First things first, the fact that Hard Luck is even available to watch is something of a miracle. It's estimated that something like 80% (you read that right--EIGHTY PERCENT!) of all films produced in the silent era are now lost or incomplete. In light of that mind-boggling statistic, and the fact that the ending to this short was recovered only ten years ago, the fact that it's not exactly a classic Keaton offering doesn't both me at all. At least we have it.
The plot starts out strong, weird and dark--just the way I like it. Buster is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, as the first intertitle informs us: "Fired from his job, jilted by his girl, down on his luck..." In a quick first sequence, a forlorn Buster engages in a series of failed suicide attempts. He lays down in front of a trolley car only to have it back up and continue on a different track; he tries standing under a giant bank safe only to have the safe fall before he can run and position himself under it; he tries to hang himself from a tree branch, but that doesn't take, either. Through the window of a restaurant, he sees a bottle marked 'Poison.' Oh, sweet salvation! He drinks it down, only to discover it's whiskey, disguised as poison by the restaurant's crafty waiter who's imbibing on the sly. In the film's cleverest gag, Buster sees two bright headlines cutting through the nighttime fog--a train! Buster races to stand in between the headlights, anticipating his welcome grisly death. As the headlights approach the camera, however, we become aware that they're not attached to a train, but two motorcycles, riding side by side. They pass by Buster, who, perturbed by his continued existence, stalks away, brow furrowed. It's a wonderful opening sequence and I wish Hard Luck had continued in this same vein. Alas, it does not. Perhaps Keaton thought the suicide gags would become redundant, perhaps he (or someone else) deemed them too dark to sustain an entire short. Whatever the reason, the subsequent plot ditches the black humor and becomes very, very silly.
Buster stumbles into a meeting of a bunch of business men bemoaning the fact that they have all the animals for the local zoo, except one--the elusive armadillo! I am 100% positive Keaton & co. chose the armadillo because its sounds funny because, seriously, an armadillo, what? So silly. The zoo pays cash up front (for some reason) and Buster embarks on the hunt, which consists of him fishing and stumbling into a fox hunt at a country club. Virginia Fox is hanging at the country club and after Buster helps her onto her horse, she invites him to join the hunt. There are a lot of shenanigans with him and his giant horse, including Buster paddling the steed across a lake. At one point, he tries to wrangle his runaway horse and ropes a bear cub instead.
Meanwhile, an outlaw named Lizard Lip Luke (Joe Roberts) robs the country club. Some more stuff happens and Buster manages to save the girl and in keeping with the conventions of silent comedies, proposes to her immediately. She demures, however, because he husband is sitting right next to them. Rut ro. Buster hightails it out of there, ending up poolside. He finds a four-leaf clover by the high dive--maybe his luck is changing. Feeling rejuvenated, he climbs the high dive...only to miss the pool completely and fall straight through the concrete! Ouch. Perhaps he's finally accomplishes his long sought-after demise? Or not. The intertitle informs us: "After several years, Buster returns to the point of impact." In the long-lost final scene, we watch Buster climb out of the hole, clad in Oriental garb. Hey...what's going on here? He proceeds to pull up a Chinese wife...and three Chinese kids! He mimes his fall to them and the family leaves the scene, hand in hand. The End. Keaton claimed that that ending was the biggest laugh-getting scene of his entire career. It was so riotous, in fact, that audiences were still laughing into the beginning of the next feature.
It is a funny gag to be sure, but it is an impossible joke, what Keaton called a cartoon gag. In making his own shorts, he had tried to avoid this kind of Looney Tunes physics. He broke his own rules, probably because it was too good to pass up, and the audiences in 1921 more than justified his decision.