Friday, October 25, 2013

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer

It has been announced that a collection of "Musty Suffer" comedies will be released on DVD in February, 2014.  It seems to me that a primer on this inimitable comedy character is in order. 

The actor who portrayed Musty was Harry Watson, Jr.  Watson started out with Ringling's circus.  Later, in vaudeville, he worked briefly as comic relief to sultry singing sensation Anna Held.  For many years, Watson was partnered with George Bickel and Ed Lee Wrothe in an act billed as "Me, Him and I."  George Jean Nathan described the act at length in The Theatre Book of the Year, 1942-1943.  He wrote:
"Bickel was the Dutch comedian, Watson the tramp, and Wrothe the stooge who stood at a distance silently admiring the twain in wide-eyed wonder.  Bickel had a miniature fiddle which he would laboriously tune up for fully ten minutes and. . . instruct his colleagues to give close heed to his imminent display of virtuosity.  He would thereupon play one or two notes on the fiddle, which, to the despair of his friends, would again require another full ten minutes of tuning up."
Watson inserted a gratuitous pratfall at every opportunity.   The act was popular enough to receive a Broadway showcase in 1904.

The trio starred in a second Broadway show, Tom, Dick and Harry, before Wrothe left the act in 1906.  Bickel and Watson remained a team and received featured roles in a number of Ziegfeld Follies shows.  It is Watson's most impressive credit as a stage performer that he was featured in five editions of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Bickel and Watson
George Kleine Productions originally intended to feature the Bickel and Watson team in a series, but the plans changed after two films were produced.

It was decided to give Watson center stage as an absurdly grotesque character called Musty Suffer.  Musty was a clownish tramp who was always looking for work.  Watson, who intended for the character to look as outlandish as possible, came up with a make-up design that included a swollen putty nose and big red lips.  

Keep Moving (1916)
The producers of the series boasted that an extraordinary amount of money had been invested to illustrate Musty's misadventures.  Critics found the series to be novel, praising the lack of pie-throwing and police chases.  The surreal nature of the series' humor made it a throwback to the French comedies that had dominated the cinema several years earlier.

A total of thirty comedies were produced in the series, the official title of which was "The Mishaps of Musty Suffer."  The series was designed as a comedy serial.  Storylines often continued from one release to the next and a number of reoccurring characters made occasional appearances.  Musty's best friends in the series were Willie Work (Bickel) and Dippy Mary (Rosa Gore).

An interesting fact that turned up in my research is that, soon after the series went into production, filming had to be shut down for seven weeks because Watson became ill and required surgery.  It makes me wonder if it was health issues that caused Watson to retire from show business at an early age.

First Series

Cruel and Unusual (March 1, 1916)
Musty takes a job as a caddy, but his skills at the job prove sadly deficient.  He swats a ball into the dining room of the clubhouse, breaking dinnerware and splattering courses.  An enraged waiter relieves Musty of his club and beats him over the head with it.  Later, Musty seeks treatment at a doctor's office for a stomach ache.  The doctor pounds, kicks and throws about the unfortunate patient to force a hook worm out of his body.  As if this bad enough, the doctor crushes Musty's hand in an X-ray machine. 

Keep Moving (March 8, 1916)
Musty gets a job in a grocery store, but he does nothing but fight with the customers and play childish pranks.  A woman becomes infuriated when she catches Musty eating the artificial grapes off her hat and assaults him with apples.  Musty loses his job when he reaches for a sprinkling can suspended from the ceiling and pulls so hard that he brings down the entire ceiling.  Later, Musty visits a self-proclaimed "silent barber," a high-strung individual who wears a gag to protect himself from his customers' germs.  The barber accidentally applies hair restorer to Musty's face, which causes a full beard to sprout within seconds.  Musty has a violent altercation with the barber when he is unable to pay for the barber's services.  Afterwards, Musty proudly displays his new beard at a salon.  But, of course, our suffering hero is not destined to be proud for long.  The beard becomes saturated with gasoline and, when Musty gets too close to an oven fire, the whiskers burst into flames.

Hold Fast! (March 15, 1916)
Musty has taken up residence in a mansion while the owners are away.  A band of burglars arrive to pillage the lavish home and they unload a packing crate to carry away their loot.  Musty seeks to avoid the burglars by hiding in the crate, but he ends up getting smothered beneath the burglar's cargo and then he becomes trapped inside when the burglars nail the lid tightly shut.  The burglars discover Musty when they open the crate at their den.  Rather than kill this nuisance, the burglars have Musty entertain them by engaging in a three-round bout with another hobo, who happens to be Willie Work.  After causing problems for the burglars, Musty is put in front of a cannon to be executed, but he stops a number of cannon balls with his chest and later escapes through rubber bars.

