Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Meet Musty Suffer" — Guest Post by Ben Robinson

[post 375]

Starring Harry Watson Jr.

Produced for video by Ben Model
Films preserved by the Library of Congress
Released April 22, 2014 by Undercrank Productions
Ben Model & Steve Massa, curators
Piano scores written and played by Ben Model
Companion booklet by Steve Massa

Originally produced by George Kleine, March 1916 – June 1917
Eight short films from the twenty-four surviving films in the Library of Congress collection
117 min. 

Reviewed by Ben Robinson

“You know man, she’s grotty, as in gro-tesque.”
—George Harrison, from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, 1964.

Full disclosure: I was one of the Kickstarter backers of this project. That means nothing more than I contributed the minimum to help launch this DVD. I had only seen one film in a private showing, and then followed the rollout of the proposed Kickstarter campaign. Amazingly, the minimum was quickly reached, and $1,000 more was contributed that made possible the additional well-produced printed booklet by Steve Massa that accompanies the DVD and the future YouYube-only release of additional films that did not fit on the DVD. It’s a most welcome addition because anyone who loves silent film comedy, clowns, circus, vaudeville, performance art, avant-garde film or surrealism will inhale this DVD and booklet.

There are mostly simple plots (with riveting action and comedy):

A man applies for job as a messenger; a man in Automat feeds the machines with food to be dispensed; the Outside Inn, a hotel where there is a “thin room” for one of the stock players of this company who is all but the skinny man from the circus. There is a cabinet just the width of his cane. His hat is pinched as if someone sat on it. He seems so thin a single bed is triple the size he needs. A man dreams of love. As a result, six maidens appear in striking lingerie—fun and mishaps ensue.

Musty happens along at the exact moment another man becomes perturbed with his bellhop, played by a boy. The man picks up the boy and throws him out of a door. At that exact moment, Musty catches the boy, looks him up and down, and then discards him too with gritty abandon as well.

In the world of Musty Suffer, anything can and does happen, and it’s not always pretty—to the cognoscenti, that is the beauty of these films: they are not pretty. An oversize rolling pin is saturated with powder. When Musty hits the thief in the Automat with this rolling pin, a cloud of powder arises when the pilferer is bonked. It’s broad, fast…grotesque, but also…clean. An auto accident is so dense with triple whirling acrobatics it is no wonder these films were subtitled “Another whirl.”


These films have not been seen since they appeared in 1916–1917, nearly one hundred years ago. Hence, this is not only a “find,” it is the painstakingly exact work of several film historians, lab technicians and the Library of Congress, which owns these films and generously allowed Messieurs Model and Massa to penetrate their massive archives and bring out these jewels for the world to see once more.  See Musty lay horizontal in space as he is picked up by a human size pair of ice tongs. He is carted about as if he were a wastebasket.

Jewels they are!  If you love a clown who carries a bundle of material that seems too wide for the doorway he seeks to pass through, and therefore engages a saw and cuts wide slots for his cargo (as opposed to just inverting the material, as in the so-called normal world), then you’ll dig this. The dance with the mannequin with the magical surprise ending is worth the price of admission.

The DVD of this whizz bang series brings us Harry Watson Jr., star of the Ziegfeld Follies playing the irrepressible MUSTY SUFFER, whose face contorts, squashes, and explodes much in the same way we have come to appreciate from Stan Laurel or Harpo Marx’s rubber faces. Musty Suffer definitely comes under the rubric of what 19th-century clowns were sometimes called: Grotesques. He  is joined by his vaudeville and circus partner George Bickel who plays a character named Willie Work. There are also characters Dippy Mary and Inna Hurry. (Historical note: Dippy Mary is played by Alma Hanlon, daughter of George Hanlon of the famous knockabout stage extravaganzas of the Hanlon Brothers.)

It would seem impossible to separate this clown from his face, one-armed athletics, or amazing feats of metamorphosis, such as his filmic magical changes of clothing, and then one continuous shot of Mr. Watson, as Musty, deftly engaging us with a genuine “quick-change” act done in almost real time (save for snip edits).  His dream sequence where he has dreamt of being hit in the head with an axe is frightening, deft and clever.

