean, really, who finds himself in trouble from hunting an armadillo? Well, I guess when you accidentally catch a bear instead…) The trouble culminates in a shootout in which he cannily doesn’t participate, loading a boiler with shotgun shells and then fleeing the premises…
…and, ultimately, with the diving board gag. (Incidentally, that digging-a-hole-to-China schoolyard gag has always made me ponder a semi-related question, for which, it turns out, there’s an actual answer. But I digress.)
There’s much that is funny about Hard Luck, especially in the morbid first third, with all the suicide attempts. But a lingering sadness hovered over the movie—again, with Buster trying to off himself, sure, but also that I know what’s missing, and how highly Buster thought of it. He was an artist with extraordinarily high standards. Note that he didn’t call that last gag a belly laugh, but “just a laugh.” Note that he apparently thinks more highly of this short than of The High Sign or One Week or The Scarecrow. Okay, I like Hard Luck, but he’s a poor judge of his own work, to my eyes. Still, it’s distressing when a director’s self-claimed masterpiece is missing its key gag, and that the surviving print is in such rough shape. There are splotches, tears, and missing frames throughout Hard Luck. It’s in worse condition than it deserves, even in the restored Blu-Ray version.
But then I think back to Bogdanovich, and to Alexandria, and I’m grateful we have Hard Luck at all.
1. Robert Franklin and Joan Franklin, “Interview with Buster Keaton” (November 1958). Transcribed for the Oral History Research Collection, Columbia University, by Kevin W. Sweeney, 2004. Printed in Buster Keaton: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), ed. By Kevin W. Sweeney.↩