Huzzah! Today is the release date of the landmark new DVD release The Mishaps of Musty Suffer.
“Musty Suffer” was a screen character developed by vaudeville comedian Harry Watson Jr. (go here for my earlier article on him). In 1916 and 1917 he made a series of shorts for Bronx-based producer George Kleine. They’ve essentially lain dormant at the Library of Congress ever since. Curators Ben Model and Steve Massa have done what amounts to a public service by exhuming these films and getting them before the public (with typically snappy, merry original scores by Model). And these films really don’t seem to have been played — the prints seem downright pristine.
While I’d read about Kleine many times (he was one of the founders of Kalem, and a member of Edison’s trust), these Musty Suffer comedies are the first films I’ve seen by his independent production company. By 1916, most of the film industry had moved to the Los Angeles area, so one of the interesting features of these films is seeing movies made this late at Eastern locations. The cast of actors is entirely different from ones we are accustomed to seeing in comedies from the era (normally you recognize at least somebody) so there is the added interest of seeing a talented pool of unfamiliar professionals at work.
Not to undersell Watson (!), who combines the strange, surreal sensibility of a Larry Semon or a Charlie Bowers with a certain stage-bound vaudeville approach we usually find in other big stage stars who tried pictures but couldn’t make the transition, like Weber and Fields and Eddie Foy. Watson is a CLOWN…there’s practically sawdust coming out of his pockets. Indeed, much of his mugging and face-pulling reminds me a great deal of Ford Sterling, another circus clown. Musty Suffer is usually a hobo, but one quite different from Chaplin’s. Musty’s skin and clothes are filthy, and the intertitles are written in a voice we can “hear” as a bum’s. By contrast, Chaplin got comedy by being against type, comically refined. These so-called “whirls” are lightweight things, mercifully short, averaging about 12 minutes…and very much like live action cartoons. In fact most of them having crazy special effects. The DVD collection includes:
GOING UP: Musty thinks he has it made in the shade when his friend Dippy Mary lets him stay in the mansion where she works. But stuff happens. Falling plaster ruins his meal, and a brass band from the Deaf and Dumb Asylum spoils his sleep. Eventually he nods off and dreams of a beer bath and the attentions of a half dozen lovely ladies, before he somehow goes rolling out the window.
THE LIGHTNING BELLHOP: Musty is hired as a hotel bellhop in a jerryrigged joint called the Outside Inn, with several features that may have inspired Arbuckle and Keaton, including a set of Venetian stairs, and a horse operated elevator.
JUST IMAGINATION: Musty prays for a job. When he finally gets one, it’s as a lab experiment by a pair of strange dudes who proceed to gaslight him, making his food and drink disappear before he can consume it, pantomiming things that aren’t there, and replacing a coffee pot with a live duck. In the end…of course, it was all a dream. What isn’t?
BLOW YOUR HORN: Musty gets a job as a delivery boy, causing all manner of havoc. Asked to move some long rods in a home that’s being renovated, he cuts holes in the walls so he can take them through the door crossways. The climax is a circus bit, with Musty working at a construction site with two “helpers”, who are just two dummies attached to his body.
WHILE YOU WAIT: Musty takes a job at an employment agency which is peculiarly and conveniently accoutred with a number of costumes allowing us to see Watson as a policeman, a hillbilly, a maid (in drag) a butler, and a gardener.
LOCAL SHOWERS: Musty has a toothache and takes himself to a nightmarish dentist office, where we first encounter the usual gag of a mallet-as-anesthesia….but then the highly unusual addition of an indoor rainshower, and an exit through a series of chutes. Later he is dried over a flame on a spit, and then flies up the chimney.
OUTS AND INS: Musty is a chef at an automat. His shenanigans involve chopping the hand off a man whose thieving arm is about eight feet long, and then poisoning another man for stealing coffee.
SPLICED AND ICED: Musty courts and marries the girl he loves, an enormously fat woman, played by a man in drag. Once hitched, the party is over and Musty becomes wifey’s slave.
HOLD FAST: this is a fragment containing Watson’s famous boxing routine from the Follies, with his old vaudeville partner George Bickel. A highly entertaining, elaborate comedy dance.
CAPTURING CHICAGO: producer George Kleine made sure to have newsreel footage taken of Watson/Musty being feted during a motion picture exposition in Chicago in July 1916, and released it as this promo film.
For more information on the DVD, including how to purchase, go to http://www.mustysuffer.com/