Directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Cline
Release Date: March 16, 1921
Total Running Time: 21 minutes
Buster's feeling of failure are compounded when he can't even seem to kill himself. But the sight of a beautiful belle brightens his spirits, and the chase is on to win her heart.
Buster Keaton: Unlucky Man
Virginia Fox: Fox Hunter
Joe Roberts: Lizard Lip Luke
The ending to this film, in which Buster dives through a swimming pool all the way to China, returning years later with a Chinese wife and children, contained what Keaton said was his longest sustained laugh; it was considered lost for more than 80 years before being rediscovered and reinserted into the film.
This is based on the incomplete version found on the Kino laserdisk. According to a title card, the last three minutes are missing. It was a lost film until it was reconstructed by Raymond Rohauer, David Gill, and Kevin Brownlow. For more information, see Brownlow's article about the project in The Great Stone Face.
Fired from his job, jilted by his girl, down on his luck, Keaton wants nothing more than to end it all at the beginning of Hard Luck. He brushes a rich man's clothes as he pays off a cab, but the man ignores him and walks away. Dejected, Keaton leans on the cab just as it drives away, and he lands in the street. He sees a streetcar and runs to lie down on the tracks in front of it. Right before it hits him, it stops and backs up. Next he sees workmen hauling a safe up to the second floor of a building. He cuts the rope but can't get under it quickly enough. It crashes through the sidewalk. He sheepishly hands the rope to a workman and runs away.
He sees a man holding a long rope. Keaton burns through it and steals several yards. He goes to a tree in the zoo, ties one end of the rope around his neck and the other around a tree branch, kisses the world good-bye, and jumps. The rope falls off. A crowd notices his suicide attempt. He manages to firmly attach the rope to the branch, but the branch bends. Two cops come over and Keaton runs away. He gets on a street car, but it goes only a few hundred feet before it reverses and delivers him back to the police. They chase him. He assumes a heroic pose beside a statue of General Harrison Otis and the cops run past him.
That night, Keaton hangs out in front of a nail salon. He jumps in front of a pair of headlights, but they are attached to two motorcycles, and they pass by him. He looks into a restaurant, where a waiter replaces a poison bottle on a shelf. He climbs in the window and guzzles. It makes him feel better, so he finishes off the bottle (it's the waiter's whiskey stash). Meanwhile, a group of old men are eating and discussing the lack of an armadillo at their zoo. Keaton joins them, and he drunkenly volunteers to capture one. They ask for his credentials and he says he was attached to a branch of the zoo. The chairman hands over a reward.
Keaton begins his scientific hunt. As he swirls the grounds in his coffeepot by the campfire, a bullet drops off of his ammunition belt. He picks up his fishing rod and heads off to the lake. While he rolls a cigarette, he catches a small fish, which he uses as bait for a larger fish. Finally he hooks a fish so big that it hauls him in, and he returns, dripping and fishless, to his campsite. The bullet in the fire explodes: the end to a perfect day.
While out hunting (he tries to shoot a critter, but he's holding the gun backwards) he walks by a country club. He sees a man walking on water in the pool and he tries it himself. He falls in. Then he sees the man in the shallow end, on stilts. He gets out and sees a dog emerge from a pond, then shake himself. He tries it and it works.
Next he assists a damsel in distress (Virginia Fox): a female fox-hunter who can't get on her horse. He gets on his hands and knees to act as a step, and she invites him to join the hunt. He tries to get on a nearby horse, but the stirrups are on elastic bands. Finally he jumps onto the horse, but his hat falls off. He rides the elastic stirrup down, grabs his hat, then springs back up.
After his horse difficulties, he can't find the hunt. He gets off of his horse, crosses his legs, and the animal imitates him. He climbs back on and trots down a road, followed by the fox. He demonstrates other ways to cross a lake on horseback: first by paddling like a canoe, then by rowing like a rowboat. Back on land, they come to a low bridge. Keaton walks over, the horse walks under, and he jumps back on. At a second bridge, the horse does a u-turn and Keaton gets on a passing bull. He's thrown and he runs. He climbs on another bridge and drops on to his horse as it passes.
While the hunters return to the clubhouse, Keaton's horse runs out of control. He lassos a pole and pulls himself off. Then he ropes an animal in the bushes and pulls mightily, Unfortunately it isn't his horse, it's a bear. He runs but forgets to drop the rope. Eventually he notices and they part company.
Keaton somersaults through the club window and the hunters hand him a cup of tea. Startled by a bear rug, he throws his cup and runs.
Lizard Lip Luke (Joe Roberts) and his gang look at his wanted poster. He rips it down and they go in the club to hold up the members. Keaton comes in, then gets a fishing rod which he uses to hook Luke's gun. They throw him out, knocking the gun from his hand.
Fox comes in wearing a bathing suit and Roberts checks her over. Meanwhile the gang relieves other members of their belongings. Keaton hears Fox struggling, so he climbs in a window and grabs a shotgun. He can't risk shooting her, so he puts the gun on a hat rack and ties a string to the trigger, then offers to fight Roberts. Roberts unhands her, but when Keaton pulls the string, nothing happens. Keaton tries to stroll away, but Roberts comes after him and tosses him outside. Roberts prepares to ravish the maiden until his gang comes in to show off the loot.
Disguising himself by using his clip-on tie as a moustache, Keaton comes back in with a box of ammunition. He puts it into the stove and leads Fox out. The bullets shoot out of the stove, and the gang dives for cover.
Outside, beside a man sitting on a rock, Keaton declares to Fox that no man can come between them. She agrees, except for her husband. The man turns around and shakes Keaton's hand.
Keaton goes to the dressing room and puts on a swimsuit. He walks to the pool. On finding a four-leaf clover, he hands it to his rival because he needs it more. He climbs up a very high dive and bounces. He misses the pool, and club-members gather around the deep hole.
"Years later" reads the title card. Unfortunately, that's where the film ends. Here's Keaton's description of what happens next, from My Wonderful World of Slapstick: "Again the pool at the country club is seen, but the whole place is now a deserted ruin. There is no water in the swimming pool. In a moment I clamber up out of the hole in the cement walk. I am in Chinese costume, complete with pigtail, and help my Chinese wife and kids up out of the hole. In pantomime I point to the high-diving board, then to the hole I made, and we all laugh" (p. 174).
In 1921, films played on very mixed bills. When Hard Luck screened in New York City, it played with The Golem, Paul Wegener's horror film based on an antecedent of Frankenstein. The Times was grateful for the "mirthful" light relief (June 20, 1921). -- Lisle Foote