Both The High Sign and The Goat feature Buster getting mistaken for a hardened criminal. The first moves like clockwork; the second moves like the clock got busted by a sledgehammer. The High Sign’s narrative is clean and precise, with everything resolving beautifully, down to a final-frame shot that’s the perfect capper. Buster saves the day. In The Goat, nothing gets resolved, Buster’s essentially still on the run by the movie’s end. The central narrative—that there’s a real escaped convict on the loose—gets lost for half the movie and, while Buster gets the girl, the real bad guy doesn’t get caught but instead is more or less forgotten about, and there’s no reason to believe that the town doesn’t still think Buster is a killer at the final fadeout. Hell, I didn’t even figure out the title until after the movie was over.
The High Sign is actually the first short directed by him (with Eddie Cline) but he was dissatisfied with the result and kept it from showing for a year1. As much as I like parts of it, I can see why it might have made Buster unhappy. In the best Keaton two-reelers, the first reel involves Buster either tumbling into town and getting ensnared in a complicated scheme or Buster already trapped in some sort of dead-end job or elaborate structure from which he longs/needs to escape. The second reel—the latter ten minutes—feature him escaping from bondage. Think of The Scarecrow, with its contraption-heavy house that makes even lighting the stove into a tangled ordeal, and then consider its freewheeling chase—with a dog, two men, a motorcycle dash, and a pastor nabbed on the go—as his release. Think of Neighbors, in which his simple love of a girl (Virginia Fox) is initially thwarted by family pressures and tenement housing that’s too close for comfort, and that the couple finds happiness only by fleeing… which the focus of the second reel. In One Week, familial burden—symbolized by an uncle’s “gift” of a DIY house—causes so much stress that it’s almost a relief when that house falls apart in the second half.
Sometimes, Buster inverted the formula—our hero begins the picture rootless and unformed, and finds a purpose in the second half. In The Haunted House, Buster’s dead-end job as a bank teller gets increasingly livened up so that, by the second reel, he’s in a madcap structure (a haunted house) that’s so surreal that he must figure out how to tame it, just to survive. The Goat pulls this off, too—it starts in chaos, and only gradually finds a form.
Either way, there’s freedom and order. The High Sign’s problem, and why it maybe doesn’t work as well as it should, is that it’s all order. It starts essentially in an elaborately conceived shooting gallery, to which Buster adds an even weirder contraption of entanglement. Then it moves from that into the second reel’s setpiece, a multi-level house with trapdoors, false walls, and secret rooms. It goes from one complex straitjacket to another, without the release that marks Keaton’s best shorts. The setpieces astonish, yes, and they are funny, but their setups are a little too labored. The short must’ve been a lot of work to produce, and it looks like it. So, I was appropriately awed by the engineering. But I actually laughed much harder at the throwaway gags:
The narrative’s rickety, too. As Andrew Grossman points out in a Senses of Cinema column, there’s no logical reason for Buster to understand the full nature of the booby-trapped house before shit goes haywire. Grossman sees this as an intentional razzing of narrative conventions; I think it’s probably just poor continuity, a vestige of Keaton & co. never working with a script. It’s not clear why the butler doesn’t just kill the old miser in question—since he works for the old coot, after all—instead of making poor Buster do it as an initiation, or even how the assassin gang members think they’ll be able to extort the miser if they kill him.
Even if the plot’s a mess, at least the sets are amazing. Keaton and his stuntmen pull out all the stops in the final two minutes, which are a frenzy of action heroics and pratfalls. Buster takes out a gang of hooligans by myself, and this comes across as believable—well, believable within the parameters of silent comedy—because it looks like it’s happening by accident. Buster’s just trying not to get killed. This is what staying alive looks like, when marauders are after you:
Minutes after seeing The High Sign, I watched The Goat, which features a similar multi-level chase, in an apartment building. This time, my jaw dropped—it just waggled, from laughing.
Maybe because there’s less people involved, or maybe Buster and Big Joe Roberts have a natural comic rapport, but this works better than the similar High Sign gag. Or maybe it’s because the buildup feels truer, more human-sized. The plot: Through a mixup, a town has confused Buster with Dead Shot Dan, a wanted killer. It takes a while for Buster to figure out why, upon seeing his face, everyone flees or wants to fight him. The slow-motion confusion is delicious irony—we know what Buster does not; for most of the first reel, he’s being chased without knowing why. When the truth finally dawns on our hero, his reaction is even funnier because, again, it’s more honest. He does what I would do under the circumstances (flee), instead of what I should do (turn myself in, and trust the police to figure that I’m obviously the wrong man). In his attempts to run, disguise himself, and hide himself, Buster makes himself appear more suspicious than he already does.
In all his fleeing, he ends up pissing off the town’s police chief (Joe Roberts), one of the few people who isn’t terrified by “Dead Shot Dan.” Buster escapes, and ends up defending a lovely woman (Virginia Fox) from a jerk. Instant attraction. Sparks fly. He goes home with the girl, meets her mom, sits down for dinner with the fam. And in comes the patriarch.
The best mark of a great gag is if you know it’s coming, if it’s indeed inevitable, and you laugh out loud, anyway. At the risk of killing a joke by explaining it, I’m gonna try to clarify why it works, because I think the way jokes work in The Goat can help understand why they work less well in The High Sign.
Here, Joe Roberts comes home and greets his family. Because Buster’s facing away from Joe and playing with the dog, and because Joe is busy blowing off steam and kissing his wife on the cheek, neither antagonist notices the other. We’re imagining the dialogue—“Oh, honey, Meg brought home a guest! Can he stay for supper?” “Of course! Now, let me tell you about my rough day!” “Oh, you think you had it hard, Daddy? Some jerk accosted Mr. Wiggles on the street this afternoon!” “Oh, for shame!” Etc. Normal everyday, end-of-the-day chatter. But we as the audience know the fireworks are about to explode. But they don’t. Buster keeps playing with that damn dog. Big Joe sits down for supper, tucks in his chair. Buster turns around but everyone else’s heads are bowed down, eyes closed: “Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this food before us,” etc. It’s only after the blessing is done, over a minute of screen time after Joe Roberts has entered the apartment, that he and Buster look each other in the eye.
Whereas The High Sign’s comedy is dependent on technical prowess and innovation, The Goat relies on human-scaled events—tiny gestures, facial tics, everyday interactions gone wrong with just a wrong word, a guy happening by the wrong place at the wrongest of all possible times. The Goat isn’t trying to wow you, though the chase scene that erupts after this is a sight to behold.
But “erupts” is the wrong word. What made me laugh is precisely that it’s not an explosion. For a few seconds, the two women continue slurping and seasoning their soup, unaware that heads are about to roll. Joe Roberts doesn’t yell. Buster doesn’t jump out of his chair. They just ratchet up the anxiety with ever-tenser gestures, so gradually that even the dog doesn’t notice. We know what’s coming, what has to come, and knew it as soon as Buster entered the apartment in the first place. It’s an old joke, just as tensions between a prospective boyfriend and his new girlfriend’s parents is as old as humanity. There’s no way this can surprise us, except by staging it the way Buster Keaton has staged it—by underplaying it.
The last chase, involving an elevator shaft and several flights of stairs, is gravy. The real winner is in the silence before the calamity.
1. Buster released it only when his regular release schedule—a new two-reeler every two months—was hindered because he broke his ankle while shooting The Haunted House.↩