The ‘High Sign’ is a short Buster Keaton comedy, made in 1920 but not released until 1921, in which Buster inadvertently gets tasked with both saving the town’s richest man from being assassinated by a gang of criminals, while also being employed by that very same gang to assassinate him.
This was the first film Buster Keaton made without Fatty Arbuckle, although it wasn’t released initially because Buster Keaton was disappointed with it, saying it was too similar to his Fatty Arbuckle collaborations. So they cancelled it and released One Week instead. And then another five films after that, too, before they finally got around to showing this one anywhere.
(In the end The ‘High Sign’ only got released at all because Buster Keaton broke his ankle filming The Electric House in 1921 and couldn’t work for 4 months, and 4 months without releasing a film was impossible to contemplate in the 1920s, evidently, just in case everyone forgot you existed if there was any break in your release schedule. Presumably cinema goers back then were even more unforgiving of release schedule slackness than youtube’s algorithms are today.)
The weirdest thing about all that is that this is absolutely brilliant in pretty much every way. Buster’s at his most effortlessly charming; there’s loads of funny sight gags; there’s a dog, a cat, and a fairground; a woman playing a ukulele for no reason other than she looks like she’s having loads of fun playing a ukulele; some funny intertitle captions; and, best of all, there’s plenty of ingenious elaborate contraptions, culminating in a house full of trapdoors and secret passages for the inevitable ever escalating chase scene finale.
Also all of it happens without Fatty Arbuckle being absolutely repellent for 25% of the runtime. Which is nice.
1. I watched this on blu-ray, where it looked very nice indeed, and also had a good soundtrack.
2. I captured the screenshots from this version on youtube, which doesn’t look anywhere near as nice, and also has a much worse soundtrack.
3. Which is a shame.
5. There’s a dog in this but it’s not Luke the Dog.
6. And also there’s the world’s most distressed looking cat.
7. Poor thing.
8. If I could go back in time I would go back to Hollywood in 1920 and save it from it’s day of terror.
9. But I can’t so I haven’t
Title: The ‘High Sign’
Directors: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Runtime: 20 minutes