Today is the anniversary of the release date of Buster Keaton’s The High Sign (1921). Technically The High Sign was Keaton’s first film as director and solo star, but he was dissatisfied with it and shelved it for a time. Thus his first movie released to the public was One Week. Keaton ended up releasing The High Sign several months later when an injury sidelined him for several weeks, delaying the production of his next short.
The High Sign is a very funny picture, and it is only with seasoning that we are able to see the problems Keaton himself had with it. Keaton always had an extravagant imagination, but this one contains several gags that are not germane to the plot, and Keaton rapidly became an obsessive self-policeman when it came to such things. One of my favorites in this film breaks the rule: Keaton opens a newspaper, and keeps opening it until he reveals it to be ridiculously huge. It’s very funny, but it happens for no reason and goes nowhere. One can see the unfortunate influence of Larry Semon and Norman Taurog at work. Keaton rapidly left those sort of influences in the dust. But the movie is mighty entertaining nonetheless.
Keaton plays a poor shlub who works at a shooting gallery, and has rigged it to look like he is a masterful trick shot. This backfires when he is hired by a secret gang of crooks to bump a guy off (and then is hired by that same guy as a bodyguard). A fun recurring gag is the gang’s secret signal, the titular “High Sign”.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.