June 22, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1921--The High Sign

The High Sign

Although the first short Buster shot, The High Sign was only released when Buster injured himself while filming The Electric House. Keaton didn't think the film would make a good debut; it wasn't up to his high standard. He was right to scrap the picture. The High Sign isn't terrible, but it is gimmicky and doesn't display the precise logic his later films would. It's typical of an artist in transition. The humor is more Arbuckle than Keaton (Buster's old Comique co-star Al St. John even makes a cameo.) The direction isn't as sharp as it would become but there are glimpses of the mechanical that showcase Buster's engineering acumen.

Buster's introduction into the picture (and, taken chronologically, what would have been his introduction to his own films), is a doozy. The film opens with the title: "Our Hero came from Nowhere--he wasn't going Anywhere and he got kicked off Somewhere." Typically Keatonesque in its existential vagary. A train passes by the frame and Buster then comes flying into view from offscreen left, as if casually tossed off by the hand of Fate--an entrance if there ever was one.

Buster wastes no time getting to his next gag, wherein he sits on a bench and starts reading a newspaper. He unfolds the paper. He keeps unfolding--it's bigger than he is. He stands on the bench and keeps unfolding until the news envelops him and he topples over. His head bursts through the newsprint and there he reads a help wanted ad--crack shot wanted at shooting gallery. Pratfall turns to opportunity. The only problem is, Buster doesn't have a gun. He solves this by lifting a policeman's revolver...and replacing it with a banana. Easy enough. Next problem: he can't shoot. At the beach, he practices hitting beer bottles, but he's such a comically bad shot, wherever he aims, he hits at least two feet to the right of the target. St. John, as a beach bum, gets the brunt of Buster's bad aim.

At the shooting gallery, Tiny Tim (Joe Roberts, again) hires Buster. Unbeknownst to Buster, Tiny is a member of The Blinking Buzzards, a ruthless gang of outlaws whose hideout is adjacent to the shooting gallery. To gain entrance to the hideout, you must give the titular sign. Because Buster can't shoot, he designs a device where every time he aims his rifle and shoots, he steps on a lever which pulls a string that runs outside the gallery. The string is attached to a piece of meat dangling out of reach of a dog. Each time the dog lunges for the meat, the bell rings so it appears Buster's shot has landed.

In a parallel plot, Tiny and the Buzzards plot to kill a businessman, who, on the search for a bodyguard, comes across the seemingly deadeye Buster and hires him to protect him from the Buzzards. At the same time, Buster is indoctrinated into the gang and tasked with assassinating the same man! Oops. The plot is full of melodramatic farce and twists of fortune, not something you usually find in a Keaton film.

Fearing the Buzzards, the business man has outfitted his house with all sorts of escape routes. Predating even One Week, it's the first draft of the trick house, a frequent Keaton comedy setting. The booby-trapped abode features trap doors in the floorboards, swinging wall panels, a collapsible drainpipe, and a painting that's disguising an escape route. Clueing in the man (and his daughter) in on the Buzzards' designs, Buster pretends to kill the man. However, Tiny Tim and the gang discover the ruse, which leads to a chase all through the house. Keaton and cameraman Elgin Lessley film the escape via a two story cutaway set so that we see all the action play out in a long shot without cuts. In the end, Tiny falls through the trap door and Buster and the girl, having bested the gang and saved the old man, embrace. The End.

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