Let’s say it now: generations of film historians and the media OWE a too-belated apology to one Harry Watson, Jr., a comedy genius who starred in a 1916-1917 series of comedies way — and, oh, do I mean w-a-y – ahead of their time.
How many of you ever heard of him?
YOU SHOULD HAVE.
In the case of poor Fatty Arbuckle, Arbuckle was a huge (figuratively and literally) silent comedy star who most historians now agree was a)framed in massive scandal b)eventually exonerated by a jury c)made a political scapegoat by being blacklisted by an industry caving to government and public pressure to set an example to those rich, indulgent Hollywood entertainer types. His work was almost lost but some of it has been brilliantly reassembled, remastered and preserved so that fans of comedy, students of comedy, film historians, and aspiring comedians can “discover” his shamelessly suppressed genius. In other words: no matter what, many people have at least HEARD of him.
Which takes us back to Watson, Jr.
How you do you describe these comedies? The DVD’s website says:
The Mishaps of Musty Suffer is a cartoony and surreal silent comedy film series produced in 1916 and 1917. Wildly popular during its release it has been oddly overlooked and neglected ever since. Chronicling the misadventures of put-upon tramp Musty Suffer, who lives a slapstick version of the Story of Job in which he bears the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the series was an American descendant of the zany and anarchic early European comedies of Pathé and Gaumont. Its star is the equally forgotten Harry Watson, Jr., a very popular stage clown and who had graduated from vaudeville and Ringling Brothers’ Circus to become a headliner of the early Ziegfeld Follies, where he rubbed elbows with legends like Fanny Brice, Bert Williams and Leon Errol.
But that still doesn’t explain what you see.
You see impeccably restored copies, preserved by the Library of Congress, with utterly wonderful new piano scores by silent film accompanist Ben Model, painstakingly pegged to the action on the screen.
You see special effects including a foreshadowing of Mary Poppins’ magically putting all the toys away. You see dark humor: an arm getting cut off — even one comedy ending with the hero committing suicide.
It’s a foreshadowing of the zany Max Fleischer, Tex Avery and Warner Brothers animated cartoons that emerged during the sound era — and of late 20th century and early 21st century dark humor. You also see early silents that clearly relied at least partially on a script. Unlike the Mack Sennett comedies where the silent comedy master decreed lots of action action and action and ad libbing, many of the Musty Suffer comedies with their zany set of superb actors were clearly carefully thought out in terms of the gags and story line.
The fact these DVDs are being released is due to some highly dedicated folks. The website again: “The DVD was curated by Steve Massa and Ben Model, and was produced for video by Ben Model/Undercrank Productions. The project was funded by a Kickstarter campaign of 126 backers.”
Reviews on Amazon and other sites show people hugely impressed and surprised, who find these comedies hard to describe. No they aren’t. The humor is WAY ahead of most of what was produced in 1916-1917 in terms of scope, gags, scripting and special effects (realize they had severe limitations in that department). Watson, Jr. is an incredible role model for those interested in clowning, physical comedy, and how to communicate smoothly and visually.
Here’s the trailer for the release of this disgracefully unknown comedy genius’ work and the work of his extremely talented filmmakers:
And here’s one short from the DVD posted on You Tube from 1917:
Sadly, having worked in the media and being a vacuum cleaner of books on entertainment, I doubt if film historians and others will give Watson, Jr. the credit he deserves. Historians read other historians. And guess who isn’t mentioned in most of these accounts?
History often perpetuates the work of future historians — even incomplete history.
But make no mistake about it: many of the 8 shorts on this DVD (a total of 30 were produced) show someone who should have been mentioned along with the greats of his era.
Could film historians kindly now give Harry Watson, Jr. the respect he most assuredly deserved??
AVAILABLE ON AMAZON:
This was successful enough so they’ve now released a second volume (that I have just ordered:
ALSO RECOMMENDED: The definitive Fatty Arbuckle collection. Since his films were left to rot, a major worldwide effort ended in this collection — finding bits and pieces from collectors, or restoring old prints. It starts with the chaotic Sennett comedies, then you see him develop in shorts with more plot and character. He brings in his protege Buster Keaton and the two became a superb, early film comedy team. Then, sadly, at the end, you see a film never released in the U.S due to the scandal — one that ran in Europe, which indicates he had nailed the concepts of character and pathos and could possibly have achieved his dream of being mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin: