As Walter Kerr pointed out in his great book on The Silent Clowns, we may never know, much less appreciate, the full loss of film culture from the silent and early sound era. Hampered by both a physical medium that was simultaneously explosive and corrosive, and by an attitude towards the intellectual property as an ephemeral quantity, little effort was made to preserve films from the first half century of movies, and in particular once sound came in, from the silent era.
As a result, we have entire oeuvres of work of performers / directors / writers / studios that are lost forever to the mists of time. People whom we know existed from press clippings and movie magazine articles and the stray lobby card or film still, but of whom we have no examples of their work.
Watson was part of the comedy team of Bickel and Watson, but before he began treading the vaudeville and burlesque boards he was a clown for Ringling Brothers.
Like many early vaudeville comics, he became involved in the burgeoning movie industry in the early nineteen-teens.
His first turn as perennial put-upon Musty Suffer was Keep Moving in 1915; by the time the series ended he had done thirty short films as that character and seven non-Musty one-reelers as well as supporting roles in 4 feature films. He alternated between knockabout screen comedies and the Broadway stage, apparently retiring from show biz in 1930 at age 54. He lived another 35 years, dying in Canada in 1965 at age 89.
The Musty Suffer series are referred to as “forgotten but not lost”. As Library Of Congress blogger Mike Mashon reports:
In 1947 the Library of Congress acquired the George Kleine collection of 456 film titles as well as stills and correspondence. Kleine was a pioneer motion picture producer and distributor who’s not well known today but was an important part of the early American film industry. He was the “K” in Kalem [one of the early film distribution companies and] produced and released his own independent productions, a mix of dramas and comedies made primarily in the northeast (his offices were in New York City), and many of which utilized performers from the “legitimate” and vaudeville stages.
The film elements and stills in the Kleine Collection are held at here at the Packard Campus. Some of the motion picture holdings are in 35mm, but most of them are 16mm reduction master positives derived from the original 35mm nitrate elements acquired in 1947….
… film historians Steve Massa and Ben Model, one of our silent film organists at the Packard Campus Theatre, took an interest in a series of oddball comedy shorts produced by Kleine called “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer…”
Ben produces DVDs of rare silent comedies from his own 16mm collection. The Library recently signed an agreement to co-brand a series of DVD releases with him, the first of which is The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, now available…
While the best of the series are available on two delicious DVDs from Model and Massa’s Undercrank Productions, there are also three Musty shorts available for perusal on YouTube:
- Out Of Order (in which the Tramp Fairy gets Musty a job in a penny arcade)
- Showing Some Speed (Musty as a delivery boy)
- Musty’s Vacation (extreme body modification -- yeah, you read that right).
The restorations are scrumptious and the look of the films is so modern I thought at first they were an elaborate present day hoax.
Nope, they’re for real -- or perhaps I should say, “for surreal”.
Because the great appeal of the Musty Suffer series is the bizarre, virtual live action cartoon sensibility it brings to the screen. The gags are funny, fast paced, well timed, inventive, and flawlessly executed. Produced by George Kleine and directed by Louis Myll, the films have a very contemporary look to them compared to other films made between 1915 and 1917.
There are subtle camera moves to emphasize gags, dynamic angular staging as opposed to the usual “proscenium arch” head on / right angle approach, an astonishingly sophisticated bag of optical tricks for the era, and far more use of close ups than was common at the time.
The reason for the latter can be attributed to Watson’s astonishing capacity for gurning (i.e., the art of mugging by distorting one’s face to comical extremes).
To make sure audiences got their money’s worth, the producers of the Musty Suffer series made sure Harry Watson’s rubbery face was seen closely as he milked his reaction to each gag.
And in a way, that may have ended up working against the series’ long term success.
Other silent comedians -- notably Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton (a.k.a. The Great Stone Face) -- famously underplayed their reactions, inviting the audience to project more of their own emotions onto their characters and, as a result, enticing them to invest more closely in their on screen personas.
Watson’s reaction shots as Musty are worthy of a Tex Avery or John Krisfaluci cartoon: They are about as subtle as a hand grenade in a cloister.
And while they're fun and get a good laugh from the audience, they also put some distance between the viewer and the character.
Luckily, Watson remains engaging enough as a performer to overcome this, and his extreme reactions are in perfect balance with the extreme situations Musty Suffer finds himself in.
There were three series of Musty Suffer short subjects, each featuring ten one-reel episodes. While they didn’t rely on cliff hangers, they could be regarded as a serial insofar as one episode would frequently pick up where the previous one had left off.
According to film historian Anthony Balducci:
Responding to a special invitation from the Kleine company, exhibitors and reviewers arrived at Broadway's Candler Theatre on November 14, 1915 for a trade showing of a five-reel comedy called Keep Moving... Those who attended the event became the first members of the public to be introduced to a foolish tramp named Musty Suffer. It must be clarified, though, that the tramp doesn't begin Keep Moving as a tramp and he isn't even called Musty Suffer at first. He is a prince in the wacky land of Blunderland (we know the place is wacky because the king and queen travel around the throne room on roller skates). The prince has a fateful encounter with a fairy tramp... The fairy agrees to transform the prince into a humble tramp so that he will be free to explore the wide world. It is now that he adopts the name Musty Suffer and he finds that, as his new name suggests, he must perpetually suffer while learning the harsh ways of the world.
…and a tip of the hat to Jessica Amanda Salmonson for hipping me to this fabulous series.
 Kerr observes that ironically the older silent era films are more likely to be preserved than the latter ones, as some studios tended to feel they should make some effort to preserve the earliest examples of the medium.
 And because of the incessant ballyhoo nature of movie press releases in those days, no objective way of judging the quality or import of one artist against another. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everybody is the greatest star in the celluloid firmament, then nobody is the greatest star in the celluloid firmament.
 i.e., lacking all shame and pride.
 Yikes! There are two words that should not go together!
 A hobo clown wearing a tutu. Ya gotta see it to believe it.
 A similar criticism has been leveled against Jerry Lewis’ style of comedy.