Going Up (March 22, 1916)
Dippy Mary, the caretaker of a fine mansion, lets Musty enjoy the luxuries of the mansion while her employer is away on vacation.  This film was a forerunner to many tramp-in-a-mansion films, including City Lights (1931) and Trading Places (1983).

Look Out Below (March 29, 1916)
Musty and Willie break into a mansion to rob the owners, Señor and Madam Cayenne.  Madam Cayene is not upset when she encounters the burglars as she wants to use these miscreants to get a letter to her lover.  When the husband arrives home suddenly, Musty gets out of sight by hanging out of a window, but Willie pretends to be Madam Cayene's brother from Kokomo and Señor Cayene insists that he join him for a royal lunch.  Willie sits near the window so that he can secretly share tidbits of his lunch with Musty and, when necessary, break walnuts on his partner's hard head.  Later, Musty has difficulty getting a good night's sleep in a crowded boarding house.

The Lightning Bellhop (1916)
Musty works as a bellhop at an inn. 

Bells and Belles (1916)
Musty's misadventures as a bellhop continue.  The elevator breaks while Musty is struggling to transport a fat man to an upper floor.  The film climaxes with Musty tangling with a trick staircase.

Out of Order (1916)
Musty is a jack-of-all-trades at an amusement park.

Coming Down (May 3, 1916)

Musty continues to have a variety of misadventures at the amusement park.  Flossie, the ticket-seller, asks Musty to fix a music box, but he only manages to cause the music box to explode.  Musty has fun demonstrating a Hindu mystic's magic handkerchief to easily astounded patrons.

Musty feels safe to tease the wild man and the lion while they are locked up in their cages, but the pair become so enraged by the teasing that they break out.  Musty is able to lure the escapees back into their cages by offering them their favorite crackers as a treat.  The next scene features the highlight of the film, which finds Musty engaged in a frantic chase on an escalator.  Musty has even greater trouble fleeing his pursuers when someone presses a button that causes the escalator to go into reverse.

But Musty is not finished with the escalator after the chase is through.  A tough pushes his way into the amusement park without paying.  The tough is climbing the escalator when Musty pulls a cord connected to trick doors at the head of the steps.  The doors open and the tough falls through.  The intertitle card reads, "Coming down."

This film generated more publicity than any other Musty Suffer comedy.  According to Kliene, it was at great expense that their property department constructed a practical escalator in their Bronx studio.  The studio went into detail about the seven thousand parts that had to be assembled and the amount of power that was required to operate this sort of sizable apparatus.

Interestingly, Coming Down was released 12 days before The Floorwalker (1916), in which Chaplin was famously chased down an escalator by Eric Campbell. 


Part of the humor in The Floorwalker scene is that Chaplin is running downwards on an escalator that is moving upwards.  So, no matter how hard Chaplin struggles to get away from Campbell, the escalator is moving him in the opposite direction, threatening to deliver him directly into Campbell's outstretched arms.  This is the same problem that Musty has when his escalator switches into reverse.  Who can explain how these two similar routines came about at the same time?  Chaplin said that the idea for the routine came to him while he was in Manhattan and saw a man slip and skid down an escalator.

I remember that I once heard about a stage routine that involved a faux escalator (probably comprised of far less than seven thousand parts).  It is not farfetched that many people before would have seen the humor in an inept character stumbling up and down a moving staircase.  But my research did not turn up record of such a routine.  I was only able to find one previous film that used an escalator for comic effect.  The film was a 1907 Gaumont farce called Mother-in-Law at White City.  According to Gaumont's catalog, the mother-in-law of the title "experiences rough handling" while riding the escalator at Chicago's White City Amusement Park. 

Strictly Private (July 26, 1916)
Musty, who plans to make money as a cab driver, captures a wild horse to pull his carriage.  The horse causes Musty a great deal of trouble.  In the morning, Musty is appalled to wake up in bed and find the horse sleeping next to him.  Musty has even more problems with a drunk customer.  He struggles to carry the man up a flight of stairs.  When he finally gets the man to the top of the stairs, he pushes him through a door only to find that the door is false and he has hastily dropped the man to the ground below.  Musty scrambles to find the man and then begins again.  He repeats the operation several times, but he finally becomes disgusted and hangs the man on a telegraph pole.  On his way home, Musty's carriage is struck by a speeding car and Musty is catapulted into the air.  The film ends with Musty tangled in tree branches.


Second Series

Blow Your Horn (1916)
Musty uses a wobbly bicycle that he found in a junk yard to become a delivery boy.

