The High Sign (1921)

Keaton Komedy Klassic

The ‘High Sign’ has to be my favourite Buster Keaton short and it just so happens to be the first independent film Keaton produced, giving birth to his iconic unnamed character. However, Keaton was reportedly disappointed with the short and didn’t release it until the following year, instead making One Week his first solo short. I question why though as I feel the premise of The ‘High Sign’ is one of Keaton’s most inspired and even worthy of being used as the set-up for a feature – it’s true what they say, the artist is often wrong about their own work. The opening prologue of The High Sign states “Our hero came from Nowhere– he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”; and considering his superhuman stunts, Keaton is like an alien who just landed on Earth. This opening prologue reminds me of a statement Roger Ebert made in his review of The General; “[Keaton] seems like a modern visitor to the world of silent clowns”.

The ‘High Sign’ packs in so much gags and material into its 21-minute runtime, chocked full of blink-and-you-miss-it moments in the story of a wannabe gangster who also becomes a bodyguard for the man he is assigned to kill. The gag involving Keaton’s set-up with the dog, the meat and the string (it’s hard to explain) is reminiscent of something Mr. Bean would conjure while the short also features the earliest example I’ve seen in a film of a recurring gag with the high sign itself, a secret signal between the members of a gang known as The Blinking Buzzards. Keaton even messes with the audience’s expectation for comic effect by walking past a banana peel on the ground only to not slip on it. Furthermore, the short’s finale is a real “How did they do that?” sequence. The house with its traps and secret hatches is an astounding piece of set design and when four rooms on duel levels appear in the frame at once in which Keaton jumps back and forth between them, it reminds me of a 2D platform video game. I was laughing, in awe and was even shocked (when the gangster’s neck is closed on the door) all at once. All of this takes place within a nostalgic, Coney Island-like setting (filmed at Venice Pier in Los Angeles) and even features the appearance of a man at the 11 minutes mark who bears quite a resemblance to that other great silent comic, Charlie Chaplin (intentional or not?). I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again; the genius of Buster Keaton will never cease to amaze me.