Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline’s The “High Sign” (1921) is not only among Keaton’s most breathlessly inventive two-reelers – it is also, along with his nearly nihilistic Cops (1922), among his most subversive, positing the clown not merely as an outsider but as a self-absorbed deviant and unthinking lawbreaker. A far cry from the sheltered dandies of The Navigator (Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton, 1924) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928), Keaton’s hero is here a vagabond who lives by his criminal wits, much like the early, pre-sentimentalised Tramp of Chaplin’s Work (1915) and Police (1916). Like all true clowns, Keaton’s character lacks any definitive biological origin or familial history: as an introductory title-card reads, “Our Hero came from Nowhere – he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere”. Thus is Keaton summarily ejected from a train in the opening scene, landing in an alien town as if dropped from the sky. Keaton’s first act is to swipe a newspaper, and upon seeing an ad for a shooting gallery attendant, he quickly snatches a policeman’s pistol and replaces it with a banana (the clown’s calling card). The asocial (not merely antisocial) clown’s predisposition to violence surfaces almost immediately, as Keaton attempts wanton target practice with his purloined weapon. Unable to hit some nearby glass bottles, Keaton fixes his sights on a spectating dullard who mocks his errant aim. After missing the dullard even at point-blank range, Keaton manages to shoot him in the hindquarters only when aiming elsewhere – the joke, of course, is that the laws of physics disobey the unreal clown, just as the clown disobeys the dictates of normality.
The clown’s violence may be self-indulgent, but his indulgence is that of a polymorphously perverse child, not that of an ambitious capitalist (i.e., an “adult”). This casual violence lends itself well to The “High Sign”’s central set piece, a shooting gallery where Keaton finds fleeting and imperiled employment. Wanting to please a brutish boss who insists that he never miss a shot, newly hired Keaton rigs to a pulley system a stray dog that rings a bell (indicating a struck target) whenever his foot trips a lever. The automated contraption initiates the usual comedy we expect from Keaton, who, at once lithely acrobatic and inhumanly mechanical, embodies Henri Bergson’s “mechanistic” notion of comedy, whereby life loses its naturalness and acquires a comic, puppet-like dehumanisation.
After a few minutes of gymnastic buffoonery, however, the contraption misfires and Keaton’s deceit is revealed. Broadly speaking, the mechanical misfire is fairly atypical for Keaton, whose clown usually compensates for his alienation from the social world with an intuitive – perhaps metaphysical – mastery of the inhumanly mechanical world (1). In The Scarecrow (Cline and Keaton, 1920), for instance, Keaton nimbly dines with an array of ingenious mechanical conveniences, and in The Electric House (Cline and Keaton, 1921) he outwits a mechanical engineer whose professional experience is no match for Keaton’s clownish cunning. Later films witness Keaton taming leviathans of modern technology – a train in The Goat (Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair, 1921), Our Hospitality (Jack Blystone and Keaton, 1923), and The General (Clyde Bruckman and Keaton, 1926) (2), a ship in The Navigator, and the apparatus of cinema itself in Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1924) and The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928). Though such industrial technologies routinely threaten to dwarf the individual, stone-faced Keaton is able to master them because his clown is not a humanistic individual per se, nor does he engage the everyman pathos of Chaplin (who in The “High Sign” is briefly parodied in the shape of a tramp inept at handling even the primitive technology of gunpowder). Rather, we are used to seeing Keaton’s (un)naturally clownish mechanisation grant him rare insight into “actual” machines, as if his clown were literally embodying Bergson’s metaphor. It is therefore surprising to see his contraption clumsily fail in The “High Sign”, which, predating The Electric House and The Goat (3), may be seen as a nascent or ambiguous stage in the development of Keaton’s Bergsonian clown.
Nevertheless, the plot’s own machinations contrive for Keaton a climax in which he can unthinkingly master the mechanical and come into his own as an inadvertently heroic clown, simultaneously superhuman and antihuman. Unbeknownst to Keaton’s character, the shooting gallery is in fact a front for the Blinking Buzzards, a secret society of extortionists and killers. Before he can object, Keaton is sworn into the gang and given his first assignment: murder a town miser who refuses to pay the gang’s extortion, and who, it turns out, had already hired sharpshooting Keaton as his bodyguard. In the film’s second half, Keaton finds himself both protecting the miser (and his daughter) and benefiting from the protection of the secret society as he’s pursued by cops – a perfect example of the clown’s negotiated existence between society and the underworld, without allegiance to either.
In an elaborate chase climax through a multi-levelled set, Keaton evades the gangsters, sneaking through the extensive system of trapdoors and secret passageways with which the miser has defensively equipped his house. Within the logic of the plot, Keaton could have no prior knowledge of the secret doors’ workings, of course, but the clown’s unaccountable superiority grants him knowledge of mechanistic structures that can facilitate his prodigious acrobatics. Interestingly, even the miser’s own butler is secretly a gang member, who exhorts Buster to fulfill his “oath” and commit the murder – the film envisions a surprisingly paranoid world that offers little comfort or closure. Fortunately, The “High Sign”’s two-reel construction obviates the need for closure or bourgeois denouement, and the miser’s daughter (Bartine Burkett) is hardly tempting enough to seduce Keaton away from clownishness and into heterosexual domesticity (in fact, she looks deliberately foolish, naively strumming a ukulele while Buster wonders how to foil the rampant killers). As a result, there is thankfully no romance or marriage emplotment, nor any coda of either domestic bliss or domestic frustration. By the contemporary standards of narrative cinema, far more subversive than the clown’s unlawfulness is the unpretentious, workmanlike structure of the two-reeler itself. Without the perfunctory requirements of psychological realism, a three-act structure, romantic entanglements, or an expedient denouement, the clown remains liberated from the straitjacket of normality, as does the audience for the brief moment it embraces the lost tradition of the clownish two-reeler.
- A rare exception (that proves the rule) to Keaton’s mechanical facility is One Week (Cline and Keaton, 1920), in which Keaton-and-wife’s “fixer-upper” house is threatened by a tornado and finally demolished by a train. Notably, One Week represents a rare instance in which Keaton is married at the plot’s beginning, suggesting that he has already conformed to social norms and is thus no longer clownishly empowered to dominate the mechanised world.
- Keaton’s symbiotic relationship with the train reaches its apogee in Keaton and Gerald Potterton’s The Railrodder (1965), a marvelous 25-minute homage to The General. At age 70, Keaton no longer struggles to command the railway – his mastery happens peacefully, harmoniously, and (for lack of a better word) religiously. Nevertheless, the film is bittersweet: though positing a harmony between man and machine, the tiny railcar in which Keaton travels the landscape is dwarfed by modern trains, just as Keaton’s own career had been dwarfed by modernising cinema and the technology of sound.
- The “High Sign” was in fact filmed in 1920 but not released until the following year.
The “High Sign” (1921 USA 21 mins)
Prod Co: Joseph M. Schenck Productions Dir, Scr: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John