Monday, June 2, 2014

"Rock me, ya big bum!"

I am happy to report that The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD collection is now available on Amazon

The title of today's article comes from a funny intertitle that appears in the collection.  I cannot explain the context of the remark as it would spoil a good gag.  But the same words were in my mind as I turned on my DVD player and waited to be excited by this hapless tramp known as Musty Suffer (Harry Watson, Jr.).  Rock me, ya big bum!  I was not disappointed.  The series was, at its best, highly original and entertaining.  Three films stand out in the collection - the farcical While You Wait (1916), the surreal Just Imagination (1916) and the zany Blow Your Horn (1916).

Blow Your Horn involves Musty's misadventures as a bicycle messenger.  The film includes a dummy routine in which Watson has one dummy attached to him in the front and a second dummy attached to him in the back.  A contemporary puppeteer named The Amazing Christopher has made a living from essentially the same act for the last 28 years.  Wooden rods are extended from the puppeteer's limbs to the limbs of life-size puppets so that, when the puppeteer moves his arms and legs, he moves the puppet's arms and legs as well.  The effect of the set-up is to make it look as if multiple men are moving together in unison.

Street performers have adopted the act.

The act has even been used for a television commercial.

Watson's dummies do not have the same degree of articulation that The Amazing Christopher's puppets have, but that does not make them any less clever or amusing.  Watson and his dummy friends, Speedy Rush and Inna Hurry, are connected by a simple device: an unnaturally elongated pair of shoes that joins the feet of Watson with the feet of the dummies.  I must admit, though, I was disappointed that this trio of bicycle messengers never took to their bicycles together.  I can imagine the trio astride a special tandem bicycle in which three bicycle frames are connected together side by side.

Another amusing scene from Blow Your Horn has Watson becoming increasingly uneasy when a buxom woman disappears behind a dressing screen and proceeds to toss garments over the top of the screen.  It seems as if the woman is stripping off her clothes in preparation of a wanton lovemaking session, but it is revealed in the end that the woman is simply rummaging through a trunk of clothing in search of a package.  Watson, who is deft in his expressions of discomfort, shows in this rare instance of the series that he could be subtly funny as well as broadly comic.

I couldn't help but think of Buster Keaton as I watched The Lightning Bell-Hop (1916), the main gags of which are associated with a horse-drawn elevator and a collapsible staircase.  Keaton later operated a horse-drawn elevator in The Bell Boy (1918) and fell victim to a collapsible staircase in The Haunted House (1921). 

The DVD extras include an excerpt from Hold Fast! (1916) in which Bickel & Watson perform a celebrated boxing routine that they introduced in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1907.  The routine had been so well-received in its initial run that it was held over for the 1908 edition of the Follies.  This time, though, Watson demonstrated his silly jabs and inept footwork opposite Karno veteran Billy Reeves.  It must have pleased Watson that, by the time that the new show debuted, the sketch had not grown the least bit tiresome with Broadway audiences.  A Variety critic singled out the burlesque boxing bout for praise, describing it as "the laughing hit of the piece."  It was an act that remained in demand.  Other comedians, including Will H. Ward and Edward Zoeller, accurately mimicked the action in their own stage shows.  Reeves beat Watson to the punch (pun intended) when he delivered the boxing routine to movie audiences in the 1915 Lubin comedy The Substitute.

That same year, Reeves and Watson rejoined to perform the routine at a ball hosted by the Lubin Annual Beneficial Association.  Bickel & Watson, the original pugilists, continued to present the act in various engagements.  By the time that Hold Fast! was produced, Watson had been performing the routine on stage for 9 years.  He had managed during this time to refine his fight moves.  Actual boxers use a wide variety of moves, including the slip and turn, the bob and weave, and the block and parry.  They are, in their own way, skilled dancers.  Their exclusive strategies and techniques are fair game for spoofing.  So, Bickel & Watson made the routine about the rhythms of the boxers' movements.  While they circle one another to find an opening for a punch, the boxers inadvertently transition into a waltz, then a jog, then patty cake.  Years later, funny boxing matches would be similarly choreographed by pantomime masters Keaton (Battling Butler, 1926) and Chaplin (City Lights, 1931).  A faint echo of Bickel & Watson's choreography can be detected in the City Lights routine.  Other comedians later made use of comparable moves.

This is not to say that boxing parodies are always planned out to this extent.  I get the impression that Jerry Lewis' boxing routine in Sailor Beware (1952) is something that was largely improvised.

In 1917, Watson revived the boxing routine under the title "Young Kid Battling Dugan" for the stage revue "Odds and Ends."  Watson saw no need to break new ground in his return to the theatre and, based on the response to the play, no one seemed to mind.  Variety's Sime Silverman, who saw an early preview of show in Atlantic City, reported that the boxing routine had "not lost its boisterous fun qualities."  The critic generally praised Watson for taking "old comedy ideas" and turning them into "big laughing bit[s]."  Silverman identified as the show's other "old comedy ideas" a sketch in which Watson drills a misfit army detachment and another bit of business in which Watson has difficulty making a phone call from a pay phone.  Silverman described the latter routine as follows: "Watson is a commuter loaded with bundles who wishes to phone his wife he may be delayed for dinner but he cannot secure a connection."  Watson seeks help from a switchboard operator, but he still can't get through to his wife and he expresses his frustration by mistreating the phone.  Critics reported that the routine got the biggest laughs of the show.  The routine was later brought to the movies by Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? (1942).  This version of the routine, known as "Alexander 2222," was performed by the duo for many years and remains appropriately enshrined in the comedy hall of fame.

It surprised me that Bickel plays only a small role in the series.  Not that the films suffer from Bickel's absence.  Watson receives able support from an appropriately silly troupe that is led by Dan Crimmins, H. H. McCullum and Maxfield Moree.    

It is a mystery why Watson retired from acting at the age of 50.  Production of the "Musty Suffer" series did have to be shut down at one point because Watson became ill and required surgery.  Health issues are usually a reason for an early retirement.

In his day, Watson was a popular star on the stage, a fact that cannot be overstated.  The talent that earned him his high status in Broadway and vaudeville revues is apparent in this collection.  Watson deserved better than to have been forgotten for these many years.  It was the dedicated efforts of Ben Model and Steve Massa that have finally made Watson's work available to the public again.  I recommend that you purchase the Musty Suffer DVD to see Watson's work for yourself.  A 48-page DVD companion guide can be purchased separately.  It includes a biography of Watson and a filmography of the "Musty Suffer" series.

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