The High Sign (1921)
Buster Keaton’s first starring short languished for over a year before being released – at his request. He later said he was embarrassed by it, but is it as bad as Keaton thought?
The first reel of the film follows Keaton’s everyman as he tries to secure work at a shooting gallery. First, we see him clip an ad out of a ridiculously over-sized newspaper, then he gets himself a pistol by stealing one off a cop and replacing it with a banana. He takes that pistol to the beach and tries shooting some bottles, under the supervision of Al St. John, who is shot in the behind before the practice session is over. Soon it is apparent that his aim is never going to improve – when he aims left, shots go right, and when he aims straight ahead, he shoots a bird out of the sky. At the shooting gallery, he contrives to fool the manager (Ingram B. Pickett) by rigging up a system that will cause the bell to ring every time he takes a shot. Since he uses a little dog to pull the string, however, things get out of hand when the dog tries to chase a cat.
Meanwhile, the audience learns that his boss is a member of “The Blinking Buzzards,” a secret order that meets in the back room of the shooting gallery. They use a hand sign that involves sticking both thumbs into the nose and holding the hands to look like a bird’s wings (“the high sign”). They are trying to extort money from one August Nickelnurser, but he has so far resisted paying off, and today is the day they will make good on their threat to kill him. August has filled his house with secret doors so that he can get out of any room in a hurry, but his lovely daughter (Bartine Burkett) doesn’t think that’s enough; he needs to hire a bodyguard. Both she and the manager are convinced that Buster is a dead shot, so they each hire him – one to kill August, the other to protect him.
After a few more superfluous gags at the shooting gallery, Buster heads over to Nickelnurser’s home, where we spend most of the second reel. It turns out that the butler is a plant of the Blinking Buzzards, who also lurk outside a window, so Buster is under constant pressure to kill August, even as he tries to woo his daughter and prove himself a brave bodyguard. He tries getting August to fake his death, but the Buzzards get wise. Pretty soon, August and Buster are running around the house, using the trapdoors to evade the Buzzards and leap from one room to another. At one point, Keaton uses a gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Adventurer” and traps a Buzzard’s head in a door. At another, he kicks Nickelnurser, thinking it’s a Buzzard hiding behind a curtain. Eventually, he is able to trap or knock out all of the Buzzards, and the girl embraces him as he gives the high sign one last time.
I’d agree with Keaton that this wasn’t the best or most original of his films, but it doesn’t seem to me he had anything to be deeply embarrassed about. Still, he led off his releases with the decidedly better “One Week,” and that probably was better for his reputation. By the time this came out, audiences were used to seeing Keaton as a starring player, and so the more middling material would have gone down easier, as it does for us today. I wonder also if his distaste for the movie has to do with the fact that his character isn’t above stealing the cop’s gun. Later he would claim in his autobiography that what differed him from Chaplin was that his character was always an honest working man, who would find a way to earn what he needed without stealing, and that’s demonstrably not the case here.
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John, Joe Roberts, Charles Dorety
Run Time: 20 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).