Tuesday, October 29, 2013

More Facts Out of the Musty Archive

I discovered a curious new wrinkle in relation to the origins of the Musty Suffer series, which is a subject that I discussed in my last article. 

The George Kleine Company contracted the comedy team Bickel and Watson to star in a series of five-reel feature films.  The first film produced under this arrangement was The Fixer (1915), which was based on a play called "Hello Bill."  It was a standard farce.  Bill Fowler (Watson) runs into a number of problems on his way to marry wealthy widow Isabel Dare (Ruby Hoffman).  Fortunately, Bill is friends with Christopher Cutting (Bickel), who has an exceptional talent for fixing problems.  Using devious means to keep a marriage on track may not have made Bickel and Watson the most endearing characters, but it was worse when the pair went on to star as election fixers in The Politicians (1915).  It is hard to imagine that the team was comfortable making these films, which lacked the vaudeville-style silliness that the performers had perfected in their stage act.  Would Kleine let Bickel and Watson break out of the farce genre?

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.  The film was promoted as a yet another Bickel and Watson feature, but those five reels had something very different to offer.  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, as played by Maxfield Moree, is a strange and dilapidated creature.  A writer for Moving Picture World once called Moree "unquestionably one of the skinniest human beings extant," which may be the reason that a reviewer of Keep Moving described the fairy tramp as "cadaverous."  The character was a cross between a hobo clown and a fairy, possessing heavy stubble, baggy pants, a ballet skirt, and a wand with a star at the end.  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.  He is accompanied on his journey by a fellow tramp played by Bickel. 

Candler Theatre
The feature was never released to the general public, but footage from the film later turned up in the "Mishaps of Musty Suffer" one-reel shorts (particularly Look Out Below, Going Up, Hold Fast! and Keep Moving).  This raises the question if the Musty Suffer character was developed solely for this prince-turned-tramp fable and the producers had no plans originally for a series.  It is conceivable that the preview did not go as well as expected and the Kleine company thought that breaking the feature apart into one-reel segments would be a better way to market it to exhibitors.  This would make perfect sense except for one fact.  The plot of the feature, as described by Motion Picture News, was an incoherent patchwork of episodes.  The program for the preview did not even bother to provide a plot.  It reported, simply, that the story was "adapted from nothing, founded on fancy, and produced with one ambition only - to make you smile."  This deviated greatly from the other two Bickel and Watson features, which laid out intricate (perhaps too intricate) storylines.  Hal Erickson, a critic of the AllRovi website, described the plot well: "Musty drifts from job to job, leaving a trail of comic destruction in his wake."  So, our hero gets into a tangle with a barber in one scene, then he turns up in a boxing match, and then he is trotted out in front of a firing squad.  It seems just as likely that these disparate episodes were designed as stand-alone adventures and then someone got the idea to cobble them together into a feature.  The film's episodic nature did not go unnoticed by the critics at the time.  William Ressman Andrews of the Motion Picture News called the film "a medley of absurd incidents."  Variety's "Fred" described the film as "[lots of bits] threaded together." 

The Kleine studio, which was located in the Bronx, drew its talent from the New York stage.  The director of Keep Moving, Louis Myll, had no previous experience making films.  Myll had worked for many years as a stage manager for prominent play producers, including Kleine and David Belasco.  The film's leading lady was vaudeville star Cissie Fitzgerald, whose naughty song act earned her the nickname "The Girl with the Wink."  

Cissie Fitzgerald
The king was played by Tom Nawn, an Irish sketch comedian who headlined a popular stage act called "Tom Nawn's Polite Vaudeville."  The film also featured a popular husband-and-wife vaudeville team, Dan Crimmins and Rosa Gore.

Dan Crimmins
Rosa Gore
Much about the origin and demise of the Musty Suffer series will likely remain a mystery, but at least most of the films survive.  I am not one to foretell the future, but I am willing to predict that the Musty Suffer DVD will be a big success.  

(I also want to note that, based on additional research, I have expanded my plot summaries for the series.)

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