The High Sign (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1921): USA
Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed on DVD.
When Buster Keaton co wrote and co directed The High Sign with Eddie Cline he already showed a firm grasp of the medium of film and a willingness to explore its potential. Keaton’s very modern sense of humor and creativity is on full display in this extremely funny short film.
Keaton plays a drifter literally thrown off a train and into the film. He manages to fool the head of a shooting gallery into thinking he is a flawless marksman and gets a job. The head of this shooting gallery is also the head of a rough underground gang named the Blinking Buzzards and they recruit Keaton to kill the town miser whom they failed to extort money from. The problem is the miser and his daughter just hired him moments earlier to be his bodyguard. This leads to a laugh filled chase through a house filled with trap doors and secret getaways.
Keaton’s comedy is often unpredictable and translates to modern audiences better than any of his contemporaries. His scenarios tend to come full circle, not being set up for one joke but for several. Right away Keaton walks up to a fast moving merry go round. We have no idea what he is doing. Suddenly, and with impeccable timing, he grabs the newspaper from the pocket of a man riding the merry go round. Keaton sits down and unfolds the paper several times until it is enormous finally spying the ad for the shooting gallery, however, the jokes not over yet. He folds up the paper and the man whom he stole it from gets off the merry go round, notices his paper is gone and, mistaking Keaton for a newspaper boy, buys his own paper back from Keaton.
There is a surreal nature to much of Keaton’s comedy as well. Keaton paints a hook on a wall then hangs his hat on it. In a rather mind boggling display of camera trickery he nails a cigar into a board as if it were a nail, the cigar amazingly disappearing into the board. In another scene one of the gang looks into one of the rooms of the house and Keaton slams the door trapping the man’s head inside the room as it hangs suspended between the door and the frame. It is a hilarious sight!
Keaton and co director Kline have a great sense of where to put the camera to capture Keaton’s antics not wasting one bit of his brilliant performance. They also make great use of the abilities of the camera, using double exposures and perspective tricks to carry off some of their gags.
Like many of the Keaton shorts this is a great, inventive, and hilarious film and shouldn’t be missed.