Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: slapstick

Misfortune Never Comes Alone (1903)

This simple short by Georges Méliès eschews trick photography and emphasizes slapstick humor, to the point of degenerating into a riot by the end. As with “The Colonel’s Shower Bath,” the butt of the humor is the military, especially the officer class.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone

The movie takes place on a set designed to look like an urban European street corner. A sign behind a character dressed in uniform reads “Corps de Garde,” indicating that the building is a barracks. The soldier character marches back and forth while a man has his shoes shined by another. The civilians leave and the soldier stretches out to rest. Propping himself on his rifle, he begins to snooze. A glazier walks by with glass frames balanced on his back and then a man pulls a hose across the set, apparently preparing to spray the sidewalk. Another man with a ladder props it up over the soldier and climbs up to a high gas lamp with a rag. A man dressed a bit like a modern jester runs up and looks impish as he assesses the scene of the ladder, the hose, and the sleeping soldier. He gently removes the man’s rifle and replaces it with the hose. Then he sneaks offscreen until an officer walks by. When the officer upbraids the guard for sleeping, he turns on the hose, which sprays the man working over his head. The officer winds up getting the lamp cage dropped on his head and soon the worker is tussling with the soldier, grabbing his rifle and smashing in one of the windows. When the occupants protest, the worker picks up the still-spraying hose and douses them in water. Soon police officers run up to gain control of the situation, but the result is more mayhem and water spraying everywhere. The soldier ducks into the barracks and the worker climbs up to the second floor and enters via a window. The police attempt to follow, but the worker and the prankster drag out an advertising column and topple it, blocking the entrance to the barracks. All of the characters crowd on stage and wave their arms about in distress, the social order completely upended.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone1

Méliès prefigures Mack Sennett by almost a decade here with physical humor that targets soldiers and police, and reduces a city street to complete anarchy in the name of a few chuckles. The use of the hose may have been the most challenging aspect of the production – the sets are pretty obviously painted cardboard with flimsy wood frames and the actors have to avoid pointing it at walls for fear the water will cut right through them. Even so, the upper window frame does get wet and an apparently “stone wall” sags as the worker climbs in to the upper story. A quick edit gave Méliès a chance to repair the damage before things went too far, but otherwise this movie is made in single takes, as is typical of his work. Sharp-eyed viewer will notice that several of the ads on the column are for Méliès films and the Theatre Houdin -an early form of product placement. Another area in which Méliès was an innovator, one can also see ads for Pleyel Pianos and Menier Chocolate who presumably paid for the advertising.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

A Bird’s a Bird (1915)

Just in time for the holidays comes this Keystone comedy about two husbands trying to provide a turkey for their wives’ tables. Lacking in big names, this one gives a good example of the more “pedestrian” comic output of the studio.

Chester Conklin plays Mr. Walrus, who we meet at a raffle, where he is buying up tickets in hopes of winning the grand prize – a turkey to take home for dinner. Despite his multiple tickets, when the wheel is spun he is not the winner. Now Mr. Spegle (Harry D. Ward dressed to look sort of like Ford Sterling) comes along and buys one ticket, then tricks the “foreigner” (William Hauber) who legitimately won into giving him his ticket and he takes home the bird. Walrus goes home to wife Minta Durfee and explains that he wasn’t able to get a turkey, and she expresses anxiety as her parents are coming for dinner and expect meat. A close up on a parrot in a cage gives Walrus an idea and he makes an incompetent effort to catch it, but is caught in the act by Minta. He then wonders how cat meat would taste as he sits by the family pet. This time Minta takes his knife away. Luckily, however, the Spegles are just next door and Mr. Spegle puts the turkey in the window to cool, having just finished roasting it. Now the foreigner walks up and plants a bomb in the turkey. Walrus takes the rather more American-materialist form of revenge by taking the turkey. He presents it to Minta just as she is despairing of having a decent dinner for her parents. She is suspicious at first and checks to make sure the parrot is still alive, but overjoyed once she is convinced it’s a real turkey. She instructs him to set the table, and he does a quick pratfall where he tries to lean on one of the extended “arms” after opening it out and knocks all of their good china on the floor. He also “presses” his suit by laying it out on a window seat and sitting on it. Minta meets her parents at the door and invites the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Spegle over to meet them. Of course, they are asked to stay for dinner, and Mr. Spegle recognizes the bird. Just as he is announcing Walrus’s crime, the foreigner comes up to watch the results of his handywork, but a fight breaks out among the family and the bird gets tossed out the window, the explosion throws the foreigner far into the air and he lands on Minta’s dad, crashing through the ceiling. The final minutes of the film are just the foreigner, Walrus , and Spegle locked in silly combat and comeuppance.