The opening shot gives us Musty drinking the drippings of a tail pipe in a tin cup. When he placed the tin cup beneath the parked car, I wondered silently, “What’s he’s going to do with that?” When he drank what the cup caught, I nearly fell out of my seat. Clearly the authors and curators of this DVD chose to introduce Musty to us with a sock right in the kisser of comedy. His other trademark —opposite his rough physicality—is his spritely magic. In one scene he changes clothing quickly and amazingly by having a barrel pass over him once.

Musty sometimes breaks into a small dance. In this tiny dance, where the legs cross and the arms flail with abandon, he only moves a mere two inches with all of the movement. It takes but a few seconds and he doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet the dance is expressive and funny. His little dance is currently seen in the repertoire of Bello Nock on B’way and in the huge avant-garde theatre extravaganza of RAOUL by James Thierree (as seen at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY).


Harry Watson Jr. was a major star in American vaudeville beginning in the early 1900s. He and his partner George Bickel led the laughs in the Ziegfeld Follies season after season. It was rough work by performers doing as many as fourteen shows a week of very precise physical comedy, because in their act one could get hit in the face easily during their laugh-filled boxing act, which is seen in the Extras of this retrospective.

Musty Suffer is a broad character. In press, he is referred to as a “clown.” Given the broad world of the clown (“An orangutan who can do the impossible” in one definition), the ensuing “clown logic” or flat-out chaos is the definition of “rough and tumble.” This is very rough slapstick, with a nod to 19th- century French cinema, where plates walk up walls like a row of ants seeking their nest. Stop-motion action is highly complemented by Musty chasing a car to hop a free ride, only to be violently dumped (and feeling still not a care in the world).


There are portraits of Harry Watson Jr. in his prime with Ziegfeld Follies, with George Bickel, and it ends with loving, color snapshots of Mr. Watson in retirement in Canada, 1960, five years before his death. He looks happy and rubber-faced as ever.

The Chicago Daily of January 1916 notes that Chaplin might have a rival in Musty Suffer. George Kleine produced a short “Capturing Chicago.” The film shows Musty winning big crowds with an outdoor serenade by him on a trombone as he is paraded through the streets in an open-air moving car. This turns out to have been during a major film exhibitor’s convention held in Chicago at the time.  Clowning can be very $eriou$ business. This was not advertising folly.

Courtesy of the good folks at The Library of Congress and the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts (New York), we are provided a time capsule that roars forth with hard-clad evidence that while Chaplin was prodded and poked at by the press of these clowns, and businessmen, Chaplin was not to be rivaled in 1916. Even the skills of this team could not knock Chaplin off his box office pedestal. The Musty Suffer films were originally produced as a 5-reel movie that portrayed a “clown Job.” But George Kleine decided to cut them down and present them weekly as a “another whirl” with Musty.

That is fact and history. It is also now part of our collective history that those who took a shot at beating Chaplin were some mighty fine contenders. It was a skewed thought, but Harry Watson’s acrobatics, executed standing on one arm while the rest of his iron body laid on the floor made me think of Sylvester Stallone doing his one armed push ups as Rocky. It’s a valid comparison given the competitive business of film comedy in 1916.

Musty Suffer’s 30 short films were released once a week from early 1916 to the autumn of 1917. Demand was high. Crowds loved ‘em. They were shot in the Bronx, New York, in one of the boroughs of the City of New York, north of upper Manhattan (Harlem). Fortunately, the Library of Congress has preserved 24 of the Musty Suffer films, the best of which are represented on the DVD.

In 2014, humans are at the point of “saving” films, not necessarily making them look all shiny, new and clear as the Chaplin Archive (Bolonga, Italy) has so beautifully done with such a film as Chaplin’s PAYDAY (1923).

Buy on Amazon right here. And if you like it, give it a review and a whole bunch of stars!

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