The High Sign

Film Review by Dean Duncan Feb 13, 2015

History tells us that Buster wasn’t happy with his first solo short, and that he shelved it, and that it was only ever released because of that one broken ankle that put him temporarily out of commission and made it impossible for him to fulfill his contract obligations for a bit. Interesting, and given the evidence here, inexplicable. How can he not have been pleased? How can the studio not have insisted? What Keaton has done is sprung, fully formed and practically all-powerful, from the forehead of all previous film comedy. Yes, there are traces of his extended, productive apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, and there’s the actual Al St. John, comporting himself pretty well exactly the way he had through the course of those same films. Plus, there’s no one like Charlie Chaplin, and his Mutual productions are film comedy’s high water mark, and even at the point of The Adventurer (1917)—the last Mutual comedy—Chaplin was in many ways still just getting started. Plus, these days people can carried away with their Buster reverence.

But look at this thing!

Look at how carefully paced it is. Jokes come slow and jokes come fast, depending on the requirements of the piece and on Keaton’s own, already completely confident filmmaker sense. The gags flow with practically organic aptness, and occasionally with a tremendously bold modernity, even eccentricity. (Who else would have thought of putting that ukulele bit right there?) Witness the exquisite planting and reaping—excepting that amazing, direct address moment with the banana—the sublime distribution and execution and elaboration of these gags. (Are you suspecting that these adverbs are inflated? Don’t take my word for it. Watch the movie!) Even more, and more cinematically, look at the utterly confident exploration of time and space, of planes and perspectives. The cross sectional rendering of the house! (That guy’s head, closed in that door! The shooting!)

Finally, for all of the film’s Dada and direct address, one is struck by its modesty. In connection note the tremendous performances, not only by this small, gravely beautiful man, but by every one else that he’s got working for him. This one is probably a little more surreal (the painted hook, etc.) than most of what would follow. But in terms of craft The High Sign is so perfectly classical, so element-neutral and democratically distributed. We shouldn’t inflate things, so I’ll suppress the impulse to talk about film cathedrals. But it really is all for one and one for all. You can just see it, and feel it. The game has changed!