I think this movie would have benefitted from the presence of a Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, or even a (real) Ford Sterling. None of the players seems to be able to carry it as is. We don’t expect any kind of subtlety in a Keystone plot, but this one is very weak sauce indeed. As grim as the section is in which Conklin seems to be contemplating serving a household pet to his in-laws, this is the part with the greatest comedic potential, but it is left to sit – possibly because this isn’t a cartoon and chasing live animals around wasn’t going to be feasible in single takes (though Normand had handled the concept admirably in “A Little Hero”). The other piece of this movie is the various dinner-table arguments that take place while the bomb ticks away, reminding me of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory” of suspense, which should also translate to comedy: things are funnier if you know that all the tomfoolery is just a distraction from a ticking bomb, or so you might think. Here, it doesn’t seem to work, maybe because the audience doesn’t really trust the narrative to stick to any logical rhythm – the bomb’s going to go off when it feels like it, not when it is supposed to, so we lose that sense of urgency. At any rate, this movie isn’t a complete washout, but it’s not among the best works in Keystone’s canon.

Director: Unknown (possibly Walter Wright)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Harry Ward, Willaim Hauber, Alice Davenport, Fred Hibbard

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

 

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet1

Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet2

It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

I Fetch the Bread (1907)

This is a short comedy from Pathé Freres that decidedly reminds me of the work I’ve seen that Alice Guy was doing at this time. It is based on a simple gag, taken to improbable, almost surreal, extremes.

I Fetch the Bread

We open on a shot of a bourgeois Paris apartment, with a table set in the center of the screen, a middle-aged couple and their maid is preparing dinner. The door at the back of the set is opened to allow another couple to enter, and after brief greetings are exchanged, people begin to settle in for the meal. Now the hostess goes to a cupboard at the back, and produces a tiny crust of bread – apparently she forgot to make sure there was bread for company! Everyone looks flustered until the man of the house agrees to go out and get some more. We next see him emerge from a bakery with a prodigious loaf of bread. He runs down the street, but stops at a wine bar for a quick nip. After finishing the bottle, he moves on to a restaurant for another drink. His escapades are intercut occasionally with shots of the hungry group at home, waiting for the bread to arrive. Eventually, the male guest agrees to take on the task and get some bread, but he, too, keeps stopping at local watering holes of various description. The editing structure now alternates between the two men and their adventures, with each growing drunker and more incapable as they proceed. Eventually, the two encounter one another, hopelessly inebriated, at an outdoor café. Inevitably, the bread is dropped and trod upon. The two men finally stumble back into the apartment, to be reproved and abused by their wives.

I fetch the Bread1

This movie follows a similar pattern to the chase movies that were common at the time, with a single camera setup for each scene which the actors move through in a predictable pattern, until the final crash comes at the end. In this case, most of the shots are taken from the fronts of businesses, each time set up so that we see little of the street or surrounding buildings, but can plainly see the front door and action immediately behind it. I was a bit surprised at the number of separate camera setups at first, but when compared to a chase like “How a French Nobleman Got A Wife” from this time period, it is not unusual. The editing is somewhat advanced, in that we do cut away from scenes to see simultaneous action and then return to complete the scene, rather than having each shot show the beginning, middle, and end of a scene, something that would be more common in typical chase movies. The joke is a bit strained – evidently it is not safe to send a man out unsupervised to run a simple errand, because he will be too distracted by alcohol – but the movie works because it fulfills the audience’s expectations, including our expectations that the naughty husbands will be punished.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 11 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Noise of Bombs (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios displays both the studio’s embrace of anarchic fun and its rejection of political anarchism in a single blow. It uses violence and the Keystone Kops to deliver the mayhem audiences were looking for.

The movie begins by introducing the Chief of Police (Edgar Kennedy) and his family – an unusually intimate portrayal for a Keystone Kop. He has a wife and small baby, as well as young uniformed maid (Dixie Chene), living with him in a small but comfortable home. The maid, laughing and smiling, takes the baby outside. He kisses his wife goodbye  and goes off to work. We cut to a more familiar Keystone tableaux, as a cop (Charles Murray) with a rounded helmet yawns and stretches out for a nap on a park bench. At an undetermined location elsewhere in the park, we see four shady-looking characters with mustaches (who include Harry McCoy and Charley Chase) crouched down, participating in a dice game or some similar activity. Suddenly, Kennedy comes across them and chases them into the bushes. They all tumble across the bench where Murray is napping, knocking him down. Murray jumps up and gets his billy club ready to hit anyone else that comes through the bushes and of course Kennedy does and Murray clocks him before realizing he’s the boss.

