HIGH SIGN, THE (Buster/Eddie Cline Keaton, 1921, USA, 21m, BW)
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Edward F. Cline
Starring Buster Keaton
Al St. John
Cinematography Elgin Lessley
Edited by Buster Keaton
Distributed by Metro Pictures
April 12, 1921
Country United States
Language Silent film
English (original) intertitles
Buster plays a drifter who cons his way into working at an amusement park shooting gallery. Believing Buster is an expert marksman, both the murderous gang the Blinking Buzzards and the man they want to kill end up hiring him. The film ends with a wild chase through a house filled with secret passages.
The ‘High Sign’ starts innocuously enough. Leading man Buster Keaton is out of work and answers a want ad to be a clerk at a shooting range. Maybe the tone of the short can be determined from Keaton stealing a cop’s gun to practice, because things don’t stay innocuous for long.
In addition to the range–which affords directors Keaton and Cline two different sequences (one with Keaton acting, one with Keaton reacting)–there’s eventually an elaborate home invasion sequence, with Keaton fighting off the bad guys to protect Bartine Burkett and her father.
Of course, the bad guys hired Keaton to assassinate the father. It’s a lot of brisk storytelling. There are a handful of lovely cinematic flourishes, but mostly it’s just a good slapstick outing for Keaton. He’s got a wonderful nemesis in the giant Ingram B. Pickett. Small or (relatively) large, all Keaton and Cline’s gags work.
The High Sign has some great visuals. One surreal moment has Keaton paint a hook on the wall and then hang his hat on it. Another funny bit is Keaton trying to read a newspaper. He keeps unfolding it until it is larger than a blanket.
No doubt Keaton wanted to start his solo career out with a bang, and felt this was not the film to do it with. One Week became his first solo release and it is one of his best. The High Sign is only a slighter less effort, but works better as his first solo film. The opening shot of Keaton getting off the train is symbolic of him starting over and a sign of things to come, The General.
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