Directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Cline
Release Date: April 21, 1921
Total Running Time: 21 minutes
When Buster finds himself assigned to kill the very gentleman he's been hired to protect, he has to choose between his commitment to his new society and his yearning to commit to the gentleman's daughter.
Buster Keaton: The Man
Bartine Burkett Zane: Miss Nickelnurser
Al St. John: Man Hit During Target Practice
The High Sign was the first of Keaton’s independent movies to be filmed, but Keaton felt it wasn’t strong enough to be his debut film, so he didn’t release it until months later, as the seventh Keaton short to be released.
The High Sign was the first short film Buster Keaton made on his own, but it was the seventh he released. According to several biographies, he delayed it because he wasn't happy with it. However, both his contemporaries and audiences today disagree with him.
The film begins with Keaton getting thrown off of a train. Quick to land on his feet, he steals a newspaper (which unfolds to the size of a bed sheet) and finds a help wanted ad for an expert shot at a shooting gallery. After selling the paper back to the man he stole it from, he replaces a distracted cop's gun with a banana and heads to the beach for some target practice. Unable to hit anything he aims at (but never failing to hit something, including Al St. John in a cameo), he drops the gun and goes to the gallery. Tiny Tim, the enormous proprietor, engages him and tells him to practice, for when he comes back, he wants to hear the bell ring every time.
While Keaton practices, Tim leaves and joins his gang, the Blinking Buzzards, "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 decide to kill August Nicklenurser, who refused to pay $10,000 protection money. Meanwhile, Keaton has rigged the gallery bell (using string, a dog, and a bone) to ring whenever he presses a lever. When Tim returns, he passes his employment test and August, impressed with Keaton's abilities, asks him to be his body guard. Keaton, impressed with Nicklenurser's daughter, accepts.
Next, Tim takes Keaton to the Buzzard's hideout, where he learns the high sign and swears an oath. They tell him to kill Nicklenurser and throw him out. He returns to the gallery and deals with three increasingly malevolent customers until he's had enough, and he escapes. During his flight, he encounters the aftermath of the cop's attempt to arrest Tim with a banana instead of a gun: the peel that Tim tossed after contemptuously eating the fruit. 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 use the high sign on him, but the cop isn't a Buzzard. Luckily the nearby fruit vendor is, and he smacks the cop over the head.
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, Keaton hatches a plan to fake Nickelnurser's death in front of the Buzzards, who have gathered around the house. It works, until Nickelnurser comes back to life prematurely. 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 gives us the high sign.
When The High Sign was finally released it got good reviews. The Variety notice said "his stuff is original, and always consistent with the story thread he maintains. No haphazard bits for him, always ringing them in legitimately" (March 24, 1922). The New York Times liked it even more, calling it "a riotous Buster Keaton comedy, less pointed than some of the others, but ingenious and irresistibly funny" (March 20, 1922). It's a better movie than Keaton himself realized. — Lisle Foote