Murray and Kennedy sort things out, but the criminals get away. Kennedy finds the maid on her walk and says hi to his baby, unaware that they are watching him. Now Murray finds the maid in the park and gives her a kiss, showing that they know one another. She lets him hold the baby and goes shopping, and when Kennedy finds him slacking off again, he removes his stripes and badge. After he leaves, the bad guys swarm in and take the cop and baby hostage. They take him back to their hideout which is full of dynamite and explosives, and they prepare a note threatening to blow up Kennedy’s house. Then they give Murray the note and a classic round black bomb to deliver. They don’t trust him, so they go with him, leaving the baby in a pile of dynamite.

Murray breaks in to the house and places the note, but gets his foot stuck hiding the bomb, so has to climb into the settee with it. When the family finds the note, they panic, but instead of evacuating, they start tearing the house apart looking for it, looking everywhere but the settee. Eventually, Murray makes his presence obvious, after the wife engages with a comedic battle to keep the rebellious settee closed. The bomb is smoking now, and everyone runs out, Kennedy eventually throws it into Murray’s hands and fires his gun to make him run. He crashes into the anarchists, and a running shootout begins as more cops arrive. Murray runs back to the hideout, with the gangsters and the police close behind, and finds the baby. As he gets ready to rush out, the bad guys get to the front door and Kennedy hurls the bomb into the shack. Murray climbs up onto the roof while the bad guys try to shoot the door open. They get in, he seals the trap door and the cops are at the front, with the anarchists trapped inside with their own bomb. Murray grabs a telephone wire and hand-over-hands himself to safety, the baby’s swaddling clothes held in his teeth. All of the good guys rush over to congratulate him and the bomb finally goes off, destroying the shack, all the explosives, and presumably the villains.

The trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist, while based to some degree on radical direct action of the time, had by 1914 become a trope of political cartoons and other media, and was often associated with racism against immigrants, especially those from Southern Europe. We’ve seen it used before, including in Charlie Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” but it is taken to a clumsy extreme in this movie to create anti-cop bad guys that will be instantly recognizable and not require any back story, which a single-reel film like this one has no time for. It stands out because Keystone Kops humor often mocks the police, and much of the more well-remembered slapstick of the time glamorized the little man (or tramp) who managed to get the better of them. There is some of that mockery here, in Murray’s incompetence and Kennedy’s bullying, but ultimately we see the police in this movie as on the side of right. Still, it’s all really just a set up for manic running around and the tension of wondering when the bomb will go off.

For us today, it’s a rarity to get to see a Keystone Kops movie that actually stars…the cops, and not someone like Chaplin, Ford Sterling, or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is probably more representative of the vast majority of Keystone output that didn’t trade on any star power of big personalities, but just worked to a comedy formula that was known to work. The standard of film making is pretty typical as well. We get an insert shot of the note, a couple of brief close-ups, and a few two-shots, but most of the movie is played at proscenium distance with characters moving about little stages, linked together through editing. The editing is fast, as you would expect in a comedy, and uses cross-cutting to heighten the tension of the bomb and the rescue. The result is cheap, effective, funny at times, and recognizably Keystone.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charles Murray, Edgar Kennedy, Dixie Chene, Harry McCoy, Charley Chase, Lucille Ward, Josef Swickard, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 11 Min

I have not found this available to watch complete on the internet. If you do, please comment. You can see a brief sample: here.

 

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

Kid_1921

The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

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Monkey Race (1909)

This Italian short comedy reminds me of the work of Alice Guy and other Europeans at the time it came out. It’s very basic, a bit transgressive, and centers around an extended chase sequence.

Monkey Race

The movie begins as a pair of workmen, accompanied by household servants, bring a crate into the kitchen of a middle class home. A particularly tall woman in a long dress, apparently the mistress of the house, presides excitedly over the proceedings. The crate is open and out springs an ape – or, anyway, a man in an unconvincing orangutan suit. He jumps up and down, eventually climbing onto the counter and removing Madame’s hair – which is now revealed as a wig on her bald head! The monkey runs into the bed room and hides under the covers. When the people come in to find it, they ignore the large bump in the bed and look up into the curtains to see if it has climbed up there, but when it springs out of its hiding place, everyone is knocked down. It leaps out of the window. We now cut to the street, where a photographer is setting up to get a picture of a man and his son in front of a shop window. The gorilla runs past, spoiling the shot, and then all of the humans in pursuit knock over the camera and the subjects, causing a fight to break out. Next, the monkey leaps on top of a hansom cab, knocking over the driver, who is trampled by the crowd of pursuers. Then, the monkey runs into a wooded area (perhaps a park) and climbs a tree. Again his pursuers follow, he monkey performs some swinging stunts and for some reason this sequence is under-cranked to make the motion look faster. Eventually, the monkey returns to the ground and the chase continues.

