USA, 21 min
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Al St. John
The entrance of Buster Keaton's unnamed character in The High Sign (1921) is, in some ways, reminiscent of Chaplin's Little Tramp persona. The wandering vagrant, named only Our Hero, is booted off a moving train, and lands in an unknown town, the audience denied any back-story or unnecessary exposition. Wandering into a nearby theme park, Buster deftly snatches a newspaper from a moving carousel (done so casually that he doesn't look like he's even trying), and attempts to read the mammoth broadsheet. In search of a job, he happens upon an opening for a talented sharp-shooter, and, despite inadvertently gunning down a duck with his practice shots, Buster feels that he's qualified enough for the position. Chaplin's Tramp was never averse to breaking the rules if he wasn't hurting anybody who didn't deserve it, and Keaton's Hero is no different. By rigging an ingenious dog-powered bell-ringer to falsify the carnival stall, Buster fools his massive employer into believing that he is an ace with the rifle.
But, of course, if the plan had gone smoothly, then there wouldn't have been a story to tell. It seems that the employer is also a member of the Blinking Buzzards mob, a bold bad bunch of blood-thirsty bandits with a curious affinity for the letter "b." Buster is enlisted to assassinate one of the gang's enemies, and, by a curious turn of events, is also employed as that very same man's bodyguard (our hero, ever the hopeless romantic, accepts the latter job only to impress the target's pretty daughter, played by Bartine Burkett). When he steadfastly refuses to carry out the hit, Buster's reckless bid to escape the Buzzards' fists leads him on a farcical anarchic chase through concealed doorways and hidden compartments, a madcap comedic set-piece that never takes the time to slow down. Despite this memorable virtuoso finale, Keaton apparently felt unsure of the quality of his first independent two-reeler, and The High Sign was shelved until the following year, when a broken ankle slowed the performer's output.