Silent movie comic Harry Watson Jr. is mostly forgotten today, but during the years 1916 and 1917 he was the star of 30 one-reel comedy capers in which he played a hapless hobo named Musty Suffer. Film historian Ben Model has brought together eight of the Musty Suffer films in this DVD collection, which strives to restore Watson to some degree of recognition.
While Watson’s hobo character lacked the ingenuity and artistry of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, he did have a likeable personality and never seemed angry at the world that kept him in a constant state of poverty. Also, his films occasionally took some fascinating and surreal risks – most notably in “Just Imagination,” where he is aided by an unlikely fairy godmother played by a man wearing a tutu over a hobo’s disheveled clothing.
To be honest, none of the films in this series are all that memorable – they seem to be endless variations of the same theme, with Musty trying (and failing) to secure some degree of economic stability and respectability in a world that views him as a constant target for slaps, kicks and other indignities. However, the films move fast and employ a healthy quotient of violent slapstick – if one bit of knockabout doesn’t quite work, be patient and an even greater level of mayhem is bound to occur within 30 seconds. And Watson was an energetic clown who gleefully danced and stumbled his way across the screen; unfortunately, his unhealthy habit of aggressively mugging for the camera often got in the way of the action.
The real surprise here comes in the DVD’s special features: a newsreel from a 1916 film expo in Chicago where Watson’s character is treated like movie royalty (hey, who knew?) and a segment from a short called “Hold Fast” where Watson is reteamed with his one-time vaudeville partner George Bickel for a wacky boxing match. The Bickel and Watson teamwork is inventive, with gags that were clearly borrowed by Chaplin and the Hope-Crosby “Road” pictures, and this brief clip can only leave one to imagine what kind of mischief they created during their peak years on the vaudeville stage.