Monkey Race1

The monkey knocks down some soldiers and some lounging fire men, who pick up ladders to bring with them in the chase. This is fortunate, because now the monkey climbs up the side of a building, and the ladders ease their pursuit. They ascend the wall, and despite occasional tumbles, are able to reach the roof, where the monkey climbs down the chimney. The humans follow, one at a time, and there is an odd shot showing the interior of the chimney as each person (and the animal) falls down toward the bottom. The monkey tumbles out through the furnace door into a basement where two men are washing something in a large tub, and soon afterward the whole crowd bursts through the wall and knocks the men over, grabbing the monkey as it splashes happily in the tub.

Monkey Race2

Parts of this film rely upon special effects, though most of it is just driven by the madcap chase. The monkey first leaps onto the wall by jumping up to a high window with bars to climb from, and this is achieved by means of reversing the film of a shot in which the man-in-the-suit had leaped down from that perch. The shot of monkey and people climbing the all was done as in “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” with the camera placed above the floor, shooting down, to give the illusion that the “top” of the screen was actually the higher point on the wall, and then the people pretend to be climbing when they are actually crawling. I believe the chimney-interior was handled the same way, but with the odd choice of showing a cut-out chimney, as if the camera has x-ray vision through the bricks. The bald woman appears to be played by a man, and is itself a little risqué in terms of making fun of the middle-class owner of a monkey. At any rate, this all seems about three years behind for 1909, by which time Biograph is already showing movies with cross-cut editing and more complex narratives, but it is an enjoyable example of early film comedy.

Director: Unkown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Look Pleasant, Please (1918)

This comedy short stars Harold Lloyd in an early version of his “glasses” character and pulls together many jokes that had been around at least as long as the movies, but manages a pacing and zaniness that shows how Lloyd rose to become one of the major comedy stars of the next decade.

The movie starts out in a (still) photographer’s studio, where Bebe Daniels is annoyed by the off-hand sexual harassment of the proprietor (William Gillespie). She runs to the phone to call her large and jealous husband, who tells Gillespie that he’s coming after him, firing off his gun a couple of times to make the point. Meanwhile, Lloyd works at a nearby vegetable stand, where he presses down the scales to rip off customers and charges a “war tax” of $1 for each item. A group of policemen come up and accuse him; he tries to buy them off with produce, but winds up running into the photographer’s to hide. The photographer mistakes Harold for the husband at first, but when Harold tries to hide instead of killing him, he gets an idea. He puts Harold in charge of the shop and goes to hide in the dark room.

Faith, hope, and charity

The next sequence of the film is a parade of silly customers to the studio, and Harold’s silly attempts to photograph them. One is an old maid (Dorothea Wolbert) who won’t stop talking, so Harold puts her face into a stand so she can’t speak, then poses her with a jug which winds up spilling all over her. He gives her a life preserver. Then a group of drunken swells come in (one of them is James Parrott). Lloyd has a hard time getting them to sit without falling over, but eventually poses them as “faith, hope and charity.” A country couple comes in, but their scene evidently was cut, as we cut back to Bebe and her husband, before seeing the “burles-queen,” who shocks Lloyd with her revealing outfit and briefly fights with janitor Snub Pollard when he tries to look up her skirt (with binoculars, no less). Snub is locked the dark room with the real photographer, but sticks Harold with a pin to escape, just as the husband charges in.  He fires his gun and now Lloyd also hides in the dark room, shoving first Pollard, then Gillespie out to confront the enraged man. A couple of fortuitous bits of crockery are hurled, forcing the husband into the dark room when a police inspector finally comes in to break it all up. Lloyd lets the husband out at the critical moment to punch the inspector, who arrests him, then embraces a quite-willing Bebe for the camera. The End.

A lot of the photography jokes go right back to early Edison, Gaumont, or Lumière films, but where they would have been entire films unto themselves in those days, here they are all thrown together and run at a furious pace, keeping the laughs coming non-stop. There’s little concern in this Hal Roach picture for narrative logic, and a lot more for comedy chaos, but it has a more deliberate feeling than comparable Keystones, as if Lloyd and director Alfred J. Goulding had thought through the chaos carefully before starting. The editing is spot-on and we get multiple camera-angles within scenes as well as cross-cutting to suggest simultaneous action. In other words, state of the art for 1918, but with a devil-may-care attitude to plotting that ties it back to an earlier style of comedy as well. A great example of Lloyd’s developing comedy style, before he started hanging of the edges of buildings to get laughs.

Director: Alfred J. Goulding

Camera: Walter Lundin

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Snub Pollard, William Gillespie, James Parrott, Dorothea Wolbert

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Be My Wife (1921)

This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?

Be My Wife

The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.

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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?

High_Sign_(1921)

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.

High Sign

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.

High Sign1

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.

High Sign2

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).