Saturday, February 23, 2019

Stubs - The High Sign

The High Sign (1921) Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John. Directed by Eddie F. Cline, Buster Keaton. Screenplay by Eddie F. Cline, Buster Keaton. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck Runtime 19 minutes USA Black and White, Silent, Comedy

Just because you are a comedic genius doesn’t mean you’re a good judge of your own work. Case in point, The High Sign. When his co-star for 14 films, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle left to accept Paramount’s $3 million offer to make 18 films in three years, Buster was given Arbuckle’s controlling interest in Comique, Arbuckle’s partnership with Joseph Schenck. The new company was called Buster Keaton Productions.

The first film that company made was The High Sign, in January and February 1920, shot on location in Long Beach, where Keaton made several of his movies with Arbuckle, as well as in Venice. But in the end, Keaton was disappointed with the effort. According to Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, when Keaton screened The High Sign for Arbuckle, he took Arbuckle's enthusiasm as a sign that it was too gag-oriented and lacked a strong enough story.

Keaton would later explain his disappointment, recalling that the preview audience didn't respond well to him setting up and then subverting a gag based on a man dropping a banana peel on the street. "When the audience saw me approaching they expected me to slip on it. I tried to get a laugh by using the Mafia's secret sign, thumbs held crossed under the nose with the hands spread out on both sides of the face. [...] In the end, I decided that I had made the mistake of outsmarting the audience a little too much. But instead of cutting this scene out I added a shot. In this, after passing the camera and giving the sign, I slipped on a second banana peel somebody had dropped. That worked fine."

Instead of releasing or trying to fix it, Keaton convinced Schenck to let him make another film, One Week (1920). While The High Sign would eventually get released it was nearly a year later on April 18, 1921 (ed. note: per the@BusterKeatonSoc it was released on April 12, 1921).

Our Hero (Buster Keaton) reaches into a spinning carousel and pulls out a newspaper.

Our introduction to Our Hero (Keaton) is him being thrown from a passing train. He quickly gets to his feet and then goes walking around. At a carousel, he reaches in an pulls out a newspaper. He walks away and starts to unfold and unfold the paper until it is the size of a bed sheet. He finds a help wanted ad for an expert shot at a shooting gallery.

What starts out as a regular newspaper ends up being the size of a bed sheet.

When the man he stole it from gets off the carousel, he goes looking for another one. He takes the one from Keaton and pays him for it. Keaton knows he needs to practice for his new job and takes a distracted cop's gun, replacing it with a banana. He then heads to the beach for some target practice.

Buster "borrows" a distracted cop's gun, replacing it with a banana.

There he encounters Al St. John, who assists him. No matter how carefully Our Hero aims the gun, he hits something else. Trying to hit the middle of three bottles, he hits everything but, even shooting St. John in the rear. St. John hurries away ending up a Dr. Pullem’s Dentist’s office.

Al St. John gets caught up in Buster's target practice at the beach.

Keaton’s last shot lands a duck, who falls from the sky, dropping on Keaton’s head. Dropping the gun in the sand, he hurries off to his job interview. Tiny Tim (Ingram B. Pickett), the extremely tall proprietor of the shooting range, engages him and tells him to practice, for when he comes back, he wants to hear the bell ring every time.

Buster is left alone to practice but to no avail.

Tim leaves Keaton to practice and goes downstairs to join his gang, the Blinking Buzzards, which are described on the interstitial card as "a bold bad bunch of bloodthirsty bandits." To gain admission, he gives them the high sign: thumbs on nose, with wiggling fingers spread wing-like.

The Buzzards have been trying to extort $10,000 from a skinflint aptly named August Nicklenurser, who has refused to pay the protection money. The film describes Nicklenurser as “tight as a fourteen collar on a sixteen neck”. Since he’s refused to pay, the gang decides to kill him.

Buster rigs a system to get the bell to ring with every shot.

Meanwhile, Keaton has rigged the gallery bell (using string, a dog, and a bone) to ring whenever he presses a lever. A crowd gathers and when Tim returns, he passes his employment test.

Meanwhile, August has received a final warning from the Blinking Buzzards. It says that if he doesn’t pay them 10,000 dollars by the first of September, it will be the end of August. His daughter (Bartine Burkett) convinces him that he needs a bodyguard. They go down to the shooting range and are impressed with Keaton's abilities. August asks him to be his bodyguard. Keaton, impressed with Nicklenurser's daughter, accepts.

Buster accepts the job when the daughter (Bartine Burkett) asks him to help.

But he is not the only one impressed by Our Hero’s abilities with a gun. Tim takes him to the Buzzard’s hideout, where he is made a member of the gang. They tell him they want him to kill someone, which turns out to be the same man he’s supposed to protect. They tell him to kill Nicklenurser and send him on his way.

Tiny Tim (Ingram B. Pickett) takes Buster to the Blinking Buzzards' hideout.

Back at the shooting range, Keaton deals with three increasingly aggressive customers. One, a drunk, shoots the place up, while the last man, a hunter, sneaks in his own rifle and basically destroys the shooting range. Keaton makes his own escape after that.

A cop tries to arrest Tiny Tim with a banana.

Meanwhile, a cop tries to arrest Tim, but when he reaches for his gun it turns out to be the banana Keaton had put there. Rather than fight, the cop runs away. Tim takes the banana and eats it, depositing the peel on the ground. Keaton walks over it without a misstep, and gives the audience the high sign. Then Keaton runs into the cop who chases him. He tries to turn his jacket around to disguise himself as a member of the clergy. When that doesn’t work, he flashes him the high sign, but the cop isn't a Buzzard. Luckily the nearby fruit vendor is, and he smacks the cop over the head.

Tiny Tim about to throw the banana peel on the sidewalk.

August shows his daughter some of the secret wall panels and trap doors he's had installed, so he can escape from assassins from every room in their house. Keaton arrives and he has a look at the secrets. The butler reveals himself to be a Buzzard, and when Keaton shows no inclination to do his murderous duty, the butler tries to poison him and calls the rest of the Buzzards to the house.

After the butler threatens Keaton with a knife, he hatches a plan to fake Nickelnurser's death in front of the Buzzards, who have gathered around the house. It works until the Buzzards see Nickelnurser is really still alive.

The Buzzards then chase Keaton through every window, door, and secret escape route the house has and Keaton eliminates each in his turn. Tim is the last; as he threatens Miss Nicklenurser, Keaton drops him through a trap door. Our hero and heroine embrace and Keaton once again flashes the high sign.

While One Week is a better movie, it is not to say The High Sign is devoid of laughs. There are several laugh out loud moments, including the ever-unfolding newspaper at the beginning. Or when Tiny Tim opens the door and knocks Our Hero over the counter in the shooting gallery.

There are also some really good visuals, the best of which may be a surreal moment when Keaton paints a hook on the wall and then hangs his hat on it. One of the funniest scenes is at the end of the film, when the Buzzards are chasing Keaton around and through all the secret passages in Nickelnurser’s house.

In a specially made gif, Keaton runs through all the trap doors
and secret passages in Nickelnurser's house.

If you had never seen a Buster Keaton film, I would suggest One Week over this film. It is easy to see why Keaton might have wanted that film as his first solo effort. Still, The High Sign has its moments and should not be missed if you have the chance to see it.

No comments:

Post a Comment