Friday, February 13, 2009

Comedy: The 'High Sign' (1921, Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

The 'High Sign' (1921)
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.


  1. Thanks for finding this short. It was a lot of fun. I am going to make all my friends give me the high sign.

    Do you watch a lot of shorts and then pick one to write about? Or are you going off of some sort of list because all the shorts you have written about that I have watched I have enjoyed.

  2. You think the "High Sign" will take off? Give it two years, I say, and it will have replaced the thumbs-up gesture. Mark my words!

    I'm not going off any short films list at the moment. I do have a preliminary version of the "They Shoot Pictures" top 250 short films (it hasn't been officially released yet, I don't think), but I haven't looked at it in a few weeks.
    I'm mostly playing it by ear. Occasionally, I delve into the archives for a review from last year, but most of them I've watched this year. As a general rule (though I broke it with "Blinkity Blank") I'll only post films that I recommend to others.

    By the way, check out "The Man Who Planted Trees" in the post above. It's the best film on the blog so far!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.