The film consists of several different episodes.  To start, Musty has trouble fitting a pair of long poles through a doorway and solves the problem by using a saw to widen the passage.  Next, Musty becomes embarrassed when a buxom lady goes behind a dressing screen and begins to toss feminine wear over the screen.  But, as it turns out, the woman was simply rummaging through a trunk to find a package that she needs Musty to deliver.

The final scene was singled out for praise by the Moving Picture World critic.  Musty joins forces with two other delivery boys, Speedy Rush and Inna Hurry, to carry a heavy piece of scantling from a lumberyard.  The critic described the delivery boys forming a "triangular affair" as they rode together with the cumbersome plank of wood.  I suspect from the image below that, in fact, the other delivery boys were dummies and Watson rode a prop bike that combined three frames.

We will soon know for sure as I am confident that this film will be included on the DVD set.

Showing Some Speed (1916)
Musty, who is still working as a delivery boy, carries a stove to a residence.  When he finds that no one is home, he takes it upon himself to deliver the stove through a window.

While You Wait
Musty haunts an employment agency for work and ends up with three jobs.  He must act as a maid, butler and gardener at the same home at the same time.  This requires a lot of quick-changing from uniform to uniform.  In the final scene, Musty needs to climb a ladder to wash windows.  When the ladder breaks, he falls through the window and winds up hanging upside down from a window sill high above the ground.  A passerby tries to rescue Musty with a rope, but the rope gets attached to the bumper of a moving car and Musty, his ladder and his would-be rescuer are dragged along at high speed.

Local Showers (1916)
Musty goes to the dentist with a toothache.  An office girl attaches Musty to restraints and activates a mechanical apparatus.  The hapless patient is lifted up many floors through a series of trapdoors before he is finally deposited into the dentist's office.

A Pirate Bold (1916)
Musty becomes a pirate and goes in search of buried treasure.  While digging for treasure under the city, Musty strikes a water main with a pick axe and is lifted out of a manhole atop a forceful stream of water.

Outs and Ins (1916)
Here is a description from the Internet Movie Database: "Musty works in an automat where the customers steal food using slugs and reaching through the vending doors.  Musty smashes them over the head with a mallet, and dumps the bodies down a chute to what appears to be a sausage processor."

Active Service (1916)
Musty, who is employed at a service agency, performs many duties from suit-pressing to matchmaking.  The film includes a scene in which Musty struggles to control a vacuum cleaner with powerful suction.

Partly Cloudy (1916)
Musty operates a rigged ring toss game at a dime museum.  A man is able to cheat the game by using a very long fake arm.  Musty later fills in as the target in a knife-throwing act.  In the closing scene, Musty is called upon to act as the African Dodger in a ball toss game.  A malicious customer eschews using a ball and, instead, hits Musty in the head with a brick.

Fore and Aft (1916)
Musty works on a cruise ship.  When Musty goes fishing, a large fish swallows his bait and proceeds to drag the ship through the ocean at a fearful speed.

Just Imagination (1916)
A fairy tramp appears out of nowhere and persuades Musty to visit a pair of doctors who are studying the power of imagination.  A number of weird episodes follow at the doctors' clinic.  Musty is about to eat dinner when the food on the plates mysteriously vanish.  He seizes a coffee pot, which suddenly turns into a live goose.  He sits on a block of ice in his bedroom and imagines going on a sleigh ride.  He has a vision of his old friend, Dippy Mary, attending to a lawn with a comb and brush.  He watches in amazement as a table, chairs and a bed engage joyfully in a waltz and jig.  According to Moving Picture World, the best scene featured Musty playing a game of pool on an imaginary pool table.

A gap of several months existed between the end of production on the second series and the beginning of production on the third series.  A report was published that Watson was unhappy making films and had abandoned the series to return to the stage.  Watson made  public statement to deny the report.  He stated emphatically that he was in the picture game "for all time."

The third series proved to be less ambitious and less imaginative than the previous series.  The series now offered strictly conventional fare - Musty milking a cow, Musty hunting ducks, Musty as a clumsy waiter dropping dishes - and the lack of elaborate setpieces suggests that the budget of the series had been drastically reduced.  I need to make it clear, though, that I have come to this conclusion strictly on the basis of the plot summaries provided by trade journals.

Third series

The Fried Egg Hero (April 1, 1917)
Musty gets a job as a waiter.  A customer becomes irritated with Musty's poor service and demands to speak with the manager.  Musty, desperate to keep his job, puts on a disguise and pretends to be the manager. 

The Soda Jerker (April 8, 1917)
Musty gets a job as a soda jerk in a drug store.  When Musty helps out mixing prescriptions, he manages to create a chemical reaction that destroys the building. 

Wet and Dry (April 15, 1917)
Musty gets a job as a desk clerk at a hotel.  He is surprised to find that a secret doorway behind the mail rack leads to a speakeasy.

Truly Rural (April 22, 1917)
Musty gets a job as a farm hand.

The Ladder of Fame
(April 29, 1917)
Musty looks to establish himself in a career so that he can afford to get married.

Pure and Simple (May 6, 1917)
Musty, a carpenter's assistant, carves a twin out of wood to help him to get his work done.  Eventually, Musty and his wooden twin upset the carpenter and are tossed out of the shop.  The pair wander the street for a time before crashing a girl's tea party.

Spliced and Iced (May 13, 1917)
Musty, a newlywed, is disappointed with the married life.  His lazy wife lays in bed reading while he is forced to operate a foot-powered electric fan to keep her cool.  Even though he does all of the work, he has to eat dog biscuits off the floor while his wife's dog is allowed to occupy a place at the dining room table.    

Starlight Sleep (May 20, 1917)
Musty consults a doctor to cure his insomnia.  The doctor's treatment puts Musty into a dream state.  The sleep subject is less than pleased when he imagines himself mixed up with a group of anarchists.

Musty B. Young (May 27, 1917)
Musty drinks a youth elixir so that he can get a job as an office boy.  Unfortunately, he drinks too much of the elixir and ends up as a two-year-old boy.  A wealthy woman adopts the orphan child, but his destructive pranks cause the butler to remove him from the palatial estate and dump him into a trash can.

Musty's Vacation (June 3, 1917)
Musty goes on vacation in the woods.  He fails in his efforts as a hunter because the animals, which include a bear and a flock of ducks, prove more resourceful than he is.

Musty is clubbed by a lodging house attendant in Look Out Below.
Watson did not stand by his vow to stay in the picture game for all time.  He went back to the stage as he soon as he finished filming Musty's Vacation.  His partner, Bickel, remained with George Kleine Productions.  He made a series of six comedies for the company within the next few months.  The Bickel series also made use of surreal comedy.  A Moving Picture World critic described one particular gag as follows: "Bickel drinks a bottle of ink and becomes black in a rising tide of pigment that envelopes his skin.  He returns to his natural color when he is given a glass of milk."


I do not know which comedies will be included on the DVD release.  I can tell you that, for purely academic reasons, the series entries that I would most like to see are Coming Down, Strictly Private, Blow Your Horn, Showing Some Speed, While You Wait, Just Imagination, Pure and Simple and Musty B. Young.   I am curious to know if Showing Some Speed, in which Musty delivers a stove to a home, has much in common with Laurel & Hardy's The Music Box.  I cannot help but wonder how Watson carrying a drunk man up stairs in Strictly Private compares to Harry Langdon carrying an unconscious woman up stairs in The Strong Man.  I am interested in knowing if the filmmakers devised innovative tricks to make Watson look like a two-year-old boy in Musty B. Young

Suffice to say, I am eagerly anticipating the release of the DVD.  I have a great deal of admiration for Ben Model, who is producing the DVD, and I hope that he produces many more.

Marion Davies, Harry Watson Jr. and Holbrook Blinn in Zander the Great (1925).

Additional Notes
The Electric House (1922)
It is well-known that, while filming an escalator scene for The Electric House (1922), Buster Keaton got his foot caught in the escalator and broke his ankle.  It may not be well-known that Chaplin nearly broke his foot while filming the escalator scene for The Floorwalker.  This was reported in an issue of Motography dated May 6, 1916.  The reporter wrote, "While rushing up the moving staircase Charley tripped and nearly lost his balance and his foot was caught between the first and second steps.  But fortunately the shoe was several inches longer than his foot so that the steps closed only on the shoe and not on his foot and resulted in a badly torn shoe."  The lesson of this story is that escalator comedy is dangerous.

Musty's struggles with a high-powered vacuum cleaner was a stock routine, which I have been able to trace as far back as 1906.  I wrote about several variations of the routine in The Funny Parts.  By coincidence, I just found out about a vacuum cleaner farce that was produced by Gaumont in 1907.  The film, Raising the Wind, involves thieves who steal an immense vacuum cleaner to aid them in their criminal endeavors.  They pass the mouth of the apparatus into a room and suck various bric-a-brac and furniture into the receiving chamber.  The bulk of the plunder becomes too much for the machine to hold and it finally bursts apart, scattering its contents into the street.  The explosion attracts the attention of the police, who promptly arrest the thieves.

 A number of films used this same plot.  Take, for instance, Segundo de Chomón's L'aspirateur (1908).  Click below to see an excerpt from